It takes a village to raise a place brand

You may be interested to read Saffron's City Brand Barometer 2019, which reveals which cities have built the strongest global business brand.

Brands are no better than the relationships they keep. This is true for companies and, especially, places.

Building a good relationship with the consumer might be what first springs to mind. But places navigate a network of relationships before even getting off the ground.

This is why a strong aptitude for relationship building is essential for place brand practitioners. They must juggle varying stakeholders across layers of government including policy-making authorities, ministries, public agencies and local administration to investors, private sector representatives and local businesses – often with conflicting interests.

While these stakeholders are crucial to the success of a place brand, their optimal engagement has attracted scant literature, in no small part due to its tricky practice.

Over the years Saffron has seen place brands thrive and flail at the hands of these groups. Love it or hate it, place brands will go nowhere without them. With this in mind, here is some advice on best practice to ensure smooth sailing.

Bring them on the journey

From the get-go, stakeholders play a crucial role in the positioning through to the delivery of a place brand. Their participation in select moments of the brand development serves to galvanise them around a clear and powerful idea. It establishes familiarity and builds momentum for the project while clarifying expectations around roles and responsibilities.

Co-creation sets the foundation for this audience to engage, communicate effectively, share a common objective and eventually become partners. It also helps circumvent bureaucratic red tape and avoid slow decision-making processes from organisations that struggle to step up to the plate. With the City of Vienna, Saffron developed a collaborative process that included working with some 15 municipal departments. Side-by-side the brand was developed ensuring a citizen-centric approach that was authentic and enveloped the diverse perspectives and experiences of the city.

Someone needs to call the shots

Rallying stakeholders, juggling agendas and staying on course poses a major challenge. While place brand is a more participation-oriented practice, establishing a central governance unit is necessary to ensure tough conversations are had without stalling the process. In short, such a process requires a decision maker (an individual or small group preferably) who has a vision for where the brand is going with back-up from a team that enables stakeholders to use it effectively.

During our work for Turkey, a small group of decision makers was appointed to act on behalf of the Turkish Exporters Association. Together with this group, Saffron worked on defining what ‘Made in Turkey’ should represent for the early 21st century while establishing key actions and symbolic initiatives to support such a positioning. The result was a streamlined process that produced results more quickly and smoothly than a traditional broad stakeholder sign-off procedure.

Be flexible

Place brands are based on ongoing relationships which should allow for growth. It goes without saying that a place brand can support its existing multitude of brands in different ways. How they do that depends on its degree of association with the other brands which should allow for some flexibility. Elements like tone of voice may need to be flexible for existing brands to adapt and efficiently engage their target audiences. In the case of Vienna, its waste collection authority had an established, well-known brand among its city residents. It was adapted and endorsed by the city brand but, given its brand equity, continued to enjoy certain freedoms in terms of its visual expression and tone of voice.

Spread the word

To go from strength to strength, it’s key not only to engage with stakeholders but empower them to take ownership of the place brand. Brand ambassador programmes are an effective way to do this, building advocate networks to promote the brand both internally and externally. They break the mould of one-way communication and keep stakeholders engaged throughout.

Brand ambassadors generate buy-in and build a culture of collaboration. It secures a ‘win-win’ situation, supporting a cohesive brand while avoiding miscommunication or, at worst, brand proliferation and the introduction of competing brands under one roof. In the run up to the Olympics, Saffron worked with London & Partners, the official promotional organisation for the city of London. Together with the London Cab Association, the place brand team recruited drivers as brand ambassadors who spread curious and interesting facts about the city to contribute to the overall destination experience.

At its best, brand can influence the national agenda at the highest level. Given its potential impact, it’s key to establish a network of strategic partnerships to weather political cycles that can throw the brand off course.

It may take a village but building the brand together will ensure that it is greater than the sum of its parts.


By Amanda Calvo, Strategist