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The DNA of places: Q&A with John Till

Place branding city branding

How does the DNA of a place help to inform its story?

John Till has been creating place brand campaigns for many years. Now heading up the place branding agency Thinking Place, John talks to Placesbrands about the DNA of places, creating a shared sense of purpose among stakeholders, and what he’s learned from more than a decade at the front lines of place branding.

Placesbrands: John, what’s your core philosophy of place?
John Till: We’ve always believed that there’s a problem with the word ‘brand’. This word creates a lot of unhelpful images in people’s minds, about logos, advertising and so on, none of which really figure in what we do. Place branding is about looking into the future about what a place can be for, who it’s for, and how it’s distinct, and how it should focus its development.

It’s a strategic process. Much of what we do is try to bring stakeholders together behind a shared sense of purpose. That’s always been important, and even more so in UK at present because of austerity. At the heart of everything we do is creating a place story. That’s the centre of our universe and we believe in it passionately. It’s the mechanism that we use to engage people throughout the process.

Place branding is also about developing strong engagement with different stakeholders in different ways depending on who they are, which could be business owners, media, youth, community, and so on. It’s important to engage rather than just consulting. Listening to people is about them starting on the journey as ambassadors for that story. We want them to do that for the place long after we’ve gone, as it’s absolutely critical. We spend a lot of time on the ground getting a feel for the place, walking, talking, taking photos, and understanding spatial relationships.

What have you learned from a decade working in place branding?
After ten years we’ve gained the benefits of comparisons and of having a variety of perspectives coming together to create the story. It’s like a funnelling process getting rid of what’s less important and working towards the most important. It’s a forward projection of where they are and where they could be. We view history as a continuum.

The DNA of a place is very important and should be used to project a place forward. Take Belfast for example. They once created the biggest ships in the world, based on vision and strong work ethic. Belfast doesn’t make ships anymore, but the city is using the same qualities in its cyber-security approach: “From ships to chips.”

Momentum is very important. Sometimes the time just isn’t right, but then three or four years later the place gets some major new investments, or different leadership. It’s important to remember that places are the fastest moving and most dynamic entities you can imagine. There are multiple audiences, demands, and challenges, so you need an approach that’s completely flexible. You can flex stories according to which audience you’re talking to.

A logo just isn’t enough. Logos are rigid and inflexible. You want people to embrace the place brand, but you can never get any organisation to use a logo that effectively competes with their own brand. Getting them to talk it up is the only route to success, so you need a flexible way to engage with them. We’ve created an approach called ‘the visual language’, which can work like a logo or a watermark. Places can use it without needing logos. It’s much more subtle while still engaging with the brand, and has proven very popular.

What’s been your most satisfying project, and why?
Working on Lancashire, my home county. It’s a real privilege to be working on my own county. South Downs National Park would come close because it’s not actually an entity. Everyone told us it couldn’t have a shared story or a shared visual representation, but we managed to do that and get it signed off through the governance of the national park, which can be quite tough. I think that’s a major achievement.

What sort of challenges did you face promoting the image of Hull?
Hull’s an interesting one. I formed my attachment to place branding there. I spent seven years as chief executive, way before many views about place branding became prevalent. My remit was to transform the image and investment climate of Hull. We’ve been back since to refresh the story and promote the city as Hull and Humber. Hull isn’t a clone town. It has a strong relationship with the Baltic ports, it has fishing and trade, plus it oozes character and quirkiness.

Hull’s location is actually an important port to Europe. Hull has a very European outlook. It also has a good university and a very strong business cohort. The project was about mobilising people’s passion and bringing the assets together. Now Hull is booming and has been awarded City of Culture for 2017. The fact that Hull bid for City of Culture at all is largely thanks to the early work in building up the city’s confidence.

So what’s next for Thinking Place?
Being ten years old is a landmark. We’ve prospered through the recession, which is a great acknowledgement of the quality of work I think we’ve done. This year will be about doing what we don’t do so much of; celebrating our achievements. The greatest success is when we go to Burnley, Coventry, and many other places and see everything we achieved still bearing fruit. There’s great opportunity in the UK at present, as place has never been higher on the agenda. There are lots of opportunities for us to help places translate what they do into something meaningful for their customers.

For more, follow Thinking Place on Twitter.

Via Francigena Way Turkey

Turkey to join the great Trans-Europe walk

Via Francigena Way Turkey
Hiking on the Via Francigena Way (photo: Kate Clow)

Recent months have been difficult for Turkey.

How has the country brand been affected?

Turkey is still reeling from damage suffered after a string of unfortunate incidents.  Since summer 2015 there has been growing unrest in Turkey’s east, combined with increasing security concerns and an unfolding diplomatic crisis with Russia. These events have had an unsurprising effect on perceptions of Turkey, causing tourism numbers to drop significantly.

Tourism is one of the biggest drivers of country brand.

Although tourism suffers when perceptions of a country are bad, it is possible to use a good strategy to reconfigure country brand perceptions and regain losses.

Fortunately, package holidays are not the only kind of arrangement that brings inbound tourism to Turkey. Turkey’s best strategy in the current climate is likely to involve diversifying its tourism offering to appeal more strongly to more adventurous and independent types of visitors.

As far as being adventurous goes, walking from England all the way to Turkey via the Balkans may be one of the most exciting journeys that anyone could hope for!

Turkey’s tourism credentials are set to receive an extra boost from its plans to join the Via Francigena Cultural Route. Once Turkey gets connected to this trans-Europe walking network, it will open up many possibilities for new kinds of tourism.

Placesbrands spoke to Kate Clow, head of the Culture Routes Society of Turkey, and Hüseyin Eryurt, head of PR, about the project.

Pb: Where did the idea for this project come from?
KC, HE: The Lycian Way route was established in 1999 as the first walking trail in Turkey. In 2012 the Culture Routes Society of Turkey was formed to run everything more efficiently. We have close relations with the European Institute of Cultural Routes, which is important because they set the standards for all cultural routes in the EU. Turkey has been approved to join this agreement and will sign it very soon.

In 2014 we decided to work together with the Via Francigena route, on a plan to join it to Turkey using the Via Egnatia. The latter is the original Roman road to Constantinople and passes through Albania, Macedonia and northern Greece.

Historical Patara, situated along Turkey's Lycian Way (photo: Kate Clow)
Historical Patara, situated along Turkey’s Lycian Way (photo: Kate Clow)

In Turkey, we plan to link three existing routes together into one longer route, rather than starting from scratch. The St Paul route has a strong Christian history, while the Lycian Way is very historical in general, and the Evliya Celebi route is more Islamic. (Evliya Celebi was a famous Ottoman traveller, who described many of the villages he visited in colourful detail).

Alternative and sustainable tourism is important because it can be aimed at a wide variety of tourists, including those from the Arab world as well as Europeans.

What are the key project milestones over the coming year?
The Culture Routes Society is working with three different Turkish municipalities along the route. Each of these areas will plan the route through their territory, improving accommodations, making masterplans, and holding exhibitions. One of them will host a group of Italian visitors along the route.

Another very important goal is to present the Tourism and Culture Ministry with alternative methods of providing a legal framework for the routes, to protect and preserve them by providing stability and maintenance, including forestry, dams, damaged roads, mining, and so on. This will hopefully be easier now as the ministry have already approached us to discuss the issue.

The timing of the project is good in that sense, because it is necessary now, to raise the issue even more. During the project we will present the ministry with a case study for laying the foundations for extending the Via Francigena right the way through Turkey. January 2017 will be the closing conference of the project.

What’s your opinion on the current situation of Turkish tourism?
Our members dealing with sustainable tourism have not been quite so badly affected [as package tours] because they are catering for more adventurous individuals and they put more effort into finding new markets. But in general, we’re seeing a big fall off in visitor numbers. We plan to meet the government soon to discuss how to secure this area of the market on a fairly low budget. We don’t have the resources to get this message across as much as we’d like to. So we do it through our member travel agencies, and they keep their customers on side as much as they can.

Sustainable tourism will be a growing sector in the long-term, that’s for sure.

How will the Via Francigena route be marketed?
Mainly by using social media and via our partner travel agencies. There will also be joint marketing efforts with Italy, at the festivals, and by bringing Italian students over to blog about the routes in Turkey as part of this project. We’re keen to develop strong connections with Italy.

Some areas get better promotion efforts than others, for example Via Francigena has been promoted in Italy via a series of summer festivals in various towns along the route. Promotion efforts have also included a marathon, music events, and so on. It’s an extensive programme.

What’s the value of cultural routes for improving country brand?
Europe approaches its long distance walking routes in a very different way to the rest of the world. Only in Europe do routes have a solid cultural basis. They may be based on historical themes or perhaps the routes of a particular traveller. One key advantage is to preserve the local culture and use that as a marketing hook to attract people interested in cultural themes.

Turkey tourism country brand
Turkish villagers along the Cultural Route (photo: Kate Clow)

Another big advantage is the participation of local people along the route. The Lycian Way is a great example. Tourists walking this route enjoy interacting with the locals and experiencing the culture as it is today.

This type of tourism is quite different from mass tourism, where people stay in big hotels without learning anything or giving money directly to the local people.

Unlike mass tourism, cultural routes generate alternative income for villagers. In fact, we’ve seen the villagers sometimes get up in the middle of the night and adjust the route markers to make sure the route goes through their door, or their part of the village!!

Find out more about the work of the Culture Routes Society Turkey on Facebook, or at the official website

 

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The Hague Bloggershuis city brand

Telling stories by the sea

The Hague Bloggershuis city brand

The Hague knows the value of telling a good story.

So much so in fact, that the city’s marketing team has created the ‘Bloggershuis’, a dedicated space where visiting bloggers can stay while they discover all that the Hague has to offer. As an added bonus, the Bloggershuis is situated right on the beach! 

Placesbrands talked to Mieke Smid, public relations manager at Den Haag Marketing, to learn more about the Bloggershuis project, due to launch this summer.

Pb: What gave the city the idea for the Bloggershuis?
Mieke: Having our own Bloggershuis was on my professional wish list for several years now. This was after we heard about the first successful initiative of Blogville Emilia Romagna in Italy. But we, The Hague Marketing, the city itself and the municipality, weren’t ready for this kind of initiative yet, and we were still searching for the ultimate home to profile The Hague as a city by the sea. Now, with this beach house, our relevant experiences with bloggers & vloggers over the past few years and the ability to monitor social media properly, have made 2016 the year to open our Bloggershuis, the first in the Netherlands!

What are the unique selling points of The Hague?
The Hague has a few unique selling points: we are the only Dutch city by the sea, we are the international city of Peace & Justice (with the Peace Palace as an icon) and we are a Royal city, The Hague is where the Royal family live their lives and work. That has been the case for centuries now and you can sense the Royal allure in the city.

How does the Bloggershuis tie in with all this?
The Hague’s Bloggershuis is a beach house on the beach. This is the perfect tool to profile  and position the city as a city by the sea! It shows that you, as a tourist, can combine two type of destinations within one trip: a beach holiday and an interesting city trip.

The Hague Bloggershuis Netherlands

“The power of this bloggers house is that other people will tell the story for you. How great is it that this can be done from a building on the beach in the only Dutch city by the sea?”, said Marco Esser, director of Den Haag Marketing.

What sort of stories do you hope the bloggers will write about?
We’re looking for different kinds of stories, destination reports from the real destination geeks, and stories by niche bloggers on food, arts & culture, festivals, sports (sailing/surfing) , lifestyle and beauty or shopping. With must sees like the Girl with the Pearl Earring from the famous painter Vermeer, The Peace Palace, our Royal palaces, 11 kilometres of beach, the Victory Boogie Woogie or the museum of Escher, the range of stories can be very wide!

What do The Hague residents think of the Bloggershuis idea?
The Hague residents are enthusiastic and proud! We’re the first to have a Bloggershuis, we can show the city that we love to influencers all over the world. We would also love to hook up certain bloggers (niche) with a local expert on the same topic. Several locals have already shown interest in this idea.

Does The Hague have any additional goals for the Bloggershuis initiative?
Our main goal is, of course, to draw attention to our city by the sea in a special way and a way that’s unique for Holland. We love to see and hear from other people talking about their experience in The Hague. We strongly believe in others telling the story of The Hague and we’re curious to see all the stories, pictures and videos from our visitors.  But an initiative like this one can only be a success when your own residents believe in it, and support it. So we’re also happy that it makes residents of The Hague feel proud.

The Bloggershuis will start up at the end of March on Kijkduin Beach in The Hague. It will be open during the 2016 beach season, exclusively for Dutch and international travel bloggers and vloggers.

photo credit: 3 in the globe via photopin (license)

A world that could have been

Global reputations of places
photo credit: 3 in the globe via photopin (license)

Some places have bad reputations and most tourists avoid them. Although these places can be menacing, they can also be compelling. Even more so when you remember how they used to be.

Perhaps war zones or rugged areas where rebel groups lurk, nations with unfriendly governments, or otherwise unstable locations where conflict has recently ended.

But the places are intriguing because they weren’t always like that. Once upon a time every place had its heyday. Did the outside world perceive these places differently during times of peace and prosperity?

Take Syria and Iraq, now unrecognisable shadows of their former selves, cursed with reputations for war and suffering. Long ago, Baghdad was one of the most magnificent cities in the Islamic world, where the heart of an Empire beat during the golden age of Islam. In those days, Baghdad was known for its scholars, its philosophers, and its innovators.

The Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs are some of the world’s most ancient, where civilisation itself may have begun. Their present suffering is painful to observe.

Somalia, whose capital city Mogadishu was once the pre-eminent city in the Horn of Africa, making a fortune from its role as a major trading port with the Arabian Peninsula and India. For a long time, Somali Muslims and Ethiopian Christians lived peacefully side by side.

During the Middle Ages, Somalia became a prosperous trading nation where Islam gained power and flourished. In the 1940s, Somalia was an Italian colony home to over 22,000 Italians. The standard of living was one of the highest in the region, partly thanks to a well-developed manufacturing industry.

Somalia later passed into the hands of the British, and finally gained its independence in 1960. But a military coup in 1969 and subsequent establishment of a communist state heralded the beginning of Somalia’s slow descent into chaos and failed statehood.

Afghanistan: known in the 1950s and 60s as a progressive nation where innovation was encouraged, where women’s equality was enshrined in law, and where young people went to university to pursue their dreams. All were free to do so unhindered by religious and political fanaticism.

During the final years of the Afghanistan invasion, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox referred to Afghanistan as ‘a broken 13th century country.’ He was totally wrong.

But unfortunately, Fox’s view reflects common perceptions of Afghanistan and its inhabitants, who are often believed to be ungovernable barbarians living in a chaotic land. This dangerously inaccurate view informs much of Western foreign policy towards Afghanistan and countries like it.

In 2010, Afghan-American university president Mohammad Qayoumi, who left Afghanistan in the 1960s, is determined to educate the world about the country he knows and loves, as it used to be.

Qayoumi put together a compelling photo essay, ‘Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan’, full of images of an unrecognisable nation.  The photos of William Podlich reflect Qayoumi’s original theme, this time showing Afghanistan from the perspective of an American family living there in the 60s.

Examining both collections is an uplifting and thought-provoking experience, yet at the same time melancholy. The images show female university students in Kabul wearing skirts without headscarves, studying science alongside their male peers, socialising at cinemas and coffee shops, and shopping at record stores stacked with the latest Afghan and international hits.

Podlich’s pictures show Americans interacting normally with Afghans on the street in a relaxed manner, even one where Podlich’s wife is wearing a sleeveless Western dress.

According to Qayoumi, 1960s Afghanistan had an efficient and organised government, a vibrant economy, and a strong tradition of law and order. Institutions such as the national airline, Ariana Afghan Airlines, were reliable and well regarded internationally. Overall, Afghanistan had a decent reputation.

In fact, Afghanistan of the 1960s had many of the ingredients for success. Its people had every reason to expect a bright future during these halcyon days.

How tragic it is, to see the state of these nations today after decades of war, communism, and religious extremism have taken their toll. These are the most common driving factors of civilisational retrograde and they have caused immense destruction.

There are no excuses or justifications. The wasted potential is immense, both for the countries and for their people. Innovation, freedom of speech, modernity, fair governance, justice, all summed up into a strong, clearly communicated nation image, are necessary for any civilisation wishing to thrive in the 21st century.

Any force that tries to deny them that opportunity is not a force for good. Let us hope that one day these battered civilisations will rise up again on the global playing field of a new century.

“Who knows?” said Qayoumi in a 2010 interview with NPR. “Maybe in 20 years from today, we can look at a very different Afghanistan, where we can look at the pictures of today — and see that same kind of stark contrast that we can see now with the pictures of the 1950s and ’60s.”

As an old Afghan saying goes: “A stream that has seen water before will see water in the future also.”

Perhaps by showing the world a different side of these much-maligned nations, we can help to lay the groundwork for their eventual rebirth and regaining of lost reputations.

Asteroids and stars

Ambitious asteroid mining dreams

Luxembourg's asteroid mining dreams

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is famous for its banking. It’s also famous for being tiny. That’s about it.

But that might change soon, as Luxembourg unveils its ambitions for the budding industry of asteroid mining. Yes, you read that correctly, asteroid mining. Here at Placesbrands, we’d never even heard of this kind of work until now.

Apparently, there is a whole lot of mineral wealth inside those random pieces of rock that orbit our solar system. Mining them could enable us to access greater amounts of important resources without damaging the Earth’s existing landscape.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Étienne Schneider said: “Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats.”

“We will support the long-term economic development of new, innovative activities in the space and satellite industries as a key high-tech sector for Luxembourg.”

The tiny state rarely attracts media attention. But now it plans to invest significant amounts of money in new research and innovation to develop its capabilities in asteroid mining. According to Vice News, Luxembourg will also spend time creating a legal framework to be used by companies that want to conduct business activities ‘beyond the confines of the planet’. That phrase itself is rather thrilling, isn’t it?

Luxembourg might seem an unusual contender for this kind of ambitious venture. But despite its small population and surface area, what the general public may not know is that the country hosts two major commercial satellite companies. It’s the real deal; the expertise is already present. But until now, it hasn’t been communicated widely.

This announcement could herald the beginning of a whole new era. If Luxembourg continues to promote its strategy in this area, the little duchy could soon find itself becoming synonymous with asteroid mining and pioneering the idea of doing business outside the very confines of Earth itself.  Having a unique selling point is a great benefit in building a strong national identity. What could be more unique than this?

When building a reputation there’s no substitute for actually doing the thing you want to become known for. This applies not just to places, but also to people and companies. If Luxembourg keeps doing what it’s doing; and doing it well, its national reputation will soon grow and change.

Weaving the space exploration theme into some compelling stories wouldn’t hurt either. Fortunately, outer space has always captured our imaginations, so it should be an easy goal to achieve.