Now that destination branding has become popular worldwide, Russia is trying to catch up. However, the whole thing is seen by many as yet another way of money laundering and/or budget wasting. Russians are traditionally pretty pessimistic about most things that promise time-delayed results. They think their lives are likely to change drastically by then, so why bother?
The place branding industry has just started taking shape in Russia. Those involved in the field are mainly specialists in design and company branding, with an additional sprinkling of passionate amateurs. The main issue they face is strategy building for a destination. According to experts, in order to truly have a strategy and follow it, a city should rely on government, business, or the local community – ideally all three.
But in Russia, city branding is mainly initiated and supported by local governments. On one hand, this ensures necessary budgeting and coverage. On the other hand, though, governors often use city branding to their own political and business advantage, and once the regional head is gone, the branding process is discontinued – or slammed and U- turned by his successor. That said, city managers rarely engage specialists to work out long-term strategies as they need results to be seen (or rather shown off) while they are still in office. The measures they take are often bold, costly yet pointless, such as reviving an airport no-one uses, or trying to drive culture in a region with a programme that includes closing 200 libraries and 300 leisure centres.
Examples of businesspeople who encourage city branding are rarely found in Russia because the branding process requires tight cooperation between competitors, and a feeling of stability; while today, businesses hardly perceive themselves as a community and just try to survive. It’s every company for itself. Several places in Russia have movers and shakers that invest time and money into destination branding just for the love of the city. These people often work bottom-up and start by engaging locals into discussions on what makes their hometown unique and what should be done to highlight it.
This is a slow process as people often appear skeptical and reluctant. If you start a topic at a city forum and tell people you are writing a city guide, the first response will probably be, “You do this rubbish out of boredom – better start a family or, if you won’t, then write about poverty and drinking issues”. However, persistent attempts have proven successful in some regions – yet even there, measures are isolated and mainly driven by the efforts of individuals.
As a result, most destinations in this huge country are still largely unknown outside their immediate vicinities, and cannot benefit from the immense potential many of them have. Kostroma is an ancient Russian town included in Russia’s Golden Ring, a tourist route first introduced in the 1960s. Back in Soviet times, Kostroma attracted numerous visitors as internal tourism was the only option available for USSR citizens.
The city had no need to attract people in any special way, and the infrastructure was limited and low-quality. Still, when the Iron Curtain came down, people discovered places such as Turkey and Egypt that had better facilities, warmer climates, exotic sightseeing and even lower prices due to market competition.
Russia’s Golden Ring towns developed a reputation of being outdated, overpriced, comfortless ruins only suitable for low-income seniors. Meanwhile, SMB started to develop as the economy turned to capitalism, and little yet comfortable hotels and restaurants opened in Kostroma, transforming the place into a nice surprise for visitors.
Local farmers tried to capitalise on the Soviet-time fame of local cheeses and beef, and even discovered marble meat in Kostroma-bred cows. Russian Orthodox Church supported restoration of the old churches and turned local monasteries into blossoming gardens.
As a result of the recent economic recession and following the events of the Arab Spring, some Russians turned back to internal tourism and were happy to find proper infrastructure in Kostroma. Nowadays, the tourist traffic in the town is slowly growing year on year. But still, the town faces a number of problems.
The previous Governor of the Kostroma Region was a typical attention-seeker who initiated film festivals and Faberge exhibitions in Kostroma but left the economy exhausted and aggravated many problems. Branding-wise, he introduced a logo and a slogan that were lame and obviously imitated those of Putin’s party the Governor tried to please.
The current Governor now tries to make up for all the problems at once and chooses to restrict any culture-oriented costs. Thus, the town had hardly any celebrations planned for the Romanov Dynasty 400th Jubilee in 2013, an event that Kostroma played an important role in, and that could bring IMMENSE tourist traffic to the town. This swinging approach does absolutely no good to a town that is very rich in historical heritage.
It is clear that Kostroma lacks the necessary vision of the city brand. It also lacks local support, as the Governors’ policy is so misleading and the visitors do not directly influence the lives of many local people. The city’s businesses struggle all on their own but receive no support from the community or authorities.
This spotty, sketchy approach is well illustrated by public transport stops in the city centre that feature posters divided in 16 squares called ‘Our Touristic Brands’. The ‘brands’ are pictures of different sights in Kostroma and region, chosen with no logic or order. Some of those have good coverage and access while others are neglected.
Here are several suggestions for proper Kostroma branding.
1. Kostroma’s roads perfectly match the famous saying, Russia has two problems, roads and fools. To encourage individual tourism, motorways, railroads, and region-wide helicopter routes must be optimised, developed, and well cared for. The region is pretty big (about a Switzerland and a half) and covered in thick undisturbed forests where little beautiful towns are scattered, some of them about 900 years old. All the towns (that the region can also benefit a lot from) need to be easily accessed from Kostroma and surrounding regions despite the swampy soils and tight freeze-thaw conditions. Kostroma stands on the Volga, and water tourism infrastructure should be seen as a priority.
2. The government should not merely rely on SMB but should support it by maintaining stability within the region and initiating new tourism projects while keeping an eye on monopolies arising. This would bring more logic to tourism evolving throughout the region.
3. A balance should be kept between old and new, local and global, public and commercial. Today, we see projects to transform unique 18th century shopping arcades into ultramodern malls, which include total restructuring of the place and destruction of most of the actual buildings. This is unacceptable and frightening. Instead, we should make good use of the old constructions, but only together with archaeologists and historians. The town’s cosy, relaxed, 19th century atmosphere should be preserved by all means.
4. A committee should be formed to work out a long-term strategy for the town branding, featuring all stakeholders, e.g. government, local community (bloggers and other opinion leaders), hospitality, museum professionals, environmentalists, and industry. Tourism is not the only thing that can interest visitors. Kostroma has the largest college-per-person ratio in Russia, a strong cultural background, and industrial legacy/potential.
5. A customer-oriented approach should be encouraged in the hospitality industry as well in the whole of city management. The system of public transport is leftover from Soviet times and is not efficient enough today, meaning many hotels, sights, and museums are tricky to reach. Hotels, however warm in greeting guests, do not have free-of-charge town maps and are not proactive in offering extra services like excursions, shops, or places to eat. Best practices and international standards should be promoted, and training sessions should be held. The town should be as comfortable and inspirational for both citizens and visitors as possible.
6. Awareness of Kostroma should be promoted in Russia and internationally, using a tight-knit vision, SMART goals, and clearly defined identity. Kostroma is a town that Russia should be proud of!
By Oksana Klyuchinskaya