The construction of regional identity: Zeeland; strategies of place branding and place making
Gerard van Keken
Summary of PhD thesis that was successfully defended on March 10, 2011
The regional development of coastal areas in the Northwest of Europe is stagnating. What lays ahead in the future for these coastal areas, that tend to have a peripheral location and a rural background, when it comes to employment and quality of life? The tourist product, often vital for coastal areas, is often in a phase of stagnation, and not enough innovation takes place. Rural hinterland also faces problems, such as declining agriculture, a shrink in and limited developmental possibilities; part of the solution for this is often sought in tourism as well.
Identity and culture are under pressure. On the one hand, globalization, with its typical standardization and uniformity, often leads to non-places: places with no recognizable identity, history or atmosphere. On the other hand, regionalization is making people search for their own identity, origin and distinctiveness. This results in questions like who and what are we? How and from what can we make a living? How do we get a grip on our life? This dissertation is about finding a place’s regional identity. What distincts one place from another place and destination? What’s the ‘genius loci’, the heart and soul of a place; what’s the ‘sense of place’, the feel of a place? What image does the outside world have? A central question for regions is: how do we position and profile ourselves? Culture within regional identity is an important starting point, because cultural differences differentiate places from one another. Culture and economy are not two separate sectors, they are hybrids that are more interconnected than many people think.
A central question in this dissertation is whether regional identity can provide a framework that serves as a counterweight for globalization. The region/province of Zealand serves as unit of analysis. Place branding and place making, where the essence of the place gets established, marketed and designed, are strategies that use identity and culture as a starting point.
This has lead to the following research question for this dissertation: What do the concepts identity and image mean for the theory and empiricism of place branding and place making? An important result will be the development of a method of research that can map the identity and image of a region.
The global-local nexus is a framework that centralises the interaction and connection between global and local. Globalization, an intensivation of mutual global connectedness, is a process that figuratively speaking takes place over people’s heads and so in a way happens to them. Globalization has lead to standardization, placelessness and a weakening of experiences and meanings associated with certain places.
Standardization means a lack of distinctiveness, which might be efficient and effective, but also leads to uniformity. A place without distinctiveness has no identity, no relation with the past, and a lack of atmosphere. This means people will have no connection with the place and no roots, which makes it an environment without meaning. A place with which people can no longer identify.
Globalization changes people’s comprehension of the world, making them insecure in their orientation and identification of places. On the other hand, it can be observed that as a response to globalization and/or an attempt to control their environment, people on a regional and local level look for the regional or local identities of places to restore that orientation and identification.
Identities are inherently social constructions, which allows the connectedness with the environment to (re)establish itself and which allows creating a characterization that will distinguish and identify. Regions can serve as a structure that give purpose, and have value to allocate meaning to a place. Meetings, contact, the human scale, authenticity, differentiation and history are the opposite of placelessness, standardization, homogenization and alienation, as is becoming more and more visible in our society. ‘Genius loci’, the spirit of a place, and ‘sense of place’, the feel of a place, are important starting points to differentiate and give substance and meaning to places from the perspective of the consumer.
The amorphous concept of identity can be approached from several disciplines and angles: psychologically, sociologically (including culturally), organizationally and as a brand. In this research the focus will be on the self-image of a region that focalizes on discovering the true cultural identity as perceived by the inhabitants. A search for the essence and the feel of a place, defining traits (characteristics) and distinctiveness, culture and (sensory) experiences. Special attention will be given to the concept ‘culture’, that can be seen as a manifestation of differences. All aspects form building blocks for a strategy of place branding and place making (amplifying the uniqueness of places by physical, social or virtual constructions). Place branding is a way to position and profile a place as a brand, based on identity. This concerns more than just a logo and a slogan that will serve as promotional communications. Place branding requires a long term strategy that needs to be commenced with regards to both content and process. The content regards values that form the core of the brand, the specific and distinctive that is based on the place’s identity. What the outside world thinks, the image, is included in that, to make sure the association with the outside world is not neglected. The process involves finetuning with stakeholders, including the residents, that need to form, give meaning to and carry out the brand from the inside out. Place making is described as coming up with, creating, developing and realizing ideas and concepts for places’ identities, their defining traits, ‘genius loci’ and the following sense of place, by efforts and investments in hardware, software, orgware and virtual ware; which centralises the possibility of distinctiveness, defining traits and the uniqueness of place and also connects with the environment, and where the perspective of the users is leading.
A concrete form of place making are regional products, as regional products – both from a culinary and a cultural viewpoint – are important carriers of regional identity. They are distinctive and characteristic for a certain place and can seriously contribute to the genius loci and sense of place. Events can play an important role here. These are meetings between residents and visitors and meetings with something different: the identity and culture of a certain place.
The region (province) of Zealand was used as research area for this dissertation. Zealand is characterized by being coastal as well as rural and also has a peripheral location.
To investigate the identity and image of Zealand a combination of qualitative and quantitative research are used. Within the research an important role is laid out for photographs. In academia and its research traditions the role of images and photos is underexposed and there is a focus on words, even though images and (thereof derived) emotions play a more and more important role in society.
First of all qualitative research was done amongst 90 Zealanders to come to an indication of what the identity of Zealand constitutes. The method used is a form of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (zmet), where 36 photos of Zealand were used to arrive at mental models that include e.g. meanings, emotions and memories. The data were processed with Multi Dimensional Scaling (mds) and used as a starting point for qualitative analysis through clustering and categorization. The results of this research were then tested with Resident/Participant Employed Photography. This means that the participants used a disposable camera to take 10 photos anywhere in Zealand; photos that they thought were distinctive for Zealand. These photos were categorized and then tested against the results of the first research.
The results of the first two parts of the research were used as building blocks for further research into identity and image. The goal of the research on identity was to shed some light on the self-image Zealanders have about their Zealand – identity and culture. A total of 4.799 Zealanders have filled in the entire questionnaire online. The goal of the research on image was to gain insight on the image visitors and non-visitors from the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany have of Zealand. A total of 2.306 respondents filled in the questionnaire online. The data of both researches were processed with spss.
Based on the first two parts of the research, twelve defining traits typical for Zealand were listed and then translated into images (of the atmosphere in Zealand), these images together formed an indication of the identity of Zealand. These defining traits can be seen as mental models that include both cognitive and emotional aspects. Furthermore, they formed one of the pillars of the quantitative survey on identity and image.
The images of the atmosphere in Zealand that reflect the twelve defining traits were used in the research about identity, they were used to ask Zealanders which image they thought was the most distinctive image of Zealand and which feelings that evokes. The coastal feeling of the sea and the beach was chosen by a large majority to be the most distinctive image for Zealand, followed by polder views and the struggle against water. Feelings of freedom, peace and space were all linked to the first two defining traits, establishing a connection between the coastal and the rural. The coastal feeling sea and beach evoke also scores high on feelings of enjoyment and holidays (in their own province).
Furthermore, the research on identity shows that Zealanders strongly identify with Zealand and its landscapes. They feel connected with Zealand and its landscapes and think of themselves as residents of Zealand, and score high on this on a scale of 0 to 100%. Besides this connection with Zealand, the respondents also feel connected with the regions of residence, the former islands of Zealand.
The culture of Zealand can be characterized by her symbols, heroes of the past and present, rituals, characteristics of the people living in Zealand, stories, experiences and history. Most Zealanders choose the Oosterschelde dam as the symbol of Zealand, and Michiel de Ruyter and Bløf as heroes of the past and present; chosen rituals like tilting at the ring and mussel festivities point to the history of farming and fishing in Zealand. The story that needs to be told is the tale of Zealand’s nature and landscape, and the struggle against water. Zealanders characterise themselves as somewhat down to earth and religious, economical and loyal to authority, hospitable and direct, and modest. Sensory perception of Zealand by the Zealanders is mainly coast related.
The results of the research on image show that Zealand is not exactly ‘top of mind’ for Dutch people when asked to name a holiday region in the Netherlands. It is for people from Flanders and Germany (only from Nord Rhein Westfalen) when asked to name a holiday region in the Netherlands.
Zealand scores an average grade when looking at overall scores: Dutch people give it a 7.0, Flemish people a 6.9 and Germans a 6.3. A notable difference is the difference in appreciation that occurs after actually visiting Zealand. Dutch people that just visited Zealand give it a 7.6 versus the 6.5 people who haven’t visited Zealand give it; for people from Flanders this is 7.6 versus 6.4; for Germans it’s even 7.5 versus 5.8.
The choices for the defining traits that best represent Zealand, and the corresponding feelings that visitors to Zealanders list, partly match the image Zealanders have about their Zealand, but it also shows some differences that can partly be explained by nationality, culture and visiting Zealand. The main similarity, that all three mention most, is the defining trait about the coastal feeling of sea and beaches and the corresponding feelings this image ensues. The feelings of peace and space, and to a lesser extent freedom, are the main similarities. The image of views on the polder scores a lot lower, as this is not perceived to be as distinctive. The corresponding feelings are mainly similar. The struggle against water is confirmed as an image by Dutch people, but to a lesser extent by Flemish and German people. The Flemish and the Germans tend to focus more on fishing and Zealand’s seafood, which can probably be explained by Zealand’s mussels, lobster from the Oosterschelde and Zealand’s oysters: mainly popular with the Flemish.
Conclusion and recommendations
Based on a review of the literature and the research performed, it can be concluded that region and regional identity are frameworks and values that offer possibilities for orientation and identification, and therefore form a counterweight against globalization. People need anchors, roots and grip; they can find these in their surroundings and identity.
A review of the literature and the quantitative research shows that identity and culture are important when it comes to the positioning and profiling of places. Both identity and culture are not static, but dynamic, flexible and liquid – which doesn’t mean there are no benchmarks. When it comes to positioning and profiling, one needs to look for the defining traits of place, cultural elements, ‘genius loci’ and ‘sense of place’ that can determine distinctiveness from a compositional point of view. A place’s history provides that place with a certain stratification that can be seen through stories, symbols, heroes and rituals. History deserves more attention when it comes to construction of regional identities.
Tourism, as a sectoral perspective, is too limiting a framework for the creation of identity, place branding and place making, and innovation; but it can serve an important role.
Based on the applied research on identity a sketch was given of the identity of Zealand, its distinctive traits, culture, and the Zealand feeling, the ‘sense of place’. Zealand’s ability to differentiate itself is in the ‘genius loci’, the place’s atmosphere – which is a construction and composition based on Zealand’s distinctive traits: elements from Zealand’s culture that give Zealand something different.
The scientific relevance of this research is in the development of a research method that can map both the identity and the image of a place. Also, the results of this research can form the basics for a long-term place brand. The literature on place branding shows a shift from image to identity. This approach of true identity, from the inside out, fits into this and forms the basis for the place brand, in this case the brand Zealand. Therefore, the answer to the problem statement is that identity, and perceived identity from residents in general, should be the starting point for the development of a sustainable place brand and the development of place making. With that, image functions as an external dimension, that, in its interactions with identity, provides additional insights into who and what a region is. To start from identity ensures support and involvement. Place making means to give form and content, or to construct, the distinctive traits of a place’s identity.
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Gerard van Keken
Erik van 't Klooster