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What are the Instruments Local Officials can use to Brand their Places?


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Journal of International Business Research and Marketing

Volume 8, Issue 1, April 2023, pages 27-33

What are the Instruments Local Officials can use to Brand their Places?

DOI: 10.18775/jibrm.1849-8558.2015.81.3003
URL: https://doi.org/10.18775/jibrm.1849-8558.2015.81.3003 

Mohamed Berrada

Private University of Marrakech, Morocco

Abstract: Place branding is a phenomenon that has grown over the past decade as more and more places seek to become brands in the hope of creating a certain uniqueness that will distinguish them and highlight their competitive advantage to attract and retain various target customers. However, a place branding strategy must not be conceived only around the creation and the management of a place brand but also by mobilizing other ways in order to strengthen the place existence and give it a meaning in the minds of intramural and extramural customers. Thus, the aim of this article is to expose the different instruments that local officials can use as part of a general place management strategy. The instruments of place branding presented here are the place association with personalities, the construction of flagship buildings and structures, as well as the organization of hallmark events.

Keywords: Place branding, Place marketing, Place management, Place promotion, Place design and planning; Instruments

1. Introduction

Nowadays, we live in a globalized and interconnected world transforming it into a single market. Countries, regions and cities are then forced to distinguish themselves from each other, thus creating competition between places that use strategy to build a competitive advantage. This differentiation strategy aims in particular to increase places’ attractiveness and competitiveness to win their global shares in customers, tourists, investors, companies, capital, students, events but also to get the respect and attention of other countries and the international media (Berrada, 2019). Therefore, the promotion of places has become from the 1970’s onward a primary strategy in places’ urban policies and in tourism industry (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005). Places then resorted to different marketing techniques in order to identify themselves as a “unique destination” and generate this so desired distinction by local officials. Hence the birth of place marketing in the late 80s and early 90s which mainly aims to create the singularity sought by places and enhance their attractiveness factors to ultimately improve their competitive position among others. However, place marketing has entered the era of “place branding” in recent years (Chartron, 2013). This transition from place marketing to place branding occurred in the late 90s and early 2000s. Places then followed the example of the organizations by importing different concepts and techniques of product branding and especially those of corporate branding in their own operational field to improve their position in a globalised and competitive environment.

Place branding has focused so far on the brand visual elements such as the creation of a new logo, a new slogan and at best, the development of advertising campaigns to promote these elements. However, branding encompasses other areas of activity and intervention that influence and form the place brand. Thus, branding does not either mean promotion and can not only be limited to simple promotional and communication activities. As a matter of fact, place branding is far from being a simple place promotion exercise (Govers, 2013) but it should rather be thought of as a complete and continuous process, interconnected with all marketing efforts (Kavaratzis, 2009).

Consequently, the main objective of this article is to explore in depth the different instruments of place branding that can be implemented specially by local officials as part of their place management policies. These instruments aim essentially to support any place brand in order to give it a certain tangible life and a real and clear meaning in its various targets’ mind to feel and mark its presence within the place, and to affirm above all its particularity.

2. What is place branding?

Kavaratzis and Ashworth (2005) admit: “Unfortunately there is no single accepted definition” (p.508) and this is due to the interdisciplinary nature of place branding that has allowed several areas of research to contribute to the creation of this literature. Nevertheless, place branding can be defined in a simple way as the application of branding techniques such as those developed for products and organizations to places to increase their attractiveness, but the reality is much more complex and different because defining place branding is proving to be a difficult exercise. It is indeed a meeting point of different disciplines (Lebedenko, 2004) since place branding is actually a field of study for spatial planners, geographers, ethnographers and marketers, among others (Oliveira, 2016). The place branding literature has been effectively built thanks to the contribution of different disciplines, including urban politics and management, public diplomacy, economic development, tourism, geography, sociology, marketing and more recently branding (Berrada, 2019).

Therefore, many definitions of the concept have appeared in the literature that differ depending on the angle of approach. This reveals that place branding does not require only a single definition but can accept various ones, so it is a polysemic concept. According to Berrada (2019), place branding is a process:

– which determines place brand identity, defines its positioning and strengthens its image to increase its brand equity,

– which aims to establish a fair and solid reputation built around place strengths and assets,

– which creates and assigns meaning to places by generating associations in target customers’ minds,

– based on strategies and techniques drawn mainly from marketing and branding theories but which also requires the contribution of other disciplines related to the field,

– which contributes to place socio-economic development.

That is why place branding is ultimately a strategic approach increasingly used by policy makers and local officials to help them define a competitive advantage, carried by a place brand, that will differentiate their place from others with the aim of attracting investments, tourists, residents, talents, events and so on. Overall, place branding consists of defining place identity, its values and specificities (cultural heritage, natural resources, economic dynamism, quality of life, infrastructure, institutions, population, gastronomy, geography, climate, political stability and security, etc.), and communicating them in a coherent and especially differentiated way not only to all place targets but the whole world in order to stand out from competitors. At last, place branding is described as an effective process which allows a place to develop and achieve its socio-political-economic objectives.

The following point will give a better insight and understanding of the various place branding goals.

3. The role and objectives of place branding

The goal of place branding is to maximize the place economic value and the social well-being for the benefit of residents and other stakeholders (Hankinson, 2015). In fact, although place brands are located in the public sector, they do not belong to any public organization, let alone a private one. Nevertheless, they deliver value to different stakeholders such as residents and local organizations that invest money to help finance place brand development.

Thus, place branding serves to achieve various economic, social and even political objectives as it is an integral part of policies aimed, inter alia, at promoting economic restructuring and growth, increasing the number of investments especially foreign investments and tourism revenues, social development, social inclusion and cohesion, community development and involvement, strengthening of local identity, identification with the place and sense of belonging, general well-being of citizens, political participation and engagement; but also to support strategic change within places; and improve their reputation and image externally and internally (Ashworth, 2011 ; Oliveira, 2016 ; Berrada, 2019). In this sense, the main purpose of place branding is to increase place desirability (Arabzadeh and Aghaeian, 2015). It is effectively centered on creating a favorable image or changing a negative or indifferent place image (Ashworth and Kavaratzis, 2010). It aspires to distinguish a specific place in a complex and changing market, position it strongly by communicating and valuing its unique advantages and make it an attractive place to charm and bring investors, tourists or talent (Cleave, 2014). In addition, place branding helps to manage and integrate ‘hard’ (infrastructure) and ‘soft’ (images, values, reputations and identities) place components that promote a process of discovery, learning and exchange of ideas among local, regional and global actors, thus guiding global development (Giovanardi, 2012).

Furthermore, many authors insist above all on the role of place branding in the economic development of places. In this regard, place branding is considered a marketing strategy for the economic development (Greenberg, 2008), a crucial strategic process for the success of economic development actions (Pasquinelli, 2012), an important tool for the pursuit of economic development and the maintenance of existing relationships with investors and companies (Papadopoulos, 2004), a tool of a broader economic development strategy that includes among others the development of public and private infrastructure, the quality of the built environment, the design of services, planning and public policy (Allen, 2007), and finally, a means to stimulate places’ growth and development by attracting various resources (Kapferer, 2007) such as economic and financial resources (domestic and foreign companies and investors, tourists and new visitors, etc.), human resources (talents, young executives, new residents, etc.), cultural resources (arts, events, etc.), and so on.

Ultimately, place branding is applied, regardless of the place scale or its circumstances, as a solution to a set of delicate economic, social, political and cultural issues and problems (Ashworth, 2011). As an instrument of place management, this practice effectively has a wide range of possible applications, flexibility in spatial contexts and responsiveness to change (Ibid.). Place branding is then considered as an adaptable response over time as long as spatial circumstances change and places become increasingly complex (Oliveira, 2016).

4. The instruments of place branding

Place branding is part of a wide range of traditional place management policies. It has emerged as a powerful instrument to create a certain uniqueness and differentiate places, generating increased competition between countries, regions and cities to draw the stakeholders’ attention so that they want to invest, host and organize events in a specific place (Oliveira, 2012). This part aims to explain the way in which this practice is developed and implemented at the local level, particularly with regard to the way in which places, after adopting place marketing as a form of planning and management, are now moving towards place branding (Florian, 2002) to create a certain singularity that will differentiate them from others and give them meaning.

According to Ashworth (2009), people, in general, create and attribute meaning to places through three main areas of contact during the encounter between an individual and a place, which necessarily influence the overall experience lived by people. This encounter with places is realized thanks to the perceptions and images obtained through the cumulative people experiences, as well as the different forms of place representation especially through films, novels, paintings, etc., and finally, thanks to the impact of deliberate political interventions such as urban planning and design. Thus, the goal of place branding is to be able to play on these elements to influence people’s perception during the meaning building phase. This practice of place management then provides valuable tools for places to differentiate themselves by managing their opportunities and transforming them into competitive advantages, thus gaining brand value and strengthening their position on the global market (Oliveira, 2012).

Over the last twenty years, the authorities responsible for managing places have developed a toolbox of instruments that have become widely familiar and widespread throughout the world. They have succeeded to establish this useful and functional toolbox through several risk-taking and attempts, the accumulation of different rewarding experiences, also by the exchange of best practices between practitioners and professionals from different countries. Authors such as Lynch (1960), Ashworth (2009), Dinnie (2011), Oliveira (2012), Ashworth and Kavaratzis (2015) and Berrada (2019) identify three main place branding instruments used in several corners of the world for local planning and urban design. These instruments that will be developed in this article represent solid and reliable supports of the urban image (Dinnie, 2011). Furthermore, it should be noted that Taecharungroj (2019) and Murti et al. (2023) have also highlighted another three instrumental pillars in place branding that are almost similar to those presented below with a slight difference, namely place physics (or physical places), place practice and place personality. In short, place physics are the tangible and physical features and appearances of a place such as its architecture and buildings, its environment and landscapes that form a representation of that place in the minds of audiences and in the media. Place practice refers to the set of actions and activities within the place designed by the institution in charge of the place brand project that allow the cognitive and emotional encounter of target customers with the place and contribute at the end to generate a personal experience. While place personality can be either an affective characteristic associated with a place or some unique qualities that local officials want to transfer to that place. These authors state that the relationship between these three pillars forms the place brand identity that helps people build their own comprehension of that place.

In the next paragraphs, we will discover the three instruments we propose in this article (based on the work of the aforementioned authors) and explain their impact as well as their role in the branding process of places.

4.1. Personality association

In their quest for a unique identity, places associate with an individual in the hope that their unique and distinctive qualities will be transferred to the place (Ashworth, 2009). Branding then relates to the transfer of associations from a person to a place and especially facilitates this process by selecting the best attributes to associate. For example, tourists can visit a city because they associate it with a famous personality, whether it is a well-known painter, a musician or a writer (Dinnie, 2011). These famous personalities give meaning to the place and contribute to its formation. In this kind of situation, artists whose production is visual are more privileged than those who make non-visual productions. All the more so since the branding of a city will be easy when the person with whom it has been associated is remarkable and memorable, or that the work done within the place is distinctive and creative. This branding technique was called “Gaudí Gambit” following the success of the ” personality branding ” of Barcelona in the 80s which was associated with the famous Catalan architect and designer Gaudí. The image of the city is now inseparable from the artist’s masterpiece. Historical and mythological figures also play an important role in the image of the city since all places have a history and a cultural heritage that favor this kind of associations.

It is clear that a distinctive personality recognized by the general public is an asset for the branding of a city but can also be a disadvantage insofar as the place association with a particular person may not be accepted and welcomed by the entire population especially as the artistic tastes of individuals change and differ. Similarly, the idea of choosing a famous person in the artistic world does not necessarily contribute to the marketing of a place because it is reduced to a niche intended exclusively for literary and cultural tourism (Ashworth, 2009). In addition, personality association to a place do not depend only on the agencies responsible for place marketing/branding, but also on other stakeholders such as organizations and especially on the population who will accept or reject the choice of the character and his attributes. Indeed, some personality associations can be inappropriate or even completely undesirable. The valuation of associations can also change over time because, for example, a relationship once considered effective and beneficial may become less effective, less relevant or less beneficial as fashions and trends change (Ashworth and Kavaratzis, 2015). Another personality branding risk is that place local history and cultural heritage can then be destroyed and replaced by a famous personality who is adopted and promoted as the boss of the place and its symbol (Ashworth, 2009). Nevertheless, local officials are always tempted to involve local celebrities in the hope that their fame will be transferred to the place.

For their part, Ashworth and Kavaratzis (2015) establish a checklist of attributes leading to the success of this branding technique or at least to avoid failure. First, the selected personality must be widely known or at least, capable of being popularly promoted in the target markets. Also, the link between the person and the place must be possible, credible and clear. Secondly, the association must be sustainable over time because, in the end, celebrity is ephemeral and its effect has a short-term impact. All the more so as cultural fashions change and the popular appreciation of artists, styles, and celebrities in general, is growing and decreasing. Thirdly, the personal attributes transferred to the place must improve or strengthen the desired brand and associations must transmit contemporary value to the brand being created.

Among the many celebrities who have been associated with cities are Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, British architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Catalan painter, sculptor, engraver, screenwriter and writer Salvador Dali in Figueras, Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Vienna, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, American singer and actor Elvis Presley in Memphis,  the British musical group The Beatles in Liverpool, the historical character of Vasco da Gama in Lisbon, the legendary figure of King Arthur in Winchester in Hampshire.

4.2. Flagship buildings and structures

In reality, anything that is somehow special in a city could attract tourists and the attention of foreigners to come and discover popular objects that are out of the ordinary and different from those existing on their territory. Indeed, based on empirical research in American and European cities, Lynch (1960) states that each city is perceived primarily by most individuals as a set of constructed objects that play a role in shaping people’s image of the city. This is the reason why some cities are more anchored in our minds than others. For this purpose, the objects of the built environment that tourists visit or the parts of a city that citizens admire can have a strong mental impression on them.

Places are tempted to express to the whole world, including citizens, their existence and uniqueness through the establishment of unique objects and the construction of flagship buildings and structures. This idea was commonplace in most historical eras (Ashworth and Kavaratzis, 2015). Flagship buildings represent structures officially designed not only to house public functions but also to convey statements about the governments that erected them (Ashworth, 2009). These flagship structures depend on two factors to ensure their success. First, their architecture must be notable and remarkable knowing that aesthetic quality is not decisive for success but it remains as important. In this sense, there has always been a particular competition between countries to build the tallest building or towers in the world. Bridges are also a preferred structure because they are highly visible and able to express both aesthetic and technical skills of a place. Secondly, the artistic creator, architect or designer is almost as important as the building itself and as famous as its creations. Thus, cities that have buildings designed by well-known creators acquire notoriety and the cultural city status (Ibid.).

Local officials also seek to significantly control and care for the aesthetic appearance of the local built environment so that the buildings are different and recognized. Therefore, by its aesthetic quality, its distinctive character, even its notoriety, the architecture of the flagship buildings and structures serves to express the unique individuality of the place announcing to the world the existence of an original and unique place. The visual qualities of buildings, structures and even neighborhoods seem to be instruments of place branding. Indeed, places also try to acquire an image and an association through the creation and shaping of a unique, distinctive and specific district that represents a signature for the whole city and gives it a visual identity.

In the end, thanks to heavy investments in architecture, art, design, exhibition spaces, landscaping and different forms of urban redevelopment, places can then proclaim the possession of various cultural values (Dicks, 2003) as well as a distinctive and singular character. Concretely, the overall design of this kind of structures can be historical or contemporary, even futuristic (Ashworth and Kavaratzis, 2015) whose purpose is to distinguish buildings, objects, neighborhoods, etc. and make them noticed to the general public so that the place is then perceived as different from others and easily identified by residents and foreigners.

The most famous flagship buildings around the world are the Colosseum in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Georges Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture or the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai World Financial Center, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Chain Bridge in Budapest, Tower Bridge in London, Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, Millennium Bridge in London, and Mohammed VI Bridge in Morocco.

4.3. Hallmark events

Places organize and sponsor events in order to gain wider recognition of their existence but also to establish brand-specific associations and attract the attention of tourists. In his article, Getz (2008) identifies two main advantages when it comes to organizing events. The first is to attract national and international visitors and tourists, while the second is to capture attention and promote place attractions and infrastructures. The events then contribute to the attraction of worldwide media coverage, of international tourists and domestic visitors in particular, as well as to the promotion of the existence of the place where the event occurs for future visits (Brown and Trimboli, 2011).

As a result, events are increasingly used by place marketers (Getz, 2008 ; Gibson, 1998) but also by urban planners, managers and designers in other contexts (Ashworth, 2009). Through cultural, artistic, sporting events, etc., places identify with the activities organized there and thereby demonstrate to citizens and the rest of the world their organizational capacity and skills as well as the political commitment of those responsible to successfully stage such events. In addition to asserting their existence and skills, places also acquire importance and value depending on the significance of the event organized. It is obvious then that the more grandiose, important and global an event is, the greater the gain generated in case of success and vice versa in case of failure. Indeed, Quinn (2006) concludes from a review of a number of Irish case studies that the organisation of festivals can strengthen tourism, generate local revenues and even contribute to the recognition of the place. The impact of these significant events on the local place image is then considerable. Getz (2008) summarizes the impact of events in the following five dimensions: economic, social, cultural, political and environmental or ecological.

Moreover, these milestones can be either recurrent by occurring each year or exceptional. Many event opportunities exist such as sporting events, trade fairs, political gatherings and international summits, however, cultural events are the most privileged as they attract much more attention because of their visibility as well as the acceptability and recognition of cultural products as goods of merit adding value and desirable attributes to a place brand (Ashworth, 2009 ; Oliveira, 2012). Indeed, cultural events have been hosted and organized by cities since almost their existence and thus contribute to associating the event content and qualities not only with the place brand but also the whole place.

The most well-known recurring events are the Cannes World Film Festival (France) which is an annual international film festival, the Salzburg Festival (Austria) which is an opera, theatre and classical music festival held every summer, the Fashion Week in Copenhagen (Denmark) which is the unmissable event for fashion professionals where different international stylists present their collections and which takes place twice per year (February and August), the annual carnival of Rio (Brazil) perceived as the most important tourist event of the city and the most popular festival in the country, and the Mawazine Rhythms of the World festival of Rabat (Morocco) which is a music festival organized every year bringing together several international artists, Moroccan and Arab singers. In addition, the Olympic Games, the Football World Cup, the African Cup of Nations, the Asian Nations Cup, the Copa America, the European Football Championship (the Euro) or even the title of European Capital of Culture which is awarded for one year to a European city are all good examples of one-off mega-events.

5. Conclusion

In recent decades, place branding has become a regular and intense practice due to the rapid increase in competition between cities, regions, and nations around the world. Considered as a tool of place management, it offers local leaders three instruments to differentiate their places, distinguish them, give them meaning and make them unique through their association with personalities, the establishment of flagship buildings and structures and the organization of significant events. These three instruments must be complementary to further strengthen the brand’s place within the territory and allow it to live in the minds of target customers, but also because the use of a single instrument has rarely succeeded as Ashworth (2009) states. He also sees that the mix of these instruments is proving to be a delicate process requiring implementation and support through several conventional urban management and planning measures. Ultimately, if these instruments are well implemented and effectively integrated into strategic place policies, place branding becomes a very effective form of place management.

On another side, given that digital is nowadays a major part of everyone’s life and is currently an integral part of any business strategy, local authorities also have an interest in basing their different place strategies on this tool in vogue. The question that arises is how local officials can effectively use digital to brand their places, feature their qualities, assets and advantages, but above all how to better reach and impact the place targets (inhabitants, potential new residents, tourists and visitors, investors and companies, events, students, etc.) so that they are tempted to really discover it. Digital technology has evolved so much in the last few years that these several place targets now only require one click to have all the information they need to make a deliberate choice about a given place. Consequently, digital is today an essential means among many others to be used by local officials to promote and improve their places’ attractiveness. Indeed, digital tools such as websites, social networks and mobile applications can be employed to communicate unique place characteristics, such as cultural heritage, quality of life, economic and investment opportunities, tourism activities, leisure options, events, and so on. Basically, local officials can mobilize digital in different ways: create a website or mobile application to present place assets and activities, use social networks to communicate about place news and events, set up a virtual and augmented reality system to allow customers discover the place interactively, create relevant content such as photos and videos to showcase place attractions and charms, or establish a geolocation and mapping system to help tourists and visitors find their way around the place and clearly plan their route. Digital technologies can also be used to improve public services for the residents and businesses of a place especially by facilitating their access to information and accelerating administrative procedures, which can contribute to strengthening its economic attractiveness. In sum, a well thought-out digital strategy will help increase a place international reputation and visibility, improve the overall experience of its numerous customers, and above all, remain attractive and distinctive to cope with the tough and fierce competition that places are now facing. Future research should therefore focus on digital to highlight and explore in depth the different options, uses, contributions and scenarios that this specific tool offers to local officials to brand their places.


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