Does place branding need a rebrand? Part 3

In our final instalment of this mini-series, Malcolm Allan of PlaceMatters shares his thoughts on how to solve the misunderstanding by placing greater emphasis on strategy, competitive advantage and the importance of a common narrative.

He also points out that discounting the value of PR and advertising agencies is unwise, as they can and do play a valuable role in a place branding process, although they cannot replace the need for good strategy.

“I’ve got sympathy with the phrase coined and used by Simon Anholt to describe the objective of place branding as being ‘Competitive Advantage’. I’ve used this phraseology to title the course that Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory and I are teaching on place branding for cities at the Schulich Business School in York University in Toronto. I think we’ll also use it for the title of a very similar course that I’m planning with Prof. Nigel Morgan for the University of Surrey.

For me, all branding is designed to help secure competitive advantage – for products, services, attractions, places, events. Competitive advantage is what place and destination is undertaken to achieve. I also use the term to describe the desired outcome of development branding – branding strategy for real estate, especially for mixed use developments.

Competitive advantage describes a benefit, an end state or an evolving state. Place branding describes a process of analyses and activities designed to create competitive advantage. End state benefits are a much more attractive proposition than is a description of the journey.

Now, while I’m happy to describe the objective of place and destination brand strategy (with emphasis on strategy) in this way, I still regard ‘place, destination and development brand strategy’ as an accurate phrase to describe the process and many of the tools and techniques involved in achieving competitive advantage of a strategic nature.

These tools include my Brand Compass, which sits alongside others such as the Locum Destination Development Model, the public and community consultation tools developed by Trajectory and more traditional economic development ones like competitor analyses and place marketing as practised by many DMO’s (Destination Management Organisations).

I agree that understanding of the practice of effective place brand strategy can be muddied by the activities of advertising agencies and brand design agencies who seek to sell a partial and less holistic approach to the creation of an effective place brand (strategy).

Some say their approach is about strategy, while others simply don’t discuss strategy. The latter assume that the objective is an agreed logo and tag line that will somehow (often undefined) secure an advantage such as a more distinctive and memorable (graphic) identity or more effective marketing campaign.

How to deal with this challenge?

Primarily I think it’s down to the practitioners of place, destination and development brand strategy to consistently and continuously explain and express what’s involved in developing such a strategy in order to achieve competitive advantage.

I don’t think the market has the mind space for arguments that rubbish the non-strategic approaches, the practices of marketing agencies and visual brand design agencies (after all I work regularly with both and they do have a role to play). If we want the market to understand these distinctions we must educate it in the differences.

On most occasions when I’ve been given the opportunity to explain what place brand strategy is and is not, the majority of people listening have quickly understood the distinctions.

So, perhaps some like-minded practitioners should get together to frame a common narrative, for consistent application, to explain what the practice is, how we practice and what it can achieve by way of benefits for places. In this way we can imply or make clear distinctions with others non-strategic practices.”

By Malcolm Allan

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