A strategic and collaborative approach to place branding is a must

‘Place branding’ is an odd term. To the uninitiated, it is most likely to be construed as a logo and slogan, an easy identifier. To the cynical, there might also be perceptions of new logo projects flattering the egos of the political leader who commissioned them, and of a futile exercise which delivers very little for economic development.  However, to a growing number of countries, cities and regions, the term “place branding” refers to something that it is at once much more complex and also very much more effective. And for the emerging economies of Europe, it could offer particular potential.

In our conversations with government departments, tourism boards, and investment promotion agencies around the world, there is clear agreement that the competition for talent, for tourism, and for investment is intensifying. At the same time, our globalised economy is leading to a homogenisation of place — global cities in particular have increasingly similar skylines and a global citizenry which, superficially at least, mask cultural differences. Sadly, all too often, the communication strategies created by those who are responsible for marketing the assets of a nation or a city, often do too little to either celebrate a place’s differences or to cut through the competitive clutter.

If you gather together investment promotion campaigns from every corner of the globe, you will all too often see the same messaging: every place is claiming to offer the best regulatory environment, the best infrastructure to support business, the best support for entrepreneurs, the most business-friendly tax policies. Of course, not every place can be ‘the best’.  Increasingly we also see ‘smart city’ claims, as if being a smart city is the next best way to attract business and investment — in fact, a recent survey by Conway showed that only nine per cent of corporate investors thought that being a smart city was an important location factor, and no one felt that it was a critical factor. It’s time for all cities, and particularly emerging economies, to think more critically about how you present your unique attractiveness to investors.

The Amazon HQ2 RFP story in the United States provides many learnings for economic development and investment promotion agencies.  Such an innovative and open process for choosing the location for their next headquarters was typical of the digital empire and it certainly made waves across North America as cities put together their competitive pitches. Talking to some of the cities who were involved, what they all learned was that, to meet Amazon’s search for a location that would offer an attractive quality of life, a pool of talent, and all the usual business incentives, there needed to be a greater collaboration between all stakeholders — between chambers of commerce, Mayoral teams, destination marketing teams, educators, citizens, city planners and the economic development department.  And what they also believe is that other global enterprises are looking for the same things that Amazon looked for, so this collaborative approach by cities should be the ‘new normal’ in economic development strategy.

We still don’t know the ‘winning’ city in this particular pitch, but all of those on the shortlist have been able to present a unified vision for their city. In an interview with the City Nation Place team, Sylvie Gallier-Howard, first deputy commerce director with the City of Philadelphia said that they realised that they needed to develop, “a narrative that encompasses the last chapter, the current chapter and the chapter you intend to move in to, to give people a sense of the trajectory and what potential is there.”  Such a narrative would sit at the heart of an effective place brand strategy.

This is not a narrative that can be imposed on a place and dictated by government.  The development of a coherent place branding strategy is a process that needs to be initiated, led and supported by political leadership, but crucially it also needs the buy-in of citizens and of the private sector as well as of all government departments and government-funded place marketing organisations. Dr Natasha Grand of the Institute of Identity, who has worked with several governments in emerging European economies, sums up “place branding done properly” as getting to know “what the people in the place are best at and what they can offer to the world, competitively and compellingly.” That’s the first step and then around that vision, you can then define economic and strategic development priorities, set policy, and define and communicate what you have to offer to international investors.

For those nations and cities looking to build economic resilience, emerge on to the global stage and stand out from the crowd in international perceptions, a strategic and collaborative approach to place branding is a must.

Emerging Europe is a media partner of the City Nation Place Global Forum, which will take place in London on 8 November 2018. Click here for more information and to register.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.