Be Brand Aware in Regional Initiatives say Bill Bathurst, Brand Strategy Advisor
So the question to pose here is: Is it possible to create a regional brand with a clear, attractive and unique identity and image? A brand which, at the same time, is acceptable to all participating cities or counties and which is recognizable and attractive to all relevant external audiences? If so, how can it be done? I will try to present one take on this.
But first of all – what is actually a brand? In short, one way of seeing a brand is as a conceptual entity that creates positive, unique and distinguishable associations. And brandbuilding involves creating and maintaining these associations. It is all about identifying, developing and communicating the parts of the product, corporate or place identity that are favorable in the eyes of specific target groups. According to established practice, this needs to be done with coherence and consistency. And the idea or message you want to project needs to be credible, authentic and easily understood by both the internal and the external audience.
Place-branding borrows methods and techniques of marketing from the business world, but, if applied at all sensibly, it is much more than a marketing tool. It can better be described as both an organizational principle and a strategic world-view, a lens through which you see the world around you and gauge the implications of the events that happen in it.
According to research and established practice, the practice of place-branding can offer the means to achieve not only economic but to some extent also social and cultural benefits. It can promote the attractiveness of a place for investors, export buyers, tourists, residents, employees and students. It can also be a place-development tool, in the sense that it can serve to focus questions of identity and vision, and provide driving force and direction in the development efforts of a place. Furthermore, it is said to have a potential to mobilize civic pride; that is to make the inhabitants of a place more aware and proud of its uniqueness and achievements.
Any well-planned branding exercise should start with a rigorous assessment of the place and by asking very fundamental questions: How is our place perceived? What are our strengths and weaknesses? Do we have something that is considered unique?
On this basis, the next step is to formulate a vision for the future. What and where do we want to be? Where should we go from here? How should this be done? A part of the vision is to identify and formulate a set of core values and core ideas that should permeate communication and behavior towards target groups. These values and ideas should not be a desk product; they have to be anchored in the identity of the place. At the same time, a brand identity can to some degree be ‘aspirational’, i.e. not so much expressing what you are today as what you want and aim to be in the future. The challenge lies in striking an appropriate balance between current on-the-ground realities and a visionary interpretation of future potential.
However, without going into details, branding is a very difficult and complex endeavor for a number reasons for any place – be it a town, city, country or, not least, a ‘macro-region’ encompassing several countries.
Nation-branding expert Simon Anholt has suggested a ‘soft-power approach’ to governing a branding effort in the larger regions:
‘It is clear that no person or body exists with the influence (or the right) to impose a common brand strategy onto the institutions, governments, private sector bodies and general populations of the region’s member nations. Arguably, it wouldn’t be a good idea even if it were possible. Yet without some degree of harmonized behavior and communication amongst these stakeholders, a region will never develop a powerful or recognizable brand identity. We should rely on people’s natural desire to join in when they see a truly inspiring (and demonstrably effective) initiative, and when they clearly understand why it is in their interest to do so.
The soft-power approach will necessitate harmonised behaviour and communication, which arguably will be facilitated by a feeling of affinity and unity of purpose amongst stakeholders.
I want to argue here that it might sometimes be enabling and instructive to think of branding as an approach. Something in the style of a ‘brand-aware approach’ that can be applied to city policy, to county programs, to trade initives, to investment,to educational programs, to the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems and to tourism promotion
In conclusion I would state that.. One can safely assume that the difficulties of place-branding are a function of the size and diversity of the place; the larger and more diverse a place, the fewer the opportunities to apply ‘conventional’ branding. So when dealing with the larger regions, the brand-aware approach, rather than a fully-fledged place-branding strategy, might be sensible.