Caribbean curiosity: Transform Magazine

photo credit: Cuba Libre via photopin (license)
photo credit: Cuba Libre via photopin (license)

PlacesBrands editor Samantha North writes a regular bi-monthly column on nation branding for London-based Transform Magazine. Her latest piece, on Cuba, can be viewed below. 

“For years, Cuba’s national brand has been defined by its isolation from its neighbour 90 miles to the north. Now that the US has changed its policies toward the island nation, will Cuba’s brand change too?”

Download (PDF, 650KB)


The important matter of Britain’s markets

photo credit: untitled via photopin (license)
photo credit: untitled via photopin (license)


I remember the local market very well. It was an important part of my early life growing up in rural Devon. It took place every Saturday in the nearest big town, a gloriously messy mingling of delicious smells, bizarre yet useful items and intriguing homegrown veggies. 

To quote VisitBritain, markets are ‘unique, quirky, unusual, and always a bargain.’ 

However, in recent years Britain’s town centres have started to suffer from loss of interest as a result of the current spate of out-of-town shopping malls. In both the public and private sector, various initiatives have sprung up to try and combat this trend and save the country’s town centres. 

A new report takes things a step further. Published by the Institute of Place Management and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), this research focuses specifically on the value of markets as significant drivers for the economic, social and political health of Britain’s towns and cities. 

Based on a combination of footfall data analyses and reviews of published evidence, the report offers 25 concrete reasons why markets still matter for our towns and cities. Conclusions drawn from the research also demonstrate that markets can act as vital catalysts for city centre change. Written in a lively and accessible style, the full report is well worth a read. You can find it here on the MMU website. 


Juggling place assets – Inward investment focus

photo credit: Flying Karamazov Brothers via photopin (license)
photo credit: Flying Karamazov Brothers via photopin (license)

Here’s the latest guest post by Samantha North for our media partners City Nation Place

The recent survey on ‘The Evolution of Place Branding’ conducted by City Nation Place, discovered that people in charge of place brand strategy for their cities or countries had a recurring problem.

They reported the difficulties often faced when trying to balance vastly different place assets into a consistent ‘umbrella’ brand strategy. To overcome this issue, a core message was needed that would be equally attractive to audiences from both inward investment and tourism, along with other target areas of attraction such as talent and education. But could the assets that appealed to tourists also attract interest from potential inward investors?

To find out more, City Nation Place spoke to three client-side place brand managers, from three very different locations. We aimed to learn more about how they manage to juggle the various elements of their places – with a particular focus on strategies used to attract inward investment.

Read more…

Mayors on the radio: Citizen engagement in Amman

Akel Biltaji (right), watching a musical event in Amman.
Akel Biltaji (right), watching a community musical event in Amman.

Community engagement is one of our hot topics here on PlacesBrands. Last week, Samantha North travelled to Amman to meet the city mayor and talk about his unusual approach to governing Jordan’s capital city. 
Last week in Jordan, the mayor of Amman, Akel Biltaji, invited me to join the audience of his live radio show. In this twice-weekly event, Biltaji spends two hours fielding questions from members of the Amman public. Questions range from constructive and praising to just plain angry. No matter what kind of question, Biltaji answers every one. The radio show has been a prominent feature of Biltaji’s stint in office. It began when he was appointed in September 2013, with the goal to engage with the Amman public and encourage them to share their views on the city’s workings. It seems to be a success. At the end of the show, an old man stood up in the audience and declared, loudly and at great length, that he thought Biltaji a ‘hero’. 
I was impressed with Biltaji’s commitment to the mayor’s role, especially as I believe the concept of mayors interacting closely with citizens is a rare phenomenon in the region. In fact, as Biltaji himself pointed out later during our conversation, many Arabs would still consider the collaborative approach to governing to be a form of weakness. But this is how Biltaji works best, and so far it’s done very well in Amman.
After the show, I sat down with Biltaji to discuss his approach to governing Amman in more detail. I was curious to hear his views on various aspects of city branding, especially the value of citizen engagement – a topic often covered on PlacesBrands. I also hoped to learn more about Biltaji’s plans for the city during the remainder of his time as mayor. Here’s our Q&A. 
Samantha North: I get the impression that Jordan, and the city of Amman itself, are both very tolerant places, especially towards differences in religion. Would you agree that this is the case?
Akel Biltaji: Look at the supreme court and next to it is the parliament – it is judicial, legislative etc. Next to it you find a mosque, and across the street a church. Next to both of them is the Ministry of Education. When you put these together, in such close proximity, you can see how the tapestry of that area really represents Amman. I don’t go for the word tolerance, as it’s too condescending. I’d rather use the words ‘acceptance’ or ’embrace’.  Amman is a city that embraces diversity. This is something I’d like to highlight. Tolerance is more a case of, ‘perhaps I don’t like you, but nevertheless I’ll put up with you if I have to.’ 
SN: When you took office in September 2013, you identified five key pillars for Amman’s development (environments, public works, zoning & planning, socio-economic integration, and cultural) How much progress have you made so far?
AB: These are challenges more or less, and we’re working on them I think, such as the environment, and appearance of the city. We’ve done very well with fixing the refuse problem,the garbage and the trash that we’ve converted to energy – ‘trash to cash’  – definitely there’s been progress made in achieving cleaner air. Pollution has gone down to a minimum, the openness of the city helps us with this. We have sensors in the city for pollution and we have done well so far with this challenge. Also, the area of public works and transportation is a challenge, especially public transportation, which we still have problems with.  Although we have sorted out the little issues in fluidity of traffic, there is still far to go. More tunnels to dig, more bridges to build.
Another challenge we have is encouraging local communities to get involved and help out. There’s been a bit of disenchantment, and we want to change this. So on this particular issue we are focusing on reducing unemployment, working with some SMEs to dedicate money to help with this. We need more people to move away from the street peddler type of orientation and into steady employment.
The next pillar is the city identity. Amman is a city of emigrants and guests, We have 4.5 million people on any one day, consisting of residents and people transiting through. We also have 1.2 million cars. That’s a heck of a lot. The challenge now is how to bring this to more of an identity in the sense of rallying around – as you saw yesterday – people were shouting, “Jordan Jordan Jordan”, partly because of solidarity heightened after the cruel incidents with Da’esh (ISIS). But Amman people are also rallying round in terms of corporate citizenship. There are basic issues that we have with staffing and administration here in the municipality – these are doable and we’re already handling them, improving them. We’re cutting salaries and reducing staff numbers, aiming for more efficiency all around. 
SN: So those five areas – how did you identify them?
AB: I’ve always been roaming around and talking to people, finding out what they have to say on many issues in the city.
SN: Were you always so deeply engaged with the people, even from your very first days in office?
AB: Reaching out is part of my character. People don’t scare me – on the contrary – I find security in the ‘other’ – I always find that the other complements me in what I lack. I love to embrace diversity I look at every person with positive vibes and energy, rather than the negative.  I’m 74 years old and I’ve gone through some tough times in life. I’ve learned from my mistakes. But this is the job where I feel most at ease inside. Even though I’m not satisfied totally with what has been done so far, I mean I’d like to have things faster and better. But still, the pressure, the criticism, the punching on the nose – I don’t react fiercely to it. Some people appreciate this approach, but others may see it as a sign of weakness.   
This radio show is literally the first experience of its kind that we know of. The World Bank even mentioned it as part of their democratisation programme – they thought it was a great programme, to promote democratisation among the community. This is one part of the brand that we like to focus on. But basically, maybe our vision statement says it all. Our vision statement is to be a liveable, friendly and attractive city – a safe and secure city. This is THE thing that we need to keep in mind. People here tend to mix up the product with the brand, they don’t always understand the distinction.
SN: What’s the single biggest challenge for Amman at present? 
AB: Without a doubt – its public transport. Amman is not known for having good public transport. Our strategy is first to restructure and enhance our existing public transport, adding 400 new taxis to the system, and bringing in 100 electric cars by the end of the year. We’re also looking at introducing the ‘she-cab’ for ladies only, with lady drivers, as they have in Dubai. There will also be a BRT (bus rapid transit) system constructed, with buses that will run in their own lanes cutting through the traffic. 
SN: We’ve talked about the challenges – but what are Amman’s biggest assets?
AB: Its location, its assets in the sense of its historic antiquities, the people, the diversity of the people, the richness of this great mixture of all Arabs, Chechens, Armenians, etc – all religions. That’s what stands out about Amman. The Royal Family being so well known and respected around the world has also helped, with Jordan being the land of the Hashemites and Amman their capital. 
SN: Jordan seems to stand out in the Middle East as a beacon of tolerance and acceptance. How does it manage this?
AB: The word in Arabic translates to English as ‘spiritual energy’ – that of the legends, the relics, the diversity and having His Majesty directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed. This gives great recognition all the way down and carries a link to all the religions of the region, not just Islam. Spirituality is embodied in the spirit of the sky here. And you see it in practice every day. Jordan is an ‘oasis of peace’ within the region, as His Majesty often says. 
SN: What springs to mind when people hear the name “Amman”? 
AB: They may be afraid because of Jordan’s proximity to its unstable neighbours. But they should look beyond, at the true stability of Jordan, which has been maintained decade after decade. There should be that level of confidence and trust that the situation in this country is secure. 
SN: And finally, what do you hope to achieve for Amman by the time you leave office?
AB: Making great progress in the following: introducing green building codes, improving public transport, blue energy (solar and so on), turning trash to cash, hopefully seeing the opera house emerge (but that’s been pushed down the priority list and probably won’t arrive on my watch). I’ve got one and a half years left to go as mayor. It’s not very long but it’s enough for them to hate me! (laughs)

The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM), is on Facebook (mostly in Arabic but with some English). 



Does place branding need a rebrand? Part 3

photo credit: Why via photopin (license)
photo credit: Why via photopin (license)

In our final instalment of this mini-series, Malcolm Allan of PlaceMatters shares his thoughts on how to solve the misunderstanding by placing greater emphasis on strategy, competitive advantage and the importance of a common narrative. He also points out that discounting the value of PR and advertising agencies is unwise, as they can and do play a valuable role in a place branding process, although they cannot replace the need for good strategy. 

By Malcolm Allan

I’ve got sympathy with the phrase coined and used by Simon Anholt to describe the objective of place branding as being ‘Competitive Advantage’. I’ve used this phraseology to title the course that Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory and I are teaching on place branding for cities at the Schulich Business School in York University in Toronto and I think we will also use it for the title of a very similar course that I’m planning with Prof. Nigel Morgan for the University of Surrey.
For me, all branding is designed to help secure competitive advantage – for products, services, attractions, places, events. Competitive advantage is what place and destination is undertaken to achieve. I also use the term to describe the desired outcome of development branding – branding strategy for real estate, especially for mixed use developments. Competitive advantage describes a benefit, an end state or an evolving state. Place branding describes a process of analyses and activities designed to create competitive advantage. End state benefits are a much more attractive proposition than is a description of the journey.
Now, while I’m happy to describe the objective of place and destination brand strategy (with emphasis on strategy) in this way, I still regard ‘place, destination and development brand strategy’ as an accurate phrase to describe the process and many of the tools and techniques involved in achieving competitive advantage of a strategic nature. These tools include my Brand Compass, which sits alongside others such as the Locum Destination Development Model, the public and community consultation tools developed by Trajectory and more traditional economic development ones like competitor analyses and place marketing as practised by many DMO’s (Destination Management Organisations).
I agree that understanding of the practice of effective place brand strategy can be muddied by the activities of advertising agencies and brand design agencies who seek to sell a partial and less holistic approach to the creation of an effective place brand (strategy). Some purport that their approach is about strategy, while others simply do not discuss strategy on the assumption that the objective is an agreed logo and tag line which will in some way (often undefined) secure some form of advantage such as a more distinctive and memorable (graphic) identity or more effective marketing campaign.
So, how to deal with this challenge?
Primarily I think it’s down to the practitioners of place, destination and development brand strategy to consistently and continuously explain and express what’s involved in developing such a strategy in order to achieve competitive advantage. I don’t think the market has the mind space for arguments that rubbish the non-strategic approaches, the practices of marketing agencies and visual brand design agencies (after all I work regularly with both and they do have a role to play). If we want the market to understand these distinctions we must educate it in the differences.
On most occasions when I’ve been given the opportunity to explain what place brand strategy is and is not, the majority of people listening have quickly understood the distinctions.
So, perhaps some like-minded practitioners should get together to frame a common narrative, for consistent application, to explain what the practice is, how we practice and what it can achieve by way of benefits for places. In this way we can imply or make clear distinctions with others non-strategic practices.