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Month: August 2013

Curating the Swedish image


Last year Visit Sweden teamed up with the Swedish Institute to launch a Twitter campaign called Curators of Sweden.

The aim was to present Sweden to the world via Twitter, in an attempt to democratise national speech, strengthen the nation’s image and hopefully increase tourism in the process. Sweden’s typical image is already associated with progressive, democratic and creative values. The Curators of Sweden campaign sought to further these by being ultra-progressive on Twitter.

Sweden handed control of its national Twitter channel over to a different ordinary Swede every week. Nominated by others, each Curator was then selected by a committee of three. The only qualifications were that Curators had to be interesting, capable of tweeting in English, and competent with Twitter. They were also give certain instructions; not to say anything criminal, and to label political opinions as personal and not speak on behalf of the whole country.

But adventurous Sweden got more than it bargained for.

The country discovered that 140 characters is plenty for saying something stupid, but not always enough to properly explain and/or apologise. This revelation was caused by 27-year-old Sonja Abrahamsson, who decided to hijack the Twitter spotlight for her own ends while taking her turn as an @Sweden curator.

As soon as she got control of the national Twitter feed, Sonja launched a series of negative tweets about Jews, unleashing a tirade of criticism from outraged Twitter users around the world. The unhappy respondents targeted both Sonja and Sweden in their angry tweets; which could have potentially been a PR disaster for Sweden’s image.

Sonja later tried to apologise. Then she said nothing more about her comments, nor the response they triggered. Sweden’s tourism board took a typically Swedish approach to the issue, maintaining the value of free speech and insisting that they would not censor the curators. Despite the unwise approach from this particular curator, Sweden reinforces its core brand values by refusing to censor her remarks. Nevertheless, tourism boards should be aware of the speed with which Twitter comments can spread globally, and perhaps are better off relying on trusted professionals to handle their official feeds. Depending on how risk-averse they are. After all, the image of the nation may be at stake.

Sweden has continued the Curators campaign to this day. A tweet only last week contained the gem of wisdom “beer bloating is the new black.” It’s a bold approach to tourism promotion and brand development. Curators has brought dramatic success for Sweden, not only growing the country’s Twitter followers from around 8,000 to over 66,500 at last count, but greatly increasing engagement with Swedish tourism. Obviously, the uncensored tweets haven’t put many people off. Media coverage has also been successful, with the Curators project bringing in around $40 million worth of promotion.

In the words of Visit Sweden’s US manager, Lotta Thiringer, the spirit of the project is ‘just as important as those numbers’. Thiringer said, “The campaign has proven to the world that Sweden is a truly open, authentic and innovative country. We get that message across by showing what Sweden is all about, instead of just saying it.”

Authentically living the brand is the best way for places to achieve lasting success.

The case of a bankrupt city


This is the story of a small Japanese city that pulled itself back from the brink of financial collapse, learning some valuable lessons in the process.

Back in the summer of 2007, the global financial crisis was still a nightmare waiting to happen. The world chugged along happily, doing its thing, mounting up enormous debts like there was no tomorrow. But for the city of Yubari, in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, financial ruin was already a reality.

In Yubari’s 1960’s heyday, coal mining made the town prosperous. But when the Japanese government made oil the nation’s main energy source, Yubari not only lost its main economic driver, but also began losing its direction as a city. As the coal mines disappeared so did the residents, seeking greener pastures elsewhere.

A combination of factors, including Yubari’s ageing population, dwindling workforce, declining (or non-existent industry), costly medical care and the expense of supporting people via welfare, plus a generally apathetic spirit, led to a major downturn.

By the 1980s, Yubari was in the doldrums. Backed by a round of central government subsidies, attempts were made to revive the city’s economy by introducing theme parks and resorts, in the hope of attracting visitors and creating jobs. But these attempts failed miserably, serving only to further drain Yubari’s dwindling financial reserves. As June 2007 rolled around and Yubari finally declared bankruptcy, the city’s debts were sky-high – more than 35 billion yen.

Six years later, Yubari is making progress as it works hard to pull itself back from the brink. To their credit, the central government of Japan sprang into action and passed a ‘No More Yubari’s’ law, complete with a set of early warnings and contingency plans to ensure no more Japanese cities could fall unchecked into economic ruin.

The law also proposed increased transparency of cities’ financial affairs, which is a wise move by anyone’s standards. And it seems to be working, slowly but surely. By July 2013, Yubari had already paid back 3.8 billion yen of its debt. 2030 is set as the deadline for full repayment and will hopefully herald a return to health.

In terms of city branding, what can we take away from the Yubari experience? Obviously bankruptcy is a huge blow to any city’s image. But when disaster is truly inevitable, are there ways to mitigate the negative impact?

One reason among many for Yubari’s original troubles was failing to market itself effectively. With lethargic citizens lacking faith in the city or enthusiasm for its future, something was desperately needed to reenergise people and begin rebuilding brand Yubari from the ground up.

From a branding point of view, Yubari offered practically nothing to work with. Or so it seemed.
Tasked with the challenge of rebranding Yubari, Japanese communications agency Beacon Communications did some digging and discovered Yubari has Japan’s lowest divorce rate. This led to the slogan “Yubari: No Money, But Love”, with Yubari positioned as a destination for happy couples.

The honesty, yet optimism embodied in the slogan, combined with one of the cute mascots beloved by many Japanese, helped generate a notable level of positive PR for the city. The results were encouraging too, with tourism increasing by 10% and 31 million dollars generated to help relieve Yubari’s debt.

A shadow over Egypt


In 2006 a man called Sherif Sabri, a well-known and successful Arab music video producer, created a nation branding campaign for a country of nearly 80 million people.

The campaign involved a television spot, featuring images of desert oases combined with mobile phones and mosques flashing across the screen. The central idea was interesting in terms of nation branding, because it took a ‘grassroots’ approach aimed not only at attracting more tourists and investors, but first and foremost at channeling national pride among the citizens themselves.

The country was Egypt; the campaign was ‘Egypt: Keep Your Eye on It’.

Sabri said, “This is showing what Egyptians have and making them appreciate what they have,” And when I say keep your eye on it, it’s something valuable you have. You should keep your eye on it, and don’t spoil it.”

But that was over seven years ago. With the advent of the Arab Spring, the situation in Egypt has changed beyond recognition. Even when a new president was finally elected, the calm didn’t last and he was soon removed forcibly from power. Today, Egypt is in turmoil and chaos reigns on the streets of Cairo. The country of Sabri’s 2006 branding campaign is no longer what it was.

This is not a comment on the more controversial angles of the Arab Spring, or the various political actors vying for superiority in Egypt’s current situation. The goal here is only to discuss the effects of political events on the country’s brand identity, not analyse the driving forces behind them.

The current upheaval in Egypt is undoubtedly tragic news for the country as a whole. The contrast between Egypt’s pre-2011 reputation as a welcoming tourist magnet, land of Pharaohs, pyramids and camels, has now been overshadowed completely by the constant media barrage showing us ongoing scenes of violence, destruction, riots and military repression.

Maintaining an attractive nation brand is important for the success of any country, but vital for one such as Egypt, where tourism forms such a substantial part of the economy. Egypt’s tourism industry is experiencing a massive crisis at present, with hotel occupancy rates in Luxor plummeting from 80% down to 5%. Foreign tourists are cancelling trips to Egypt, airlines are suspending flights, and the country’s stock market is crashing.

From a nation branding point of view, we can only hope that the warring sides in Egypt will one day remember what they have, and, as Sabri warned seven years earlier, they ‘don’t spoil it.’

In search of place branding geographies


By Eduardo Oliveira

What do Aalborg, Singapore, New York, Amsterdam and Antwerp have in common? Does anything link Macedonia, Slovenia, Colombia, Malaysia and Namibia?

Of course, they are all places. But they are also known as places that have engaged with the place branding process, or at least, ones that communicate their unique strengths using a city or country brand.

But why write more about cases where place branding has already been developed? Hasn’t it already been done?

There is already an interesting body of literature that describes the application of branding techniques to places. We can bring fresh thinking to the discussion by mapping place branding examples, illuminating some particular aspects of branding a country, a region, or a city by examining real cases.

As branding places is complex and challenging, illustrating them with successful or less successful examples will provide an interesting tool for academics and practitioners. Is there any strategy behind the place branding output (i.e. brand logo, layout, tagline) of the mentioned places? What are the main challenges faced by these city/country brands?

Firstly, let’s explore two places and their branding processes: the city of Aalborg in Denmark, and the country of Macedonia.

From Idea to Practice
Everything begins with an idea. A well-known expression can result in an article, a book, a project or even a place brand. I was sitting on my desk looking at the books on my shelf, full of outstanding writing about place and destination branding. After some time, the idea of mapping examples of city and country brands flashed into my mind as a potentially interesting addition to the place branding discussion.

Collecting and describing current examples is already done frequently around the blogosphere. I aim to go a step further by opening up the debate about the embedded challenges in place branding and the strategic approach in each of the mapped examples.

Picturing the Global Map of Place Brands
Place branding aims to improve the inhabitants’ well-being, reinforce business institutions and attract foreign investors, employees, entrepreneurs and tourists. Branding a place does not end in creating a colourful logo or catchy slogan, but should offer a consistent strategy that combines a range of physical and human geographies.

A city branding process aims to enhance the city’s competitive advantage, to increase inward investment and tourism, but also as a way of achieving community development, engaging city stakeholders to reinforce local identity, while attempting to increase inclusiveness. When locals appreciate their city and take pride in it, the city often becomes more attractive to the outside world. However, we must be mindful that place branding is full of challenges and pitfalls and is rarely a result of consensus.

The Case of Aalborg
Aalborg is an industrial and university city in Denmark’s North Jutland. The campaign, ‘Branding Aalborg’, was conceived in 1998. Three stakeholders took part in the process: the branding initiator and driver, the Branding Aalborg Secretariat, and two local stakeholders: the tourism organisation Visit Aalborg and the investment organisation Invest in Denmark. The city branding campaign ran from 2004 to 2009 and was developed as a process from the agenda setting, brand design and implementation, and strategic orientation.

The Branding Aalborg process, in my opinion, was developed in a consistent and integrative way. It was able to engage key stakeholders to attract investment and tourism. However, based on references, the contribution to community building was relegated to a secondary position.

After Googling the words “branding Aalborg”, “visit Aalborg” and “invest in Aalborg” I discovered some confusion in terms of visual communication. The many visual elements of the city brand create confusion in the mind of visitors, investors and potential residents. A city branding process will be more effective if based on synergies between public entities that should address community building and well-being, and private agencies, who are more concerned about increasing business activities for the place.

I believe Aalborg has developed an interesting city brand design, but it seems to be taking time to clearly define the themes for visual communication. It also seems necessary to draw a balance between the dual goals of ‘selling/promoting’ the city and developing stronger community, identity and boosting the satisfaction gained from being an Aalborg citizen. Creating synergy between the city branding process and the national branding strategy also seems key for a more successful overall branding process.

The Case of Macedonia
Countries increasingly engage in country branding initiatives because they recognise the need to fulfil three major macro level objectives: to attract tourists, to stimulate inward investment and to boost exports. Some countries also develop initiatives to attract more talent: higher education students and skilled workers.

Successful country branding is potentially able to increase currency stability, restore international credibility and investor confidence, increase international political influence; stimulate stronger international partnerships and enhance nation building (i.e. by enhancing country identity and pride).

Macedonia, officially the Republic of Macedonia, is a country located in the central Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. It is one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, which it declared independence from in 1991. Macedonia joined the UN in 1993 but, as a result of a dispute with Greece over its name, it was admitted under the provisional reference of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

After some research, I was unable to find any in-depth case studies of branding Macedonia. I even wonder, if what has been communicated can actually be called a country branding process. Why research Macedonia, a relatively new country? As this post aims to debate place branding cases or any attempt to design a place brand, the Macedonia case is especially interesting. Here’s why.

While watching a TV commercial on CNN, I discovered these three initiatives: Invest in Macedonia, Macedonia Tourism and Macedonia Timeless. Being a place branding researcher, I immediately went online to search for any information that could further clarify the strategy used in these campaigns. I discovered these campaigns resulted from the Macedonian government’s desire to raise the country’s international profile, and to promote it as a land of business opportunities and tourist delights.

My perception is that the country branding campaigns were designed to present a distinctive vision of Macedonia based on two main objectives: to attract investment (Invest Macedonia) and to increase the tourism flows (Macedonia Timeless). With limited access to sources, understanding the strategy behind these campaigns is difficult. The current main critiques underpin the project Skopje 2014 and the relationship with country branding initiatives. Opponents of Skopje 2014 have suggested the project will damage Macedonia’s national image, and create significant disadvantages for the local people at economic, political, and cultural levels.

Coherent Strategy is Vital
From the two mentioned examples, I underline the need for coherent strategy in place branding campaigns. The strategy should engage key stakeholders – from industry, trade activities and tourism but also those from universities and research units. A multidimensional partnership based on relationships between compatible organisations is required to define realistic objectives for the place brand.

Finally, effective coordination between departments (e.g. urban planning and marketing departments) is necessary to create, develop and maintain a strong place brand and communicate it in a coherent way.