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Month: February 2015

A new north

Nouveau North is a new media initiative that seeks to reconnect Canadians with the Canadian spirit and introduce its value abroad. Created by Payam Shalchian and Jamie Black, Nouveau North’s mission is to communicate the authentically Canadian ways of living, working and doing in a manner felt to be currently missing from both brands and the media landscapes.

Placesbrands talked to the founders Payam and Jamie to explore their thoughts on the current state of Brand Canada.

When was the ‘Eureka!’ moment that gave you the idea for Nouveau North? 

Payam Shalchian – I don’t think that there was a ‘moment’ per se, but rather a series of conversations over the span of a couple of years that slowly brewed this idea in our minds. Towards the end of 2014, we arrived at a moment of realization: we needed to convert thinking to doing. We thought the time is now! That’s when Nouveau North was crystallised as a tactical plan; a plan for us to deliver value and be true to our purpose as an organisation.

We’d been discussing whether there is a lack of focus on how the Canadian spirit is captured in Canada and how it’s painted globally. We sensed a lack of clarity around what ‘Made in Canada’ means in the global context, and we do see a massive change in how we define geography and national identity. We’re hoping this project can initiate and facilitate the discourse as we seek clarity around these topics.

Jamie Black – I completely agree here with Payam. One thing I’d like to add is that for me, this is a pure outcome of collaboration. I don’t think it would have happened without the two of us coming together. We each bring a set of skills, experiences and distinct background to the table.

How would you sum up the current ‘Brand Canada’ in a nutshell?

Ps–If we explore beyond the artefacts in which mass media encapsulates Canada (e.g. hockey, lumberjacks, beavers, etc.), the brand has evolved rather organically and has adopted and adapted to change vicariously over the past century.

Strategic and proactive place branding is a relatively new genre of activity in the north. Yet the Canadian brand as a social construct has embraced the same values all along: diversity, inclusivity, openness and tolerance. Can we say that these values have been driving brand Canada? What now? Where do we go from here? We hope to find out.

Jb– I think it’s one in transition at the moment. Embarking on fully embracing its potential. In some ways you can say the same for many countries. I think the nations that recognise the need to evolve their symbols with the evolution of their people, products, experiences and culture will be the ones to remain most competitive when it comes to trade, tourism and desired migration.

‘Brand Canada’ is very strong globally, but I’m not sure if you would define it as a legacy brand, hence it has untapped potential. Historically, ‘Brand Canada’ was anchored around a few strong symbols and they made sense to bring a bilingual, multi-cultural country together. Today it’s working to keep pace with the nation’s desire for greater global relevance, especially its emerging urban experience.

From what you’ve seen during your travels abroad, how does the world view Canada?

Jb– For me, it’s very segmented, and not in a bad way. I always remember something Simon Anholt said along the lines that “the average person only has three countries on the top of their minds, the USA, the place they went on their last holiday and where they may have relatives.”

I’m paraphrasing, but through travels you realize that the impressions people have of a place come from direct experiences they’ve had as opposed to impressions built up from global media. Canada contributes to the forming of its identity through symbolic actions in my opinion, whether positive or negative, and relies less on ambient media.

I always remember being in Belgrade and our taxi driver pointing out a building that was bombed by NATO and still not rebuilt. It really makes you stop to think, here I was in a country with a recent negative association with my homeland yet, I felt as if I was in the most hospitable place I had ever been. I think that speaks volumes of what the world can think of Canada. In addition, I’ve had countless experiences of individuals expressing their favorable opinion of Canada as a place to study, visit, do business with and ultimately emigrate to.

Ps– Based on my experience, having immigrated to Canada, and having lived and worked in Europe, Canada is often perceived as a destination. I don’t mean destination the way it’s framed by the tourism industry, but rather destination as the geography of choice for living.

It was fascinating to hear from a group of agricultural studies graduates from schools in Dusseldorf planning to move to Canada to explore the land from sea to sea. It was also fascinating to hear my parents (and many other families uprooting their ties and coming to Canada) explaining their choice for higher quality of life and prominent social security.

What’s the role of media in constructing a nation brand?

Jb– The communications of arts and culture through media such as film, literature and music is fascinating. I’m not sure how to describe it but sometimes it’s single handedly the most powerful thing you can experience about another place. I’m not sure it has a direct role in constructing or supporting the nation brand, instead, I would advocate, that individuals, organisations and governments have the responsibility to share it with others.

My stance is to authentically create media that are a reflection of the host nation and culture, as opposed to creating products destined for export markets. My last point here, is that I’d love the CBC to have a larger international remit, much like BBC and Al Jazeera, albeit at a smaller scale. I see that as a missed opportunity to reinforce our nation brand.

Ps– Increase awareness via facilitating the discourse, disseminating the knowledge and provoking the minds of thinkers and doers.

How does Nouveau North hope to contribute to the existing narrative?

Jb– For me, I think it’s about working hard to ask the questions that may help us see things in a different or more positive light. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly have our challenges, but wouldn’t it be better to start solving them on the heels of other successes around us? I think it’s about extending the existing narrative, planting seeds of imagination with our readers of what things are and ultimately could be.

Ps– I believe our first step is to start talking about our narrative, what our narrative is and how the existing narrative is catapulting us into the future global context. Then we’ll be looking to strategically build upon the optimism and positive attributes of the current narrative.

As Jamie puts it, we do have a good thing going, but do we talk about it in the right context? In the right framework? And with the right mindset? That’s where I think Nouveau North will have an impact on the subject matter as a new media platform. Content is our product, discourse is our service.

What would you say are the present risks to Canada’s brand? 

Jb– I think there’s an assertive element to Canada’s brand at the moment. It’s been ruffling some feathers, especially in stances on foreign policy and climate for example. Many are not used to it. I think audiences over time have grown accustomed to a perfectly indifferent Canada, where exceptional positive contributions were made globally over time, while otherwise staying out of the spotlight.

I believe it’s part of the process towards maturing and my advice for brands, destinations, and businesses increasingly trying to leverage brand Canada, is to be mindful of how they are asserting themselves and which traits of our identity they are drawing from.

Ps–Even though I’d like to encourage us to rethink the challenges facing Canada’s brand as opportunities rather than risks, I do believe there are challenges, which if left unaddressed would create roadblocks to realising the true potential of one nation’s collective identity. I tend to cluster these challenges into two buckets:

1- Public awareness; Are Canadians ready to be Canada’s brand evangelists?

2- Organisational readiness; Are our organisations, institutions, businesses, infrastructure, etc. ready?

How would you like to see Brand Canada develop in the future?

Ps– A brand built on a true purpose, reflective of the Canadian values and carried by its people.


City brand fundamentals

José Torres of Bloom Consulting tells us why most city branding attempts fail, the ingredients for success, and how to brand unknown cities.

Placesbrands: José, why should cities care about branding themselves?

José Torres: Thanks to globalisation, the brand or reputation of a city impacts on six dimensions (brand impact areas): investment, tourism, talent, pride, public diplomacy and exports. Today, the brand plays a huge role in affecting these six objectives.

The internet has made it extremely easy for people to quickly Google and decide where they want to go. The brand of cities and countries is an asset; it’s a decisive factor for stakeholders to decide if they want to go there or not. From an international perspective, a brand is one of a city’s most valuable assets.

Many city branding campaigns are not successful because most of the time these are actually advertising strategies. I’d like to clarify one point: I’m not against advertising – I think it has its place, and a city brand strategy CAN involve some element of advertising. But cities take the wrong approach when they believe that city brand = advertising. This is not so.

At present, the majority of proactive city branding strategies fail. Although, accidental success HAS happened, for example with San Francisco, where they implemented good policies, well-thought out actions etc, and so they developed a good reputation – organically. They did the groundwork, almost without thinking about the ‘brand’. This is exactly what city branding should be like.

One of the key elements of groundwork is stakeholder involvement and investment. Within a city brand, there are many stakeholders all with different agendas. Everyone that touches the brand should be involved in developing the strategy. This is one of the major keys to success in city branding.

PB: What are some other keys to successful city branding?

JT: Keeping in mind that city branding is NOT about promotion. It is about defining the idea you want to convey for the six dimensions I mentioned earlier. Gaining a strong and clear understanding of this concept is absolutely vital for success.

Stakeholder engagement/management is also key, and finally, measurement. The latter is another reason why city brand strategies tend to fail. Branding a city is a very high-profile activity, in the spotlight and which requires investment. If you don’t show demonstrable results from a governance perspective, people will quickly start to criticise.

People, especially journalists, are quick to ask why a government is ‘wasting’ money on so-called ‘vanity’ branding projects to improve a city’s reputation, when it could be spending more money on ‘concrete’ issues such as education, sewers, unemployment, health, and so on.

It’s not enough for the mayor to announce, ‘we’ve improved the reputation of our city’, because it’s not tangible enough and doesn’t convince the majority of people. Measuring results is best done from a financial perspective, which makes results immediately more tangible and less easy to criticise.

Of course, a good branding project will have impacts in many other areas, improving society, increasing happiness etc – but concrete financial figures are easiest for people to understand. Money talks and everyone understands – even if they have no idea about the value of place branding itself. Talking in sums of money helps to quantify the effect of city branding.

PB: Are there any other reliable measures of brand impact?

JT: At Bloom Consulting, these are the major measures that we use to assess city branding impact:

1. Economic. GDP – but it is key to understand exactly where the city branding produced the increased economic activity. It has to be narrowed down.

2. Happiness. This can be measured on the dimensions of talent, and pride. Pride is the citizens’ pride in their city, making them proud of where they live. This could even be a specific goal of a branding strategy, e.g. to make people into better brand ambassadors, discourage them from leaving, or just to make them happy to live there. Bhutan is a great example of this, with its Gross Happiness Index – which became part of the country’s overall identity and helped attract many more tourists = great success for the country’s brand.

3. Demand, for example digital demand. How much more appeal and interest in the city has been generated? This is something we can measure. This tool enables me to measure the reality – who is searching online for the city or country? Exactly how interested are tourists and investors, thanks to the city brand? (This tool is unique to Bloom). It’s an absolute truth about how appealing my city or nation is, as measured by online activity.

4. Perceptions. as measured by surveys.

PB: Can unknown cities be branded?

JT: Yes they can. There’s always something special about every city. City branding isn’t about inventing something; it’s about finding out what’s already there. This could be actions & activities (such as planned events, art fairs etc), characteristics (such as landscapes and weather), or policies (laws, regulations etc). There are certain things that shape common perceptions of the city. We need to examine all these and see how we can align them with one big idea.

For example, if a city’s big idea is to brand itself as a party town, a law forcing all bars to close early would contradict that. This creates confusion in perception. So I need to clearly understand my overall direction, and then shape all actions, activities, and policies to support it. Only after this can a city brand be developed. I like to keep in mind that every city has its charm, always.

PB: So why do cities keep trying to use logo and slogan campaigns?

JT: Mainly because they don’t really know what city branding is. Also because marketing and ad agencies sell ‘branding’ campaigns to cities. Although sometimes, cities approach ad agencies specifically requesting a logo and tagline. But the whole concept is wrong from the very beginning. Of course, the ad agency wants new business, so they will embark on a logo and tagline campaign. This is referred to as the ‘city brand strategy’, when in fact it is not.

Here’s a nice example to finish up. The small town of Borja, in north Spain, had a chapel where there was a beautiful but damaged 19th century fresco. One old lady took it upon herself to restore the fresco, and her actions made the town famous. International press covered the story, saying that the lady ‘destroyed’ the fresco, but she made the town notorious and lots of tourists came to see the fresco. This example proves that cities can become global without spending any money on advertising, but this route is highly unpredictable (similar to viral marketing), and involves no strategy.

José Filipe Torres is CEO and founding partner of Bloom Consulting, a specialist place branding agency based in Madrid. José founded Bloom in 2003 and since then has worked on projects across the globe, for countries including Spain, Portugal, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia and Brazil.