Does ‘place branding’ need a rebrand? Part 1

Ironically, by using the term ‘branding’, we may be making life more difficult for ourselves by reinforcing a negative image of the discipline. We constantly have to explain what ‘place branding’ really means.

By using this term, we’re inadvertently misleading people into thinking our work revolves around advertising – the exact view that we work so hard to counter.

No wonder so many people are sceptical, sometimes even hostile, towards the idea of ‘rebranding’ their country or city. They see the place as their home, not just another product to be marketed or advertised with a flashy campaign – even though that’s not our intention!

Simon Anholt coined the term ‘nation brand’ over ten years ago. By his own admission, he later regretted the choice of wording for the very reasons described here. So he attempted to solve the problem by proposing the alternative term ‘competitive identity’.

But, so far, this term hasn’t really caught on within the industry. Practitioners (and clients!) continue to use the term ‘branding’, extending it to incorporate activities aimed at cities and regions too.

Placesbrands asked some place brand experts to share their views, to be published in a series of posts on this topic.

Günter Soydanbay, an independent brand consultant, pointed out the critical differences between the terms ‘brand’ and ‘branding’.

“The first is an accurate way to describe our aim to shape a unique identity for a place. But the second could be where things start to get confusing. ‘Branding’ sounds too much like a process that can be applied to a place to superficially change its image. Only we all know that this doesn’t work.

In my opinion, however, the two terms are far too similar. We need something completely different to accurately describe what we seek to achieve by discovering and making known the unique existing qualities of places.

If we look at the origin of the word ‘brand’, we can see that it originates from Old Norse. It used to mean ‘to identify – to mark something by a hot iron’. Back in the day, farmers used to ‘brand’ their livestock, ‘marking’ what was theirs. It seems as if marking (differentiating) is the key role of a brand. After all, the French call a brand ‘une marque’.

At the nation level, ‘the act of marking’ is exactly what banner-men used to do during battle. They would literally mark the captured territory with their banners. Think of it for a second. It’s still unimaginable for a country to not have a flag! Flags act as the ultimate agents of differentiation and meaning.

So, yes. I think technically you can ‘brand’ a nation. But most likely, that process won’t take place at a conference room of an office tower!

It’s paramount to separate ‘brand’ from ‘branding’.

The former is a noun, whereas the latter is a ‘process’. The ultimate value a strategist, designer, communications consultant or a change management specialist could offer to a nation is to introduce a proven branding ‘process’.

In its essence, every branding project is a ‘change management project’. It’s made up of an endless cycle of learning, unlearning, and relearning. You constantly entertain different hypotheses, such as: Do tourists like this? Would investors like that? Should we offer this to our habitants?…and so on.

Then you go ahead and implement your idea. You measure the impact, and recalibrate your approach. That’s the branding process. And in my personal opinion, any nation would benefit from such a learning cycle.

I often think the relationship between ‘nation brand’ and ‘nation branding’ is similar to that between ‘the pursuit’ and ‘happiness’. The legendary psychologist James Hillman once said, “I think it’s the pursuit that screws up happiness. If we drop the pursuit, it’s right there.” You can’t achieve happiness by directly pursuing it. But society tells us to do it anyway!

The same goes for nation brand. If we’re under the illusion that our objective is to create ‘a brand’, then all we get would be a yummy logo, catchy tagline, and an over-promising campaign. That type of consciousness zeroes in on ‘what’ it gets. Right there, that screws up branding! Instead, if we switch to a process-driven consciousness (the how instead of what), then success is right there!”

In the next post in this mini-series, we’ll hear a contrasting view from another experienced strategist…

Feel free to share your own views in the comments.

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