Our Place Branding

Commenting on EUROCITIES City Branding Report

Robert Govers - Wednesday 09 March 2011 - 11:19 - 1854 x read

By: Robert Govers for www.placebrandz.com, in collaboration with Bill Baker, author, speaker, branding and tourism consultant to small cities and regions.

With great anticipation we recently read the EUROCITIES report, A Shared Vision on City Branding in Europe. Here are some of our comments. For Bill’s comments on his own blog, see http://citybranding.typepad.com

See also for re-publication of this blog: www.CityMayors.com

We commend the EUROCITIES network of major European Cities for taking the initiative to establish a working group of 40 cities in an attempt to make sense of city branding practice in Europe. The Shared Vision that is presented in their report emphasizes some valid and, indeed, various vital points, such as: the need for a strong link between the brand and the identity of the city; the importance of stakeholder involvement and leadership; and that "there is no single formula for success - each city must create and manage their brand in the way that is best for their situation, but the chances of success will be greater if they are proactive and aware of the experiences of others" (p.18). So why didn't they practice what they preach?

Even though the above points are relevant, the working group, consisting of city policy officers, has missed a big opportunity in writing the report. They have overlooked the fact that there is a relevant body of knowledge out there. We expected that this would have been an added building block. It would have been nice to corroborate or frame the experiences presented in the report within this existing body of knowledge that is indeed in its infancy and hence would have benefited for cross-fertilization and contemporary examples.

Luckily, the authors of the report have realized the limitations of their work and stress that the findings presented in the report should not be considered as proven solutions, but why then present it as a “shared vision” and “good practice guide” without substantiating these findings?

That this leads to deficiencies in the report and misrepresentation of cases as “good practice” can be illustrated with some of the examples and statements in the report that struck us as peculiar.

First of all, most literature and experts will emphasize the argument that logos, slogans and communication alone, are just the tip of the iceberg of branding, but there seems to be a fetish with logos and slogans presented in the report. In fact, even though the report claims that the group has learned that branding helps cities to focus on how they wish to develop in the future and create a dynamic environment (p. 4), the “city examples” focus almost exclusively on logos, slogans and campaigns (“Karlstad's logo has been a smiling sun, underlining its sunny position and disposition”? (p. 4)). Maybe it is confusing because the report does not contain a definition or statement that illustrates how the working group defines a city brand and city branding. Nor do they address the issues related to the delivery of the brand experiences that should underpin the brand promise or provide any consistent explanation of the strategic framework for each city (very few examples had any strategic intent associated with them).

The valid point of linking a brand to the identity of the city is made and repeated, but it is not illustrated or explained how this is done. In fact, in the same section the report talks mostly about target audiences. Combining both concepts is not obvious as the one refers to who you are and want to be, while the concept of targeting refers to how you want to be perceived by whom. Brand positioning is crucial, but we should not confuse this with target marketing. Cities already often make the mistake of thinking that they need to choose between tourists, investors or migrants first or create a separate brand for each market, which we think, as our earlier blog post argues, is a mistake. Brand positioning is more about linking your identity to lifestyle groups that fit ‘sense of place’ with ‘sense of belonging’. Therefore, it is not a good idea to confuse identity (supply side) with audience and image (demand side). The report is very ambiguous on this.

This confusion is exacerbated in the section on “how to promote the brand” (p. 11-14), where it is unclear how the examples illustrate a brand-driven approach. I.e. how are these examples different from traditional marketing communication campaigns or how are the examples of events like the Olympic bids and Commonwealth Games in Manchester or Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo in any way 'on-brand' or illustrative of specific brand values?

Then we are overwhelmed with exotic brand strategy terminology like “fully architectured brands, propositional brands, or naked brands” (which are, apparently, optional alternatives), or “umbrella brand strategies, glocal or global brand strategies” (p. 7-8). With the “naked brand” the marketer has to change people's perceptions, and with a “fully architecture brand” the logo and slogan will create the image. No wonder that so many places jump on the logos and slogans if it is that easy to change the image of places. This claim in the report will infuriate nation branding guru Simon Anholt who repeatedly emphasizes that there is no proof whatsoever of logos or slogans being able to change consumer perceptions (Anholt 2010). There is much, much more to branding.

Take the example of the city of Munich, which apparently formulated a set of requirements for the brand: for example, “it should be quick to create [what? why?], self-explanatory, cover all facets of the city, build on recognized symbols, be intelligible to an international audience, be suitable for public relations and media relations, use the city as a medium, work in all kinds of media, and allow for partner integration”. It is then stated that the selected brand slogan: “Munich loves you” reflects these requirements (P. 7). What does that tell us about the Germans' perception of the intelligibility of the international audience? Or “Manchester, a mature city” or “Only Lyon” (P. 8, 10). What do these brands mean? How do they reflect the cities' identities?

Nowhere does the report describe how a city should plan to deliver, manage or sustain the brand concept. In the branding example of Aarhus, the report even admits that it is too difficult to agree on a strategy around a single proposition. Are they serious? This is why brand planning is conducted. This is the fundamental problem that stands in the way of successful branding all of the time. The report does not explain why it is a problem for Aarhus and not a problem for much larger places. Our proposed brand for Aarhus: ‘where they waive the white flag before the game!’

According to the report a "city brand may even be built on one simple message that focuses, for example, on a particular aspect such as tourism" (p. 8). But how, then, would it be able to link it to the complicated constructs of identities of a city? We believe that place brands should have a common essence. Even though, in reality, getting all city “portfolio” organizations to the table in an overall brand planning process may not be possible, i,.e. a branding process might have been initiated (and funded) by, for instance, tourism – and wouldn’t happen if one waits to get everyone on board as project lead organizations - it is important that all should be engaged in the process and that a city brand should be all encompassing, because of the same arguments made in our earlier blog post.

In any case, at the end of the report it is rightfully argued that to manage city brands, one needs to measure image and look at city rankings. However, again, the report fails to make reference to what is out there, such as the Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index. It illustrates that with some additional effort and cooperation with people outside the EUROCITIES network more could have been achieved. This was really an opportunity lost to advance the thinking and practice related to city branding. It does not present a coherent strategic framework nor demonstrate the rationale for why some actions should be considered to be best practice. Maybe this creates opportunities for the future, but for now this report seems to throw us back, as opposed to making a contribution to a field that is already widely misunderstood.

For some relevant references, see:

Latest Change by: Robert Govers on Tuesday 04 October 2011 - 13:27

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