By Dian Hasan | December 16, 2009
The principle that cities and regions can be branded is a natural extension of corporate brand theory. George Allen, using several examples, explains how this reality offers new opportunities for attracting economic development and tourism. He also reviews the unique dimensions of place branding that make it an especially challenging task.
The idea that physical places can be branded is a natural extension of corporate brand theory. Indeed, it is generally accepted that places, as defined by culture, politics, and geography, are increasingly seen to be products, as subject to brand management practices as a cup of coffee or a car. For brand and design managers, this opens up new opportunities within the world’s number-one industry-tourism-and within larger economic development initiatives. However, the branding of places is not without its unique challenges, which go far beyond a compelling marketing campaign or a new logo.
While the place-as-product analogy provides a useful filter through which to understand a place-brand approach, there remain fundamental differences in the implementation of brand theory in the place environment. These include, among others, the role of government organizations, the difficulty in defining the entity to be branded (city, region, or country), the challenges of aligning internal stakeholders (residents, business owners, frontline workers), and the difficulty of sustaining brand consistency and resources over time in the face of competing societal, as opposed to corporate, interests.
Beyond Marketing and Identity
While it is true that destinations have been “marketed” or otherwise promoted to travelers for decades, if not centuries, the explicit and competitive nature of tourism destination marketing has become more pronounced since the mid twentieth century. Tourism is now seen as a quintessentially consumerist activity, and it has burgeoned since the 1960s, paralleling the main expansion of consumerism during the second half of the last century.1 Indications now suggest that travel has become a “significant lifestyle indicator for today’s aspirational consumers” and, indeed, may even be regarded as a fashion accessory.2
What has recently come to distinguish the concept of place branding is the need to provide clear product differentiation in an increasingly competitive, globalizing marketplace that rests on memorability and emotional connection with consumers, delivered through all points of contact in the product/service value chain. Destination marketers are “confronted by increasing product parity, substitutability, and competition,” write Nigel Morgan and his colleagues in their book Destination Branding. “Today most destinations have superb five-star resorts, hotels and attractions, every country claims a unique culture and heritage, each place describes itself as having the friendliest people and the most customer-focused tourism industry and service, and facilities are no longer differentiators.”‘ Branding, therefore, now has a role as a strategic lens, a decision-making tool, and as shorthand for the personality of place in the place environment that broadens the traditional role of marketing beyond communicating features and benefits to one of deepening relationships with customers.
The Experience of Place: Physical and Virtual
Places are fundamentally experiential in nature in the way they provide combinations of indoor and outdoor environments, service encounters, products, psychological experiences, experiences over time, and all manner of sensory encounters. But the experience of a place also extends ahead of the actual travel there or the physical experience of being there. That experience includes the period during which an intent to visit/purchase is formed, and to the post-place experience of memory formation, loyalty reinforcement, and word-of-mouth dissemination and communication of the brand. “The traveler’s choice of a given vacation destination depends largely on the favorableness of his or her image of that destination. … The image connotes the traveler’s expectation of the destination and a positive image promises the traveler a rewarding life experience. Consequently, the images held by individuals in the marketplace are crucial to a destination’s marketing success.”4 This applies to images held by customers after visiting a place, as well as before visiting a place. Therefore, it is increasingly important to create a compelling virtual brand experience outside the physical place. Among other things, as communication technologies, most notably the Internet, become more sophisticated, the ability to enrich the preand post-physical experience of a place increases significantly.
The perception of a place formed by potential customers prior to actually visiting is of critical importance within the branding process. As with consumer products and services, formulating predisposition and intent to buy is one of the central drivers of brand investment and decision-making.
Images of a place may be formed internally, by residents or those close to a place, or externally, by potential customers. Such image perceptions may overlap or have little in common and may change over time. The importance of understanding image formation from a brand perspective is that this has a potential impact on several key brand building blocks, including brand identity, service and stakeholder alignment, and marketing strategy.
A place brand is, by its very nature, a complex amalgam of strategic and tactical initiatives involving the management of multiple layers of stakeholder groups and multiple channels of communication, often across diverse geographies, histories, and cultures. In recent qualitative research conducted by the author on the Super, Natural British Columbia brand, two key issues stood out in consideration of the application of brand theory within the place brand environment: the management of stakeholder groups and the role of government as dominant stakeholder.
Stakeholders: Delivering on the front lines of the brand experience
Stakeholder groups, among whom are those delivering the brand experience, can be difficult to manage and align behind brand objectives. These groups may include hotel owners, attraction owners, transportation authorities and, not least, government agencies. It should also be noted that anyone with whom visitors may interact, such as residents, the media, or nontourism-specific service workers, whether or not they are part of the tourism industry, will affect the brand experience.
Beyond front-line service workers, a place brand is often a composite of secondary attractions and destinations. In some cases, individual attractions have their own strong reputations that extend well beyond the region and may or may not constitute important elements of the umbrella place brand. The question arises as to how the relationships among these various elements of the brand are negotiated and aligned. Stakeholder dynamics (for example, sub-brand relationships, brand buy-in by front-line service providers) emerge as a theme in both the corporate and place-brand literature with the conclusion that a common and resonant understanding by stakeholders of a brand’s core attributes provides the foundation on which brand strength ultimately sits.
The Starbucks coffee experience, for example, depends in large part on the quality of its frontline employees; but to carry a brand throughout a country involves thousands, if not tens of thousands, of brand stewards, none of whom consider their citizenship necessarily makes them stakeholders in a brand.
Government organizations = challenging partnerships
Government or quasi-governmental tourism agencies, as important players within the stakeholder mix, typically occupy a leadership role in constructing the marketing/brand framework. These agencies often lack the political power within government that tourism income would warrant; funding formulas and, therefore, marketing budgets play an important role in determining promotional tactics.
Government or its related agencies have often played a central organizing role in the management of tourism/destination activities. It is clear that governments can have a significant impact, positive or negative, on brand development and implementation through key roles in the areas of funding, brand leadership, coordination of subbrands, and provision of essential travel and tourism infrastructure, such as roads, airports, electrical power, and land management, for example. While government agencies often lead brand initiatives, the stakeholder domains within which they operate are arguably more difficult to manage than those faced by corporate brand managers. However, despite the lack of role clarity and the vagaries of political processes, government or government-affiliated organizations will continue to play a leading and unique role within the place brand stakeholder spectrum for the foreseeable future.
Managing uncertainty and evolving the brand model
The fragmentation of stakeholder groups and the instability of top-level governmental brand leadership suggest that the coherence deemed critical for brand success may not even be possible in the place brand environment. However, it does suggest potential opportunities for more tactical application of brand tenets that may yield substantial economic benefits. Key brand assets may be identified that have the potential to resonate across other points of brand contact, as identified through the place brand model (on previous page). For example, transportation infrastructure (airports, marine terminals), often seen as strictly utilitarian, can make for compelling first impressions of a place that can resonate throughout a visitor’s experience. This model also suggests that the organizations responsible for managing brand need to be executing more than ad campaigns; they need to be liaising with a broader spectrum of organizations responsible for physical infrastructure, visitor support services, urban planning, and even clean public toilets!
In summary, successful place branding requires that attention be focused on the following:
- Understanding the role and dynamics of government
- Isolating key points of brand contact
- Focusing marketing campaigns internally, as well as externally
- Understanding the physical and virtual requirements of the brand experience
- Developing new research frameworks that drive meaningful customer experience
There continues to be confusion in the marketplace, both among brand practitioners and clients, that a logo or an identity is all that constitutes a brand. As a result, brand strategy tends to be driven by short-term, narrow-scope thinking through which the primary tool of brand expression becomes the marketing campaign executed through traditional media channels. Brand strategy should, however, more effectively be used as a tool of a broader economic development strategy that includes public and private infrastructure development, the quality of the built environment, service design, and planning and public policy, among others. Notwithstanding the challenges of an expanded perspective of place brand, this view opens up many new opportunities for design practitioners.
Case Study; Super, Natural British Columbia
The Super, Natural British Columbia brand has maintained a strong market presence for more than 25 years, as measured by brand awareness and recall surveys, and has successfully evolved by building on its core attributes. The author’s research reveals that the brand benefited from a solid foundation built with a combination of resonant brand attributes and key early management decisions. There was a large measure of positive intuitive response to the core brand attributes. This appears to have been particularly important, because it allowed brand focus and buy-in to develop more easily despite the recognized complexity of managing stakeholder interests. Although the core attributes of the SNBC brand may have been more obvious than is the case in other jurisdictions, this does point to the critical importance of the formative stages of the branding process and the need to attain clarity of brand essence at the outset of any branding initiative.
The following themes emerged as critical success factors:
- Brand Definition. Early establishment (1978) of a brand identity with deeply resonant key brand attributes (mountains, ocean, forests). This brand essence was successfully captured by clearly differentiated visuals and supported by media campaigns that were sufficiently funded to establish early market leadership. While largely driven by powerful landscape imagery, the brand has successfully evolved through the development of complementary regional subbrands and sights and activities, such as agricultural tourism, wildlife viewing, and ecotourism.
- Stakeholder Dynamics. The brand has benefited from the early establishment of internal branding practices exemplified by a tourism Superhost program that educates, trains, and rates front-line service providers and services. Stakeholder management practices have also evolved through Tourism British Columbia’s public/private partnerships, which incorporate regional subbrands and representation from different industry sectors.
- The Role of Government. Involvement of key government personnel, up to and including the Minister of Tourism, in providing early focus and leadership, ultimately led to the creation of a culture in which a de-politicized brand was supported. While underfunding is a chronic problem in the tourism sector and, indeed, within many government-dependent programs, strong brand roots make such programs less vulnerable to short-term political tampering.
- Managing the Brand Environment. Challenges have included ensuring that funding levels are sufficient for long-term brand support and establishing appropriate brand measures that not only track brand awareness, but also track customer response to the brand experience and anticipate future trends important to the evolution of the brand.
Case Study: Seattle Metronatural
With the objective of increasing tourism to the city, the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau faced the typical challenge of encapsulatirrg a vast array of attributes into a-cemprehensible and compelling brand position. The keyword metronatural emerged from a year-long consultative process that settled on a combination of urban and outdoor experiences as key brand attributes.
While the new tagline has apparently been well received, the predictable detractors have weighed in with references to urban nudist camps and similarities to words such as tnetrosexual. Stakeholders often acknowledge the need for change but rarely embrace it. As a result, new brand positions need time to take hold.
More worrisome, from a place-brandingstrategy perspective, is that Seattle has adopted a whole string of identities over the past 20 years, including Emerald City, Jet City, and see-@-L: Soak it Up, not to mention the Say WA? campaign (which refers, of course, more to the state than to the city). Adding to the confusion is the fact that the metronatural press release explicitly encourages people to continue using the Emerald City and Jet City monikers, all of which calls into question the city’s ability to sustain a focused branding initiative over the 5-, 10-, and 20-year time frames required. The mixed messaging of these past efforts and the narrow focus of the research and vision underpinning the current iteration of the brand also suggests that Seattle still hasn’t quite come to terms with its core personality.
Case Study: Brand Manitoba-Spirited Energy
The Canadian province of Manitoba launched its new Spirited Energy brand in 2006, after a two-year development process under the auspices of the Premier’s Economic Advisory Council and the branding consultancy Interbrand. The Manitoba process was inclusive of the highest levels of government; it directly addressed the resident population of the province through the research and launch phases; and its vision for a new brand was to draw immigrants and investors to the province and drive resident pride, as well as draw tourists.
Even a comprehensive program, such as that developed for Manitoba, represents only the starting point of what needs to be a sustained effort involving all stakeholders (government, economic development and tourism agencies, frontline businesses, residents) over time.
Case Study: 100% Pure New Zealand
The isolated nation of New Zealand counts tourism as its number-one export earner. Since the launch of its 100% Pure New Zealand campaign in 1999, it has continued to build on its brand foundation of spectacular scenery and ecotourism/outdoor activities. 100% Pure clearly meets many of the criteria for brand success: an image built on obvious attributes that resonate both internally and externally, a strong Internet presence, a global marketing strategy supported by compelling visuals, training of front-line service providers, and a comprehensive and long-term research commitment.