Into the great wide open (between theory and practice

By Mihalis Kavaratzis

There is great value in city associations where practitioners can come together and exchange ideas on common practices, challenges and lessons for the future. ‘Eurocities’ is such an association and the people who have set it up need to be commended. In November 2010, Eurocities published their report on ‘A shared vision on city branding in Europe’ (the report is available through the Eurocities website at: http://www.eurocities.eu). The report consists of 40 examples from city branding practice in Europe. Unfortunately, this is a report that, in my view, takes us many steps back. It takes us back to a time when we didn’t know that cities are complex entities and we didn’t know that branding is more than a logo. It takes us back to a time when we thought that cities can be marketed in the same way as soft drinks or cars and to a time when we thought that even soft drinks and cars base their branding on their logo and slogan. But these times have passed. We always knew that cities are complex; now we also know that cities need a special type of branding; that cities cannot be marketed in the same way as products; that even soft drinks and cars do NOT base their branding on their logo.

The report very briefly mentions several interesting and valid points. It does talk (very briefly) about the role of stakeholders and it does mention (even more briefly) place identity and how that might be the basis of the city brand. The stated intention of the report is to provide examples of good practice (notably and thankfully acknowledging that these are not proven solutions for all cities) and it does include a few examples of decent city branding in the contemporary understanding of the term. Particularly, the example of the city of Tampere on the issue of stakeholders’ involvement is interesting and can serve as a good practice example. In my personal (and perhaps biased?) view the rest of the examples do not serve this intention well. The report, as a whole, clearly focuses on all the wrong points. My problem, of course, is not with the report, which actually is a valuable step towards describing the current practice of city branding in Europe and, therefore, is a very useful report. My problem is with current understanding of city branding by European practitioners (no doubt non-European too but the report is about Europe).

It is obvious that the contributors to the report have not engaged with the knowledge that has been generated. There is no doubt that there is a significant amount of publications – and one would assume of knowledge – on the specificities of place branding, on the difficulties in translating marketing concepts into place marketing concepts, on the identity of places, on images, on methodologies and even on tool-kits of how to go about branding places. These are nowhere to be found in the Eurocities report and, unfortunately, this means that they are nowhere to be found in the practice of place branding. Most of the examples included describe how the logo chosen magically addresses all audiences of the specific city, miraculously makes everyone in the world feel part of the city and astonishingly manages to juggle between all the different facets of the city. The difference between the two examples used in the very first issue (Genova and Karlstad on the need for a brand strategy) is overwhelming. Surely not both can qualify as good examples. Furthermore, the examples do not indicate the lessons outlined.

The example of Zaragoza (the slogan: ‘A challenge – a city’) is used to illustrate a brand that “brings citizens together in a common purpose” (to face the challenge?) and, at the same time, “it attracts business and investment”. I don’t see how.

There is, however, another side of this big problem and it has to do with the people who do understand city branding a bit better, who have done research on it, who have attempted to ask and answer the important questions. If they (we?) don’t speak a language that is comprehensible to practitioners, if they (we?) insist on publishing their opinion in journals that no practitioner will ever read, then what is the point? It is as much their fault that they don’t listen as it is ours that we don’t speak loud enough.

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3 Responses to Into the great wide open (between theory and practice

  1. andrea lucarelli says:

    I really appreciate the analyis dome by Mihalis Kavaratzis in describing different and sometimes contasting way of looking at the phenomena of place branding.

    I belive that it is, even if hourable, important to querrel about why reserchers and practitioners are not talking speaking the same language, or why practitioners are not listening. Practitioners wants and needs quick and un-complex solutions, they have priorities and objective that are different. Researches have time and (maybe) resources to dip into the phenomena, they are never satified with simple unswers, they seek for explanation, understaning. In few words, they are two different animals, living in the same space.

    I do not think i am the appropiate person to judge the practitioners´s work (since i am not ). However I frankly believe that the link practitioners-researchers is problematic not only in place branding but in general in very sphere of business administrations ( at least the field i am aware of) . One of the main reason is linked to the fact that business scholars are most of the time a step behind what is actually taking place in that particular moment. Business scholar are in some way “used ” to retroactively theorizes on a certain phenomena that subsequently will be tought in a university course, a master programme or an open single lectures. It is indeed in this “moment of translations” that reserches are able to contribute to the society and might be influencial . You can call this moment in different way: pedagocial, informative, descriptive, you name it. Regarless how one conceptualizes this moment, the crucial issus for a resercher is to adopt a critical approach to the phenomena. In this manner the reserchers by being in contact with future generations practitioners, does not only render a theoretical contribution, but also a more substantial socio-economical contribution.

  2. Ares says:

    Andrea, being half-way between a practitioner and a scholar I will try to explain this.

    I think you mentioned the most important factor: Practitioners follow a very different logic, they need fast results, they have an assignment to fullfill and somebody breathing down their neck. They may have a more or less intelligent person they are dealing with, but whoever it is, they will want results. Academics on the other side have time on their hands because their job is reflexive by definition. It is to figure out what and why and how and who. The two systems are quite different and hard to put together.

    But I would not like to leave practitioners off the hook. The truth is that the majority of practitioners in the field are simply bad. Full stop. Only few have had the right training (because in my opinion we have not yet developed one), a lot of them don’t know how to link abstraction with practice and most of all, they are not used to reflecting upon what they do. Inspite of all the stuff that has been written (let’s be honest, a lot of it is also bad theory), they are not even used to reading anything but DIY manuals for place branding.

    I am not very fond of the distinction between theory and practice. In my opinion we should look at them together. I don’t like abstractions that are not empirically examined and neither am I a big lover of the deductive method. Yet, it would be unfair to judge practitioners using examples from the worst ones of their trade as it is a mistake to judge all academics through bad theory.

  3. mk302 says:

    Certainly agree with Andrea. The two animals have different needs. I did mention that both animals are to blame. It seems to me, though, that a report on city branding in Europe should be reflective and it’s purpose should be to be more critical. It should try to integrate knowledge. A report that says Look how nicely we do things, does not help anyone. I totally agree that academics should engage with future practitioners. At the same time, practitioners (at least when they attempt to reflect on their own practice, which is what the report is about and at the rare moments when they don’t have someone breathing down their neck) should try to see what other points of view have been offered. As you know, I totally and actively support the International Place Branding Conferences series. That’s because of the mixed participation and the opportunity for a dialogue between the two animals.

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