by Ares Kalandides
Some months ago, I wrote a short article on my understanding of Integrated Place Branding. That was mostly driven by my own need to reflect on my daily work: what is it that I am doing? Many friends and students have commented since, arguing that it was not the what, but the how that interested them most. They don’t care what they do, as long as they do it well. Although I find this approach hard to understand, I decided that after delivering the what question I may just as well muse on the how one. So, here are some initial thoughts:
Principle 1: Be honest about your motivation
There are many different reasons why you may want to brand a place (i.e. change its image): The most common reason is that somebody wants to attract tourists and investment. But it may also be because you feel that the residents do not identify with their place, that they don’t respect nor love it. It may also be that you want to give people their dignity back: the place’s bad reputation may have personal consequences on anybody associated with it; people may be systematically discriminated against, just because they (are perceived to) come from there. You may also want to improve a place’s image because you want to attract more or a certain type of residents. But there may be more pragmatic reasons: you may have a mayor who wants to be re-elected, or a strong lobbying consultant who has convinced the administration that place branding will solve all their problems.
Though most of the above is usually simultaneously true, it doesn’t help much when you are trying to design a strategy. You need to be very honest on why you are doing it and what you want to achieve. If you want it all, the risk is that you will not have anything.
I am still convinced that the best reason to (re-)brand your place is when there is a discrepancy between what you think it is and how it is perceived by others. It is figuring out that gap that is your first and major task. It is also almost an insuperable problem, since your findings will always be contested and never definitive.
Principle 2: Get to know your place
I can already hear the objections: “of course I know my place”. I do not disagree. You may well have excellent knowledge of a part of your place. But places are extremely complex formations and nobody can pretend to know them completely. Systematic and continuous research can help you approach and understand things better, but it will always remain partial. You don’t need to give up. Your decisions will always be based on what you think you know and the better informed you are, the better your decisions. Still, the best knowledge cannot remove the dilemma of political choices: what a place is, what it needs, is a politically (or let’s say ideologically) motivated viewpoint, even when you think you are being neutral (“managerial”).
Turn to the social sciences (sociology, economy, ethnography etc.) to understand. There is no need to feel disappointment if you never find the Truth. That is the nature of the social sciences and anybody telling you that you can find the objective reality of your place is lying.
Try to find the methods that will help you analyse your place’s identity, but adapt them to your place. Mistrust recipes (including the 4 principles of this blog entry).
Principle 3: Use your creativity to imagine the future
A strategy generally consists of three steps. Creating the vision, designing strategic goals and building measures. I find the vision to be the trickiest of all three. The reason is quite simple. The decision on what you want your place to be (or how you want it to be perceived), is a deeply political issue. By ‘political’ I obviously don’t mean governmental, but rather a choice that will always reflect the conflict of the social arena. You cannot pretend, as a consultant, to make neutral decisions that allude to the “general good”. Somebody’s general good, is very often achieved at somebody else’s detriment.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you also don’t need to ape anything that worked in other places. You may learn from others (worst practices are in that sense more useful that best practices), but your answers need to be individual. There are no two identical places and there will never be two identical answers to place issues. Take unusual paths, think across disciplinary borders, question what you know. Your creativity will be needed from the very beginning: from the way you analyse your place, your choice of people to include in your work – up to the design and implementation of your strategy.
Principle 4: Create strong partnerships
Partnerships in general are between all different types of actors and they usually involve very diverse groups in society. Don’t have any illusions about getting everybody on your side. Chose your key allies, but don’t forget the ethics of the job: you are not doing it to privilege a small minority, though you may be tempted to do that. Public-private-partnerships (PPPs) may prove to be highly efficient in Place Branding, but they need to be real partnerships. Most PPPs usually mean that the government (i.e. the taxpayer) takes all the risks and the private corporations receive all potential benefits. This is a far cry from any real partnership.
You won’t make it alone. And you shouldn’t. You are branding a place to make people’s lives better so it’s those people you need to create partnerships with. This will start the day you draft your first ideas and will never end. Unless you live in a dictatorship, in which case you should reconsider branding the place altogether.
(These four principles should have been written in the first person. This is the way I do my job and it may or may not work for others. It is up to you after all.)