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Place branding attracts tourists but leaves residents resentful

Low-cost travel has made the tourism market more competitive than ever. Increasingly, locations are using place branding to stand out from the crowd, but they should be wary of upsetting the locals

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In 2003, Las Vegas used place branding to turn the city’s reputation for debauchery into a selling point: today, ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ is a phrase known the world over
In 2003, Las Vegas used place branding to turn the city’s reputation for debauchery into a selling point: today, ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ is a phrase known the world over 

Identities shift all the time, and not only for individuals. Nations too can change markedly in terms of their character. Often, this is a slow process, stemming from population change, technological development or long-running geopolitical factors. Sometimes, however, it occurs rapidly.

Increasingly, cities, regions or entire countries are using marketing tactics to change their identities – or at least how potential visitors perceive their identities. The process, termed ‘place branding’, has been used successfully to boost tourism figures, encourage cultural rejuvenation and attract foreign investment.

In fact, an entire industry has sprung up to help places create engaging brands. Businesses such as the Institute for Identity, the Place Brand Observer and a number of other similar organisations have been launched to provide advice and support for destinations looking to revamp their image. The cost of a branding campaign varies depending on its scale and ambition, but can easily total upwards of a million dollars for nationwide marketing efforts.

Places are more than just marketing tools. They are where family roots grow and memories are made. They are homes

For many, however, places are more than just marketing tools. They are where family roots grow and memories are made. They are homes. As such, place branders must tread carefully if they think they are able to sum up such an emotional topic with a pithy slogan. What’s more, each place is unique: world-renowned cities like New York or Paris will present a very different branding challenge to a small market town looking to carve out space for itself in the global travel market.

Soul searching
Although globalisation has meant there is a greater exchange of culture, ideas and people than ever before, individuals remain attached to particular areas. Places are not just different sections of a map; they arouse emotions and invoke a sense of belonging.

Distilling a location’s essence, therefore, is not easy. Many different factors go into making a place unique, and not everyone – not even locals with deep roots – will agree on what they are. Still, nailing down an area’s identity is essential to delivering effective place branding.

Far more than just a marketing technique, place branding involves identifying a city, country or region’s character or spirit and managing how that is portrayed. It may, of course, involve slogans and other traditional advertising techniques, but it must also resonate deeply with its audience. Sometimes, specialist organisations are employed to help develop a place’s brand.

The Institute for Identity has worked on projects across Eastern Europe, tackling major cities like Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as well as lesser-known conurbations in what was formerly the Soviet Union. Company director Natasha Grand told Business Destinations that place branding can deliver a number of benefits, from improving the public mood to boosting socioeconomic conditions.

“One of the most important aspects of place branding is coming up with a strategic vision for the place, its purpose and priorities,” Grand explained. “Strategic plans and standards for the tourism and investment industries, strategies to support the local way of life, and finding ways to engage young people – especially through arts, architecture, music, fashion and local food projects – are also important. Furthermore, there are practical elements such as representation at trade shows or making appealing and useful souvenirs associated with
a place’s tradition.”

Although every place branding project is different, they often begin in the same way: advisors first have to discover what makes a place tick. They often have discussions with government officials, tourist board officials and, of course, local people.

“Pinpointing the identity of a city or region is fascinating and intricate work,” Grand explained. “The number of places that have a strong living identity is comparatively small on the global scale, and we all know them. Places like London, for example, evoke a pretty consistent image and feeling. Most places, however, do not project a clear personality. The job is to capture, distil, name and augment the place’s personality: a particular world view, people’s mentality, a way of doing things, values and attitudes that make up the bloodstream of a particular place.”

Readers will no doubt be familiar with many instances of place branding, even if they don’t recognise them as such. For example, the ‘IAMsterdam’ slogan has proved to be a hugely popular addition to the tourism scene in the Dutch capital. Similarly, in 2003, Las Vegas used place branding to turn the city’s reputation for debauchery into a selling point: today, ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ is a phrase known the world over.

Showing the best side
Often, one of the main aims of place branding is to boost tourism. Negative perceptions of a country or region can be a major reason for visitors staying away, even if the reality is starkly different. In much of the western world, images of Rwanda remain centred on the Tutsi genocide that took place during the Rwandan Civil War. Despite the fact that the conflict finished in 1994, depictions of the massacre in literature and film have ensured that it remains the primary image of Rwanda in the collective consciousness.

Although defining the identity of a particular place is difficult, locals may not always appreciate help from a marketing agency

Last year, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) looked to shake up its national brand by launching its Visit Rwanda campaign, encompassing a new logo and a broad strategy focusing on the country’s stunning nature and its traditional Imigongo artworks. The African country certainly has plenty to offer visitors, from the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park to the vibrant Kigali nightlife, but few are aware of its wonders.

Rwanda’s partnership with Premier League football club Arsenal will certainly help bring greater awareness to the country’s branding initiative, but the move has not been without criticism. The decision to spend $40m on the advertising deal has been questioned, given that foreign aid still accounts for 17 percent of Rwanda’s national budget. With 60 percent of the country’s citizens living in extreme poverty, expensive adverts in magazines and on football kits will always be subject to critique.

Elsewhere, however, the positive impact of place branding is clear to see. Tourism has played a key role in reinvigorating the Icelandic economy after it was decimated by the 2008 global financial crash. Visitor numbers to the small island nation increased nearly five-fold between 2010 and 2017, partly as a result of its successful marketing efforts. In particular, the tourism board utilised the natural beauty of the country’s geysers, glaciers and geothermal spas to attract visitors.

External parties inadvertently helped Iceland’s branding efforts, too: in 2017, Iceland was named the fastest-growing national brand by Brand Finance’s Nation Brands 2017 report, growing 83 percent when compared with the previous year.

This increase was partly the result of the popular television series Game of Thrones, which uses the country’s icy landscape as a backdrop for the majority of its winter scenes. A brand, therefore, is not solely the result of marketing efforts – it is also influenced by a place’s economic well-being, cultural capital and, indeed, actions taken by those not directly connected with the place at all.

What’s more, even when place branding does not target tourism directly, it may still help attract visitors. As Grand noted: “Tourists only come to places that have a life, even if a very relaxed one.” If place branding helps to shine a light on an area’s best features, then tourism is likely to benefit, even if only inadvertently.

“The primary focus of place branding – counterintuitively – is the place’s own residents,” Grand added. “A good project should make them inspired, enthused, happy to belong where they are, and motivated to do more or better things. It is like stirring a whirlwind – the locals start, and the world responds.”

Of course, tourism is just one of the benefits of place branding, but it can be a substantial one. The revenue brought in by international visitors can help support other areas of the economy. The RDB may have faced criticism for the money it spent on its recent country branding project, but if it achieves its aim of doubling visitor revenue to $800m annually, then broader economic benefits are sure to follow.

Closer to home
Economic success and a strong place brand certainly appear to go hand in hand. According to Brand Finance’s Nation Brands 2018 report, the top 20 most valuable nation brands correspond closely with the biggest economies on the planet.

The US, China and Germany took the top spots, with all three boosting their brand values over the course of the year. These three countries, known respectively as a cultural powerhouse, the world’s growth engine and the European Union’s leading state, will be difficult to dethrone.

Still, that doesn’t mean smaller nations or regions can’t benefit from place branding. Simon Anholt, a policy advisor who helped popularise the concept of a ‘nation brand’, has worked with global heavyweights and smaller countries alike.

One of his most successful projects involved improving Croatia’s image in the early 2000s: with the Croatian War of Independence fresh in people’s memories, Anholt supported the national government in its efforts to promote Croatia as a democratic market economy with a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. This was not only important for tourism; it also helped pave the way for EU membership in 2013.

The most effective forms of place branding may incorporate advertising and slogans, but they do not rely on them. More tangible, long-term solutions are advisable if a brand is to grow organically. Education is particularly important, especially with regard to foreign languages. This will allow citizens to travel abroad and interact with visitors more easily.

In this way, they will naturally act as advocates for their countries’ brands. Adopting a place branding strategy that also delivers social, cultural or economic benefits for the local populace will have a much bigger impact than even the most cleverly worded slogan.

“The most effective place branding initiatives leave the community stronger, more self-confident and, at the same time, more interesting for visitors, investors, foreign talent and new residents,” explained Florian Kaefer, Editor of the Place Brand Observer. “This takes time and is mostly down to smart leadership. Place branding happens everywhere, all the time. It just isn’t usually referred to as such. Place development is among the strongest factors for successful place brands and influencing the reputation of a city or region.”

In Australia, the city of Melbourne employed the services of branding firm Landor to help create its new image. The agency came up with a new identity revolving around a flexible ‘M’ logo that represents Melbourne’s vibrant, adaptable and progressive attitude.

However, more tangible initiatives have also helped to shape the city’s brand: the local government’s decision to embrace street art, for example, has helped boost Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s capital of cool. Its rich musical history helped too. Marketing can certainly prove to be an effective way of boosting a place’s brand, but it must be backed up with something concrete.

Not the full story
When place branding initiatives lack substance, they may not only fail to attract enough tourists – they can result in a backlash. In 2009 in Hamburg, Northern Germany, locals reacted with anger to the city’s ongoing branding initiatives, which they saw as encouraging higher house prices and the stratification of residents. They even launched their own ‘not in our name’ protest campaign, where they proclaimed: “A city is not a brand. A city is not a corporation. A city is a community.”

residents in the Dutch capital rebranded their city’s slogan to ‘IAMsterdamed’ to voice their displeasure

Even place branding projects that may appear successful to the outside world have faced criticism: residents in the Dutch capital rebranded their city’s aforementioned slogan to ‘IAMsterdamed’ to voice their displeasure.

Place brand managers must keep in mind that a superficial campaign may attract tourists in the short term, but is likely to alienate locals. To them, their city, region or country cannot be dressed up in a slick brand – it is what it is, warts and all. Efforts to shape how their home is perceived can lead to resentment.

“PR spin and propaganda might have worked well in the past, but are no longer an effective means for influencing people’s perceptions of places,” said Kaefer. “It is too risky that campaigns will be found out, with the consequence of reputational damage. Everyone with a smartphone is a reporter now and can share the ‘truth’ regarding out-of-control spin doctors. Public money is better invested by actually improving a place and making it better for those who live there as well as those who are considering visiting.”

Marketing alone is easy to see through. In 2004, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi employed the Monitor Group consulting firm to improve his country’s image. The main issue identified by the group was that Libya “suffered from a deficit of positive public relations”. History has demonstrated that the country’s problems run much deeper than that. A country is certainly more than just a brand, and a strong brand needs to be more than just PR.

A sensitive subject
Finding the right balance between showing off the best a city has to offer and sugarcoating a place’s less desirable aspects is a difficult task. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that effective place branding campaigns don’t come cheap: in 2013, Adelaide spent AUD 1m ($700,000) on a new logo; New York City ended up spending $4.3m in the late 1970s as part of a wholesale rebranding campaign; and across Europe, cities spend an average of €400,000 ($450,000) on marketing activities each year. Money alone, however, is unlikely to be enough: effective place branding also takes time and requires a willing ear.

“We run our projects as social campaigns from day one: anyone interested can find out what we are doing, what we are looking to achieve, who we are talking to and how they can support us,” Kaefer explained. “Throughout the life of the project, we build a body of allies among the local opinion-makers, creatives, tourism professionals and other people we meet personally, and we give them opportunities to assess, criticise and contribute to our work.”

As Kaefer mentioned, talking through branding projects with local people is vital. A place’s identity is amorphous, even as it is undoubtedly real. If you were to ask people what makes France French or Manchester Mancunian, they would each come up with different answers. Although defining the identity of a particular place is difficult, locals may not always appreciate help from a marketing agency.

Nevertheless, competition for tourists’ cash is getting tougher. Worldwide, the tourism industry reached a value of $5.29trn in 2017, and travel is becoming more accessible all the time. Low-cost airlines have opened up the market, and destinations must work harder than ever to attract visitors. Grand believes that in this competitive environment, it is “the character of a place, the experience it offers and the image it evokes that becomes the key deciding factor for holiday travel”.

New media are also creating challenges for marketers: an advert in a travel brochure doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Instead, YouTube, social networks and other forms of digital advertising are increasingly being used to shape a place’s image. Singapore, for example, recognised this shift by employing online influencer Mikael Daez to boost its appeal.

Certainly, tourist boards and external agencies must tread carefully when looking to shape a place’s identity. It will always be challenging to make something as contrived as a slogan represent something as authentic as local culture. However, when cities, regions or countries get it right, they can deliver benefits for visitors and residents alike.

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