By Mihalis Kavaratzis
The 2nd International Place Branding Conference attracted both academics and practitioners from all over the world. Intense discussions took place during the three days in Bogota. Although at first glance the discussions might not seem to lead to concrete conclusions, in my view, their value lies in the process and not the end result. Here are the three reasons why I think that the conference was a success or the three inspirations that this conference has generated: First, it is obvious that practitioners and academics find it very difficult to communicate with each other. At times, they (we) both seem to simply wait for their (our) turn to speak instead of listening to the other side. However, that’s not really surprising given human nature and the nature of ‘experts’ particularly. It is precisely conferences like this one that will turn our parallel monologues into a dialogue. The Bogota conference has certainly initiated links between the two communities (LinkedIn and Facebook were on fire right after the conference).
Secondly, the variety of issues to be handled, tools to be used and approaches to be adopted is such that you need to be an expert in, at least, five different disciplines in order to follow. That’s not very surprising either given the complex and interdisciplinary nature of place branding. It is precisely conferences like this one that will turn our dialogue into a multidisciplinary dialogue. During the Bogota conference, I saw geographers talking to marketers and sociologists talking to graphic designers – that can only be good.
Finally, in my view, the main motivation for everything we are doing (call it branding, marketing, management or what have you) is the desire to make places better for their residents. Although most people would agree on that, not everybody is allowed the luxury to adopt it. What I mean is that although it is easy for me to sell this idea to academic journals or research funding bodies (which is how I make a living), it is very difficult to sell it to eager-for-results mayors and the promise does not win tenders (which is how consultants make a living). Cathy Parker talks about that in a Bogota-conference post in her blog and says that
“it’s too easy for people in places, who are charged with the job of making places better, such as Mayors or “technocrats” to misunderstand place branding (as academics’ define it) and hire some consultants to come up with a “place brand strategy”, some short-term projects and a logo and strapline than tackle the issues that contribute to the development of a place”.
Cathy goes on to rightly say that “it is not the academic interpretation of place branding that is being commodified”. I’m more convinced than ever that what place branding needs is good theory. I take it as a failure of place branding academics that we haven’t provided an interpretation that is ‘commodifiable’. I take it as a task for place branding academics to produce a ‘commodifiable’ interpretation of place branding that will be useful for everyone. If we as academics manage to formulate a theoretically sound and practically applicable framework or ‘set of mind’, then they as practitioners/consultants will be able to sell it better and use it for the right purpose. It is precisely conferences like this one that will turn our multidisciplinary dialogue into valuable information. The Bogota conference has initiated the discussion and prepared the ground.
Hope to continue all this in the next conference, perhaps in a place equally exciting as Bogota.