Place branding is deeply frustrating, exasperatingly complicated and amazingly interesting.
Places need brands to thrive – and those that thrive have developed very sophisticated brands whether they see it that way or not. The Lake District conjures images of Wordsworth and raw beauty to potential visitors. Canary Wharf is simply the only place to be for big players in global finance. Manchester is the coolest place to study and live outside of the capital.
Strong place brands are much harder to develop than normal brands even though the actual processes are much the same. They’re harder because the people in control of the brand (the clients) are usually a very loosely associated bunch of stakeholders who have very different objectives and very different perspectives on what they think the brand should be about. Step one in building a strong place brand is to identify and give responsibility to a defined group of people to do the work on behalf of the multiple stakeholders.
Places are also complex things – even the smallest of them are much more complicated than a can of soup or a mobile phone. People live there, visit there, play there, work there, study there and even die there (hopefully naturally most of the time). But strong brands aren’t complex; they’re quite clear and simple. Step two in building a strong brand is to sift through the mountain of facts, figures, views and visions for the place and define a core brand narrative that’s compelling, authentic, clear and simple.
Steps one and two are the easy bits! Next comes the really hard part; taking some steps to project the brand to the various people that you want to know about it and taking action to make the brand experience (what it’s like when you go there) live up to the vision. Easier in places like China where the authorities can just do it, harder in a messy democracy where pesky people have different ideas about what to do and aren’t prepared to be told what to do by others. The antidote to this is step 3: define and focus on a small number of symbols that project the place brand’s image and experience and make sure that you control these.
Not for the faint hearted – but on the other hand strong place brands are arguably some of the most powerful and valuable brands in the world – so it’s worth the effort.