Guest article: Ethics of Place Making and Altering (a.k.a. Place branding)

Ethics (Image from

Ethics for Sale? (Image from

By Efe Sevin

Last year, the Journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy published a special issue on ethics of place branding, and I had the opportunity to put my two cents in with my article “Thinking about Place Branding: Ethics of Concept“. With recent encouragements from several colleagues, and the Turkish government’s most recent attempts to redesign national commemoration day celebrations, I decided to revisit some of the main arguments I made in the paper.

The “provocative” argument I made was that the way we think about place branding limits our thinking. We put several boundaries on ourselves and thinking as we try to conceptualize the term based on current practices, or the needs. This is why I decided to take a step towards critical theory, and discuss the concept in normative terms. Place branding is not only a communication attempt, it is a communicative attempt. It is not an only urban development project, these projects can change the nature of places we live in.

The question that led me to a critical view of place branding was about its necessity. When do we need place branding? If we look at the practice, we will end up with answers about tourism revenues, or import/export numbers. Borrowing some terms from Jurgen Habermas, I claim that we need place branding when there is a disagreement (if not an argument) about what a place is (what a place’s brand image and identity are). The starting point is not an economic or functional necessity, but is a clash of ideas. In the case of Turkey, for instance, the clash is obvious between old elite and new elite (secular bureaucrats  vs conservative government).

I proposed a Habermasian approach to better understand what is going on. Practically, place brands are the products of a two-step communicative process. In the first step, domestic communicative action takes place to build up place brand identities. Second step, international (or domestic stakeholders and target audiences) communicative action produces place brand images. I propose that scholars and practitioners take two questions in consideration. And I definitely do not promise to give any generalizable answers.

  • Who has the “authority”, “power”, “legitimacy”, (or any other buzzword in sociology) to (re)brand a place?

A constructed place image includes functional and representational claims. This is to say, the image should include the physical characteristics and also normative values. So, while making truth claims à la Habermaswho has the authority, who has the final say in deciding the physical and normative peculiarities of a place? Public sector? NGOs? Individuals? Corporations?

So, I say, in this first step of communicative action, we should be careful about (i) legitimacy, and (ii) inclusion issues. (But I am definitely NOT saying all place branding campaigns should be all inclusive)

  • Which aspects of a place’s constative identity (or “reality”) should be included in place branding campaigns?
Let’s assume a brand identity is constructed in the first step. Now, it is time to share this identity with the target audiences. Yet, can we share everything? Can we use the same symbols, words, norms, and values for internal and external communicative action processes? What if the entire place is “wrong” about their identity and overestimate their potential?
In this second step, we should add consistency to our concerns. (And again, I am not proposing that a consistent campaign is better.)

In short, even though place branding is ethically “neutral”, we are walking on thin ice. We should be careful as:

– Ethics in place branding is contextual. The framework I propose is for “thinking about place branding”. Be aware of the social context you operate in.

– Place branding is political. Power and legitimacy are important concerns. It is not a construction or a promotion project! Place branding is a great demonstration of power!

– Place branding is “social” and “communicative”. Place branding is about norm production, it has the potential to change a place’s identity.

PS: I wrote a little bit more about the Turkish experience in my own blog, Reaching the Public.

About Efe

I read and write about political communication stuff and I play with data to see what they have to say. I also love to cook.
This entry was posted in miscellaneous, opinions, research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Guest article: Ethics of Place Making and Altering (a.k.a. Place branding)

  1. Pingback: “New” May 19th and the Turkish brand « Reaching the Public

  2. Ares says:

    Efe, you reflect my thoughts here. I am writing on exactly the same issue at the moment and will let you know as soon as possible.

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