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Beyond the logo fetish

Sustainability, liveability and connectivity in place branding strategy were the main themes for the 3rd Institute of Place Management (IPM) conference, held in May 2015 in the Polish city of Poznań.

The event brought together perspectives from international scholars, practitioners and policy-makers on place management, place branding and the influence of global trends on places.

Place management and place branding are popular in practice as well as in academic research. The growth in scholarly debate combined with the accumulation of practical experience suggests a need for the re-examination of theory and practice.

The Poznań conference showcased original presentations by 79 authors from around the world. Some took a more business-oriented approach, while others focused more on the theoretical underpinnings of place management and branding. The conference clearly offered new perspectives on the topics under discussion as well as helping to further bridge the gap between theory and practice.

The programme was designed as a platform to exchange ideas, concepts, and best practices, aiming for a deeper understanding of how theory and practice reconcile the conflicting pressures of global forces with the need for sustainability – to increase the quality of life for place residents – all within the context of increased connectivity – real and virtual.

In addition to the conference, a number of other social and networking events, including a “sweet conference-climax” with a live show at the Rogalowe Muzeum Poznania, which revealed the secrets of Saint Martin Croissants, brought together the participants in a relaxing and friendly environment in the lovely city of Poznań.

I had high expectations of this event. I was confident that it would offer different yet complementary viewpoints to strengthen my knowledge of the core topics under debate. From the moment I stepped intp the conference venue I was met with a warm welcome by the organising team. This was followed by an enthusiastic opening speech by Simon Quin, director of the IPM.

Simon has recently been involved in the Institute’s work with UK high streets and the future of public markets (for example – Markets Matter: Reviewing the evidence & detecting the market effect by Professor Alan Hallsworth, Nikos Ntounis, Professor Cathy Parker and Simon Quin).

But rather than exhaustively describing the papers from the conference, I will instead highlight key concepts and ideas, as well as theoretical and methodological approaches that I believe contribute to the interdisciplinary of place research and the interplay with the main concepts – sustainability, liveability and connectivity. The contributions were high quality and the cases critically identified here should not diminish the value of the remaining ones.

The first day was composed of four sessions. From session one I would like to highlight the presentation by Nikos Ntounis, Javier Lloveras, Cathy Parker – A Review Of Epistemological Issues And Philosophical Positons For The Development Of Theory In Place Marketing (page 59 of the conference proceedings).

The three researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University avoided presenting definitions. Instead they have critically reviewed various philosophical assumptions within place marketing. This kind of research is vital as there is already a portfolio of conceptual definitions, so it is important to bring something new into the discussion, to bring alternatives views to the theory-building.

In a session chaired by Martin Boisen two common topics were discussed: 1) Stakeholders involvement in place marketing and branding processes; 2) Political leadership in city branding. From those insightful talks I underline the presentation by Jasper Eshuis, Erik Braun, Erik-Hans Klijn, Sebastan Zenker – How Stakeholder Involvement Influences The Impact That Place Marketing Has On Other Policy Fields (page 26 of the conference proceedings).

Their presentation highlights the fact that stakeholders’ involvement in place marketing processes increases the role place marketing can play in other fields, such as in spatial planning and tourism policies.

Empirical evidence was built by exploring the differences between Germany and the Netherlands. Different methodological approaches to place branding and marketing as well as critics of policy-making and power relations in branding places have made the first day of the conference an intellectual pleasure.

After the first day of the conference in which the role of stakeholders in place marketing and branding as well as the interplay with other disciplines, such as strategic spatial planning, politics as well as more ontological debates have clearly contributed to the maturation of place branding theory and practice. Importantly, the welcome cocktail, which closed the day, was the perfect spot to consolidate ideas, network and whet the appetite for the second day.

That second day promised more fruitful discussions. Some of the contributions touched upon the Interaction Between City And Life Satisfaction (by Irina Shafranskaya, Anastasiya Bozhya-Volya and Dmitriy Potapov – page 70 of the conference proceedings), the Challenges In Fostering A Public Debate On Strategic Place Brand Management: The Case Of Rio De Janeiro (by Raquel Goulart and Massimo Giovanardi – page 34 of the conference proceedings) and A Review Of The Impacts Of International Summits For Host Cites (by Andrea Insch – page 42 of the conference proceedings).

Among the valuable contributions I underline here was the paper nominated as the best of the conference – Urban Brandscape As Value Ecosystem: The ‘Cultural Destination Strategy’ Of Fashion Brands by Nicola Bellini and Cecilia Pasquinelli (page 21 of the conference proceedings).

Bellini and Pasquinelli paid special attention to the relation between luxury fashion industries and city tourism by discussing how companies that are not conventionally part of the local tourism cluster, nevertheless established forms of cultural destination strategies entangled within the urban landscapes. The paper sheds light on the interplay fashion brands and the city by taking Florence (Italy) as a case study.

Day three covered paramount topics in today’s place management and branding discussion:

1) the use of social media in place branding, by employing difference methodologies and conducted from a more anthropological point of view while others a more network-theory stance;

2) the relation between theory and practice as well as the roles of academicians and practitioners in making place branding and marketing into more robust disciplines.

The special session, Theory meets Practice, was chaired by Massimo Giovanardi. It assembled the key findings of research developed by top scholars and practitioners. For instance, Mihalis Kavaratzis presented key ideas from his work with Helen Donnelan and Rosa Roma by critically debating how the theory on place branding can be informed by practice and vice versa.

The second presentation number 2 by Cathy Parker, Simon Quinn as well as the presentation number three by Magdalena Florek and Adam Mikołajczyk deepen the reflections of Kavaratzis et al. This special session involved more intense and ‘hot’ debate, proving that scholars and consultants have so much to discuss that we could all have stayed in Poznań for an extra day – which would have positively impacted the consumption of local beer and food…

Even if some of the presenters were preoccupied by providing definitions in the first minutes of their talks, later on critical thinking about the topics in discussion became fruitful in contributing to the disciplinary re-thinking. However, in my view point, there remains a lack of geo-spatial thinking in place branding as well as understanding to what extent places need to develop a brand strategy and use marketing techniques.

Everybody talks about place branding in support of place management, yet only a handful of scholars have successfully conveyed a more spatial approach to branding and marketing places. In addition, my thoughts keep returning to the need to understand whether or not cities and/or regions are prepared to develop place branding or whether groundwork should be done before undertaking such efforts, which are often time and money consuming.

Despite the most needed maturation of place branding as a discipline of relevant importance, we must clarify how to operationalise it beyond the ‘logo-fetish’, thus helping make places better environments to live, to work, to study, to play and to dream.

The conference was absolutely great in terms of its organisation, the quality and originality of the content of all the presentations as well as adding to the theory and practice of place management and place branding.

However, more thought provoking discussions would be able “to set the conference room on fire”, as the final session did. I don’t want to say here that the participants should “harshly argue” with each other, as street markets vendors might, but perhaps they should sit together around a table with extra time to discuss methodologies, and the intertwining between disciplines.

Perhaps next time we could reserve an afternoon for workshops or special groups for this purpose. However, sometimes workshops are time consuming and less effective as not everybody feels comfortable to share ideas. Round tables, for example during extended coffee breaks could also boost the interaction between scholars and practitioners as well as between young and senior researchers.

Coffee and cookies could be a good starting point for discussions where academics present their theories and philosophies with the views and experience of businesspeople preoccupied with profit-making rather that “better-place-making”.

As a final thought it would be great to see debate between contributors from different backgrounds (economists vs. marketers; spatial planners vs. corporate brand experts; geographers vs. consultants, and so on). This would complement Cathy Parker’s request to extend philosophical discussions and positions on place management, place branding and marketing.

Together with knowledge and cultural enrichment the conference was a great moment to establish wider networks and strengthen cooperative links.

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