Place branding is a 21st Century phenomenon that has been enthusiastically embraced mostly by cities and high-income countries. Developing a place brand is a huge undertaking and time-consuming as it requires all stakeholders to be part of it (a place brand may be a nation or a city).
Like change, place branding needs all stakeholders to begin the journey together. It creates a sense of ownership. Place branding is an endeavour to enhance the brand equity of the place and to strengthen the core values of the place, which results in competitiveness. Place branding is meant to accentuate what the place stands for and to out-manoeuvre and out-stamina its rivals.
Unlike product brands, place brands are not created but branding practitioners work with what already exists. Place branding is also characterised by intangibility whilst product brands such as Nivea and Samsung are tangible brands. A product brand can be inspected before buying but a place brand cannot.
Place branding, which is a very demanding exercise, involves an assortment of internal and external stakeholders who all have their own interests, albeit divergently. These stakeholders include the Destination Management Organisation (DMO), residents, academics, the chamber of commerce, the government, the municipality/council, visitors and the media.
The DMO normally plays the role of brand custodian and establishes place branding strategies. They are more like the secretariat of a committee. Residents or citizens are the mirrors of the place and their values are the values of the place. Academics advise on sound development ideas whilst the chamber of commerce makes inputs on how the place has to be branded. Most of the time, the advice of the chamber of commerce is a reflection of the views of the tourists who frequent businesses such as hotels, parks and museums.
The government, as a dominant and influential stakeholder, guides the development of the city/place through laid down policies. The government always insists on sustainable developmental approaches. For a city brand, the municipality or the council is concerned about the benefits that accrue to the residents whilst the visitors contribute to city/place brand building through their comments and suggestions in the establishments they use or visit. The media are one of the most important stakeholders in building a city’s brand – print media, broadcast media and electronic media aid in marketing and promoting the place brand.
It is important, however, to emphasise that there should be a power balance between stakeholders, as well as trust, sincerity, and self-regulation. As stated earlier, when all stakeholders are involved from the beginning, they share the success and the failures. Lack of collaboration between critical stakeholders in place branding can kill the communication of the brand promise entirely. Stakeholders’ involvement can be the difference between brand success and failure. Remember the stakeholder theory that argues that “the interests of all stakeholders are of intrinsic value”?
Stakeholders legitimise a place brand and influence the meaning of the city/place (e.g. Barcelona is anchored around urban planning) because of their buy-in. Place branding involves looking for the single-minded idea of the place brand and then establishing key pillars (economy, social, sustainability, technology, etc.) that must underpin the place brand. Thirdly, the place brand should identify the actual target market that it seeks to satisfy. Fourthly, it is important when building a city/place brand to know what makes your city/place different and competitive in relation to other cities/places. As said in earlier articles, similarity does not sell but differentiation does.
Finally, it is fitting to establish the macro trends that the place should leverage. Places must state why they want to brand as the following section explains. Sometimes developing a place brand may seem like a never-ending responsibility. According to the Place Brand Observer, there is a 5-step approach to place branding that should be embraced by place developers and brand practitioners.
Firstly, it is important to state why you want to develop a place brand. Don’t be a victim of bandwagonsim. You must have your own objectives, vision, and mission. For example, does a place want to be known for investment or leisure? It is crucial to establish a future vision that brings together residents and guides investment in and into the place. All successful place brands have a shared vision that binds the stakeholders together and the vision has to be realistic, inspiring and appropriate. Furthermore, have a mission statement that encapsulates your competitiveness, benefits that will accrue and your market focus.
Secondly, do a SWOT analysis of the current brand. Here you do a detailed analysis of place identity, perceived place image and projected place image. Simon Anholt calls it a “destination audit”. For a place or city like Gaborone, there is no such identity, and a myriad of images come to mind. Place identity refers to the uniqueness of a place based on its characteristics. The place identity includes the history of the place, size, culture and great or well-known landmarks. It is crucial here to conduct wide-ranging stakeholder meetings so that there can be a sense of ownership in all branding endeavours.
Furthermore, focus on the perceived place image. Perceived place image means those impressions we have about a place. For example, as Batswana, we have many impressions about Gaborone because the city is not branded. When a place or city is branded, it tries to shape its image and in the process influences the impressions through brand communication. The projected place image focuses on what people are saying about the place through word of mouth and the media. Word of mouth is the most effective, genuine and believable source of information and is free.
Thirdly, every time when a brand is developed there has to be a discussion about the brand essence. As mentioned in earlier articles, brand essence is the soul or the nucleus of the brand. It is that ‘thing’ that when you remove or take out the brand ceases to exist. Place brand essence is the DNA of the place and should be able to differentiate the place from other places. In other words, what is the essential nature and character of the destination? The place brand essence should focus more on the experiences people will get when they visit the place. The brand essence of the place has to be enduring and be continuously experienced. For example, Las Vegas markets itself as a city that never sleeps and it lives up to that. So if Gaborone wants to brand itself, well, look no further than Las Vegas as a very good template.
Fourthly, well, you have developed the brand, now implement it! Brand implementation is constructing the infrastructure necessary for a successful place brand. You need telecoms infrastructure, health facilities, roads and other services such as financial services, hospitality services, efficient transport services, efficient immigration and a safe environment. For example, Botswana has a poor road from Nata to Shakawe but this is the road mostly used by tourists. Inefficiency in the public service is legendary and the general nonchalant service in Botswana cannot be tolerated for a place brand that wants to be competitive. This is Botswana’s Achilles heel. So this needs to be addressed forthwith, otherwise branding initiatives are just vanity. Brand implementation focuses on attractions, amenities, accessibility and ancillary services. Successful brand implementation needs a sound communication strategy. Because a place brand attracts students, travellers, investors and so on, it is important to have an omni-channel marketing strategy.
Finally, like everything that is implemented, there has to be monitoring. The place brand needs to know citizens’ and customers’ opinions and expectations. It is important to do periodic reviews to see where there is a ‘detour’ and fix it. Place branding can be an ad infinitum exercise because you continuously benchmark. It is vital to continuously build the brand, create brand awareness and get people’s views. Place branding is like a shoal of fish in an aquarium, the weak ones die and get eaten.
Every interaction, in any form, is branding – Seth Godin