The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become.

From Glasgow to Ghana and Colorado to Croatia, many places worldwide want to brand themselves. Great, but why exactly? When we ask that simple question to policymakers, we hear mainly four reasons: They want to get more tourists, develop economically, attract talent, or enhance civic pride. Granted, branding can help a place achieve those goals. But as a practitioner, you must question whether those are the right goals because every decision will have unintended consequences.

A place is a complex system, different parts of which are interconnected. That’s why none of the above goals can be addressed in a vacuum. For instance, Turkey has become the world’s top 6 tourist destination over the last two decades. Attracting 50 million tourists per year certainly helped the economy. But it also burdened the infrastructure, damaged nature, and distorted the local culture. 

Resort construction inside forest areas in Turkey

Likewise, in some cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, the influx of tech workers has led to rising housing prices and a shortage of affordable housing. This has created challenges for long-time residents who can no longer afford to live in the city. Gentrification ensued, which had an irreversible effect on the local culture. 

The same principle that applies to policymakers also holds for marketers. As the adage goes, “nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” So, if you focus solely on creating a yummy logo or a flashy image -without improving the assets and value proposition of the place- ultimately, you will disappoint tourists and investors. No matter how well you do it, doing the wrong thing (branding) will only lead the place further down the wrong path.

What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

So, as a policymaker, don’t ask yourself how to attract more tourists, investors or talent. Instead, ask yourself, “Does this initiative help us improve our residents’ overall quality of life? Does it create a welcoming environment for visitors? Does it contribute to attracting sustainable businesses and investments to the area?” Only when you focus on those key factors you create a sustainable solution that improves the lives of those who call it home.

But how do we discover the right thing? You can use the framework developed by Simon Anholt. He says a place should focus on three key elements: strategy, substance, and symbolic action – in that order. 

Ancient Greeks believed one of the greatest virtues was “knowing thyself.” For a place branding project is exactly that. You must start by knowing who the place is, where it is today, where it wants to go, and how to get there. Two main challenges in making a strategy are getting different stakeholders to agree on the same goals and finding an exciting and achievable vision, which can be difficult.

Anholt explains substance as “legislations, investments, and policies that help put the strategy into action.” The substance is about real economic, government, societal, culture, and educational changes. Those are the reforms that a place makes to achieve the desired progress. 

Finally, there are symbolic actions, which give people something to talk about. They can be things like new laws or policies that are memorable, interesting, or surprising. The important thing about symbolic actions is that they represent the place’s strategy and are a part of the country’s story. They can communicate the country’s values and goals and help people understand the place.

Only by having these three elements in place, we can create a brand that is authentic, meaningful, and relevant to residents, visitors, and investors.

Creating a successful brand for a place requires more than just superficial marketing tactics. Those are the wrong things to do -no matter how good you are at it. Instead, the right thing to do is to improve residents’ overall quality of life, create a welcoming environment for visitors, and attract sustainable businesses and investments. Doing the right thing is the key to place brand success and the only way to avoid becoming “wronger” in your efforts. 

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