Why One Size Does Not Fit All in Place Branding?

As every teenager knows, not everyone at school acts the same way when a new trend pops up. Some rush to try the newest video game, while others wait to see if it’s just a passing fad.

The business world is not that different from your average high school, after all. For instance, consider the spread of remote work tools. Some companies were early adopters, seamlessly integrating tools like Slack or Zoom even before the pandemic. Others were more cautious, waiting to observe the successes and pitfalls experienced by early adopters before making a move.

What’s true for teenagers and managers also applies to places. Cities and countries have a personality which dictates their risk profile. That’s why how places adopt new ideas, policies, or cultural shifts can be quite different. And that has a significant implication on their place brand strategy!

The Mechanics of Idea Adoption

First, let’s go over how new ideas start. Most innovations spread in a predictable fashion. This is called the diffusion of innovation. To make it more understandable, let’s take the hilarious dancing video below as an example.

First, a daring soul (innovators) starts dancing. Next, the cool kid (early adopters) gives it a shot. Then, it spreads to most students, divided into those who jump in fairly quickly (early majority) and those who are more hesitant but eventually join in (late majority). That’s how a movement starts.

Not every innovation follows a linear trajectory. Cultural or socio-economic factors can heavily influence the adoption rate. Nonetheless, this archetypal pattern helps us understand how new ideas or technologies like electric cars spread through a specific group. Now, let’s get back to place branding.

Innovators to Laggards: The Journey of Cities

Levitating trains. A fake moon. A car-free, carbon-free city built in a straight line over 100 miles long in the desert. These are some of the plans for Neom – Saudi Arabia’s futuristic eco-city. Cities like NEOM -and San Francisco (the daring souls)- are like companies that are first to market with groundbreaking products. They’re where you could find the implementation of blockchain in public services or entire districts committed to zero waste. 

Once Innovators introduce a novelty, cities like Singapore and Amsterdam (cool kids) come into play. Much like industry leaders who are quick to embrace successful innovations, these cities adopt new technologies and methodologies whose efficacy has been demonstrated by Innovators. Early Adopter cities share a few critical characteristics: They are well-connected and respected (Remember, they are the cool kids!) So, they act as a platform for the innovation to shine. Also, because they are “selectively” risk-tolerant, their adoption of an idea often serves as validation for later adopters. In other words, if an idea can make it to Singapore, it can make it anywhere!

Next are heavyweight cities like New York and London (eager followers). These places are comparable to established businesses like Microsoft or IBM that cautiously adopt new practices after they’ve been widely accepted. They must ensure they’re not left behind either. But they’re not the first to jump onto new trends. They need to see a proof of concept.

Finally, cities like Rome and Detroit (hesitant followers) are like those companies that are hesitant to make organizational changes and only do so when it’s almost universally accepted. They are late, but they eventually get on board with the change.

Know Thyself

The diffusion of innovation theory provides essential cues for place brand strategists in tailoring their approach. A city’s brand strategy must be carefully crafted to fit its specific profile within the innovation adoption curve. Striking a balance is crucial.

For example, if a Late Majority city tries to brand itself highly innovative, it will struggle to meet those expectations. Stakeholders expecting leading-edge experiences will be disappointed by the city’s more cautious approach. The hype won’t match the reality on the ground.

For instance, take the Quayside Project, Google’s cancelled smart city in Toronto. The data privacy issues resulted in public backlash. The lack of infrastructure in the area slowed down the project. Lack of experience in managing the complexities of such a cutting-edge project, both from a technical and governance perspective, was the last nail in the coffin.

Conversely, an Early Adopter place should not downplay its innovative spirit. Case in point: The success of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative was well-received mainly due to its alignment with the city’s Early Adopter profile. Singapore focused on issues that mattered to its citizens, ensuring a smoother adoption process.

A Word to Brand Strategists: Know the Nature of Your Beast

Like a bespoke suit, a place’s branding strategy must align with its diffusion of innovation profile. Brand messaging, visual identity, and marketing campaigns should reflect the place’s true relationship with risk and change -thus, its personality.

Consider it this way: Barossa Valley in Australia is like a tech-savvy friend always trying the latest apps. Known for its modern wine-making and tourism, it’s quick to embrace new ways of doing things. On the other hand, Parma in Italy is like your classic, timeless friend who still loves vinyl records. Parma, famous for its traditional cheese and cured meats, is more careful when adopting new methods. Both places are great, but their attitudes toward change are different. So, their brand strategies should reflect these unique approaches.

Tactical Tips: The Way Forward for Different Cities

To maintain the coherence and credibility of your place’s brand strategy, it’s crucial to align your approach with your city’s profile on the innovation adoption curve. The below practical guide offers tailored recommendations for Innovator, Early Adopter, Early Majority, and Late Majority cities. Whether your city is a risk-embracing Innovator or a cautious Late Majority, these tactical insights will help you navigate the complexities of your branding journey effectively.

Positioning CommunicationValue PropositionActionEmotion
Innovator PlacePosition as a experimental playground, a visionary hub that makes the impossible possible.Use edgy, future-oriented messaging to attract visionaries.Showcase groundbreaking projects and technologies.Implement and assess high-risk, high-reward pilot projects.
Wonder & Curiosity
Early Adopter PlaceBe a courageous trendsetter that refines and popularizes innovations.Communicate bravery, sophistication, and informed risk-taking.Highlight innovative, yet proven, services and amenities.
Form partnerships with proven innovators; focus on ROI.

Admiration & Confidence
Early Majority PlacePosition as steadily progressive place that meets citizens’ needs reliably.Convey empathy, prudence, and dependable growth.Offer amenities and services with broad appeal and proven success.
Scale proven initiatives; aim for incremental improvements.

Trust & Comfort
Late Majority PlaceEmphasize wisdom, stability, and the use of time-tested methods.Messaging focused on deep knowledge, tradition, and long-standing reputation.Focus on classic experiences and established governance models.Improve and update existing systems; be cautious with new implementations.Respect & Security
The Place Brand Diffusion of Innovation Positioning Spectrum

When aligned with the diffusion of innovation profile, place branding rings true. It comes across as an authentic representation of local culture and values. This coherence is the foundation for a strong and trustworthy brand identity.

Let’s end with a cliché: In the ever-evolving landscape of place branding, the only constant is change. As a strategist, to address today’s challenges, you must first understand how your client has responded to changes in the past. Because whether they are naturally eager or innately cautious would shape the place brand’s authenticity and credibility.

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