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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.

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