A Paradigm Shift…..did the Earth move for you baby?

Day One of the 2nd International Place Branding Conference and after two key note lectures, two case studies, one panel discussion and one paper reviewing 217 studies of place branding it’s time for me to present “Place Branding: A Tautology”. I knew before I came to Colombia how much things had improved for tourists – nevertheless I did think I might run the risk of being taken out or kidnapped by some enraged place branding academic who was just about to see their career brought to an abrupt end. Luckily, as my colleague Professor David Bennison (Benny, as he is affectionately known; p85) noted at this last conference (2009) there is a healthy amount of critical debate and the conference is not just a “48hr sequence of best-practice success stories”. So the potential problems with applying the concepts of branding to places had already been voiced. Even the conference chair, Ares Kalandides, had said that he felt increasingly uncomfortable with using the term “place branding”. There’s no doubt that in many places, individuals and groups of people/organisations/agencies want to bring about some change and often have a vision of what they want their place to be like. But outside academia that’s called place management and our research demonstrates that this doesn’t have to be the “exclusive right” of paid professionals. It relies on paid professionals like planners and designers. Place management shouldn’t really exist: it should be a synonym for the activities of the local council, but unfortunately it isn’t. That’s the fodder for another blog. Anyway, I digress. Back to Place Branding v Place Management. The web traffic data I presented also supports the division in the use of terms between those that are directly involved in bringing about change in places and those that study place branding. The other difference is that place management practitioners are embedded in one place, for a long period of time, if not, in the case of many of the unpaid ones, a lifetime. Place branding practitioners (if they label themselves as such) are always consultants and usually don’t have any long- term association with the place, outside the transactional terms of their assignment. I have one exception to this rule (and you may know others). One of the keynote lectures was from “Invest in Bogota” which is the small private sector company that is employed to provide “technical secretariat services” to the Bogota City Branding Strategy. Both Virgilio and Andrina, who are responsible for ensuring the delivery of the branding strategy (at strategic and operational levels) live in the city and have a huge passion for Bogota. Nevertheless, their knowledge and enthusiasm for what they do is dependent on political support and a contract. With a change of administration and perhaps a cut in funding their input would cease. In this regard, even though they are a private sector company, they have much in common with many public-sector funded place management schemes in the UK. For those that know me, you’ll know I am pretty laid back about most things, so why I am I being so pedantic over language. Well firstly the language of place branding, coming from branding and, therefore, focusses on the positive and the controllable. So it is conceptually ‘vacant’ when it comes to the ‘messy’ and often ‘crap’ bits of places, and also the importance of partnership and coordination in the orchestration of actions (Kavaratzis, 2008). It’s too easy for people in places, who are charged with the job of making places better, such as Mayors or “technocrats” to misunderstand place branding (as academics’ define it) and hire some consultants to come up with a “place brand strategy”, some short-term projects and a logo and strapline than tackle the issues that contribute to the development of a place. I know place branding academics will jump down my throat and say place branding is more strategic than this…..but I am sorry, but your academic interpretation is not the one being commodified. The practitioner presentations at this conference proved this. Also, you can’t have it both ways. If place branding is so strategic why do you label the outcome the place brand and not just the place? I have changed my mind as a result of attending this conference. Place branding isn’t tautological – as it performs a communication role. But let’s not put the long- term strategic direction of towns, cities, regions and even countries in the hands of marketers. I am a marketer so I can say that ;- and the DDR posters I have included the presentation show just how dangerous a strong place “brand” can be. References Bennison, D., 2009, Conference Report, Journal of Place Management and Development, 2, 1, 85-87. Mihalis, K, 2008, From City Marketing to City Branding: An Interdisciplinary Analysis with reference to Amersterdam, Budapest and Athens, University of Gronigen.

2 thoughts on “A Paradigm Shift…..did the Earth move for you baby?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *