Keys to successful place branding – Part 1

It has become a common 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 Caribbean’s to Latin America nobody seems to be happy with the brands that are supposed to represent them. Sadly, this has become a pandemic: According to global research, 86% of place branding projects fail within a year of introduction. Why? It’s partly because places don’t know exactly what needs to be branded. However, this is more than a strategic issue. It seems to me that place branding has an inherent curse:

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

Luckily, with the right approach, we can solve most of these matters. Project planning is where we should start…

Let’s get one thing straight: Every branding project is a “change management” project. For a place to decide to brand itself, it must have a pressing issue. Maybe it’s not attracting enough investment. Perhaps a strong stereotype exists about the place. Or maybe local stakeholders cannot agree on simplest issues, halting the place’s growth. Obviously, every place has its own unique set of problems. But what is common is the fact that the decision to brand a place is an honest attempt to overcome and change “those” issue. That’s why the 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 of change. The inhabitants (or citizens) need to be made aware of how other places are achieving success. The man on the street needs to be informed about what’s going on in rival destinations. People 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 along 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. One thing needs to be very clear: Change cannot be imposed on people. It is always optional. Look at human history… You can be a tyrant with unlimited power, setting cruel rules, and killing the disobedient only to learn that no matter what you do you cannot change the way people think and act when no one is looking. 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. At a high level, they should know what to expect. They must be fed information regularly. That means the project team should utilize social media. They should start a blog at the beginning of the project and share authentic, valuable, and timely information with 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 should be created so that citizens can access to required knowledge.

Next condition is to have the ABILITY to change. One might think that the APEX of a place branding project is launching the logo. But, that is just the beginning of the real journey. Once a place agrees upon a strategy, implications arise. Often those consequences concern people’s behaviours. Successful place branding projects identify people’s capabilities and then provide them with resources to support their development. For instance, a place that wants the taxi drivers to be friendly could hire an image consultant to provide free training.

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. Also, same messages should be delivered over and over, because most people need to hear something seven times before they acknowledge you’ve said it. Also, it is very tempting for people to go back to their old ways.

The ADKAR might be a useful tool for place branding projects. That said, 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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