Keys to successful place branding – Part 1

It has become a familiar narrative: A city, region or a country launches its new visual identity, only to learn that its habitants hate the logo’s guts. From Toronto to South Australia, and from Caribbeans to Latin America nobody seems to be happy with the brand that is supposed to represent them.

Sadly, that has grown to be a pandemic: 86% of place branding projects fail within a year of introduction. You may be wondering why? It’s partly because most of the cities and countries don’t know precisely what needs to be branded. Still, this is more than a strategic issue. It appears to me that place branding has an inherent curse.

Lack of public engagement + Insufficient knowledge sharing + Inability to inform the public that the logo is just a means to an end = Public resistance

Luckily, with the right approach, most of this mess can be untangled. Project planning is where we should start.

Let there be no confusion: Every place branding project is a “change management” project. For a city or a country to embark on a branding journey, something must be ailing the place. Maybe strong stereotypes exist about the town. Perhaps the state is not attracting enough foreign direct investment. Or maybe local stakeholders cannot agree on the most fundamental issues, halting the place’s growth.

While every place has its own unique set of problems, they all have one thing in common: their decision to brand a place is an honest and transparent attempt to overcome their challenges. That’s why a branding project would be successful only if the desired change takes place. So, how does change happen in life?

According to the famous ADKAR Change Model, the primary condition of change is AWARENESS of the need for change. The inhabitants (or citizens) need to be made aware of how other places are achieving success. Stakeholders need to be informed about what’s going on in rival destinations. The man on the street should understand that unless things change, their quality of life would eventually deteriorate. They should know that the ultimate goal is not to find a logo but to modify the way everybody thinks and acts. Unless the habitants genuinely understand the pressing need for change, their perception of the branding project will be something like this: “They are wasting our valuable resources instead of tackling real issues.” That is the sad truth.

ADKAR Change Management Model

The second condition is to have the DESIRE to change. In biology, no organism changes unless it “volunteers” to change. Here is a statement as bold as it gets: Change cannot be imposed on people. It is always optional. History is full of tyrants, who had unlimited power, set cruel rules, and killed the disobedient only to learn that no matter what they did they couldn’t change the way people thought and acted in private. That’s why a place branding project should address people’s real motives. It should mitigate their fears. They should be ensured that at the individual level, the change is going to impact them positively and that at the end of the day, participating in the branding project is voluntary, not mandatory.

The third condition is to have the KNOWLEDGE of how to change. The general public needs to be trained about the process. In broad brush strokes, they should know what to expect. They must be fed information regularly, which means the project team should leverage social media. They could start a blog as soon as the project is kicked off to share authentic, valuable, and timely information to the general public. The trajectory of the project must be transparent. Town halls should take place around the city, where people should raise their concerns, ask questions and get answers. A wiki page might be created so that citizens could access required knowledge effortlessly.

Next condition is to have the ABILITY to change. One might think that the apex of a place branding project is launching the logo. Yet, that is just the beginning of the journey! For a strategy to come to life, action needs to be taken, which would require behavioural change. Successful place branding projects analyze people’s capabilities and then provide them with resources to develop themselves. For instance, a place that wants the taxi drivers to be friendly could hire an image consultant to provide free training. The ultimate goal is to make people able to deliver on the strategy.

The final condition is to provide REINFORCEMENT. Successful place branding projects measure success. They set goals and use both positive and negative reinforcement to get there. Additionally, same messages should be delivered over and over, because most people need to hear something seven times before they acknowledge you’ve said it. It is very tempting for people to go back to their old ways after all.

ADKAR might be a useful tool for place branding projects. Even so, while it would help increase the success rate of a place branding project, ADKAR is not enough on its own. On our next articles, we will look at nature and see what we can mimic.

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