Place branding is so much more than just a marketing strategy

Spark interview with Warda Belabas and Laura Ripoll Gonzalez
Warda, Laura & Run Zhao - Organisers Event
Jan van der Ploeg

Many cities and regions started to brand themselves. This phenomenon is called place branding, and the focus of current research by Warda Belabas and Laura Ripoll Gonzalez from Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral sciences. On the 23rd of November, they will organize a workshop in Rotterdam Zuid where they will bring academics and place branding practitioners together. Together they will discuss how to make place branding more inclusive.

‘Rotterdam. Make it Happen’ or ‘Nothing tops Groningen’, are two of the slogans that Dutch cities use to position themselves.  More and more cities are starting to invest in this sort of marketing practices. They do this for example, to attract new citizens, highly educated people, or new businesses. But both researchers see that place branding is about much more than logos and slogans: “Place branding is about sharing a story or narrative related to the values of the city. In my research I’m interested in looking at which aspects places or cities put on display and what they exclude at the same time”, says Warda.

Coca-Cola diversity

In her research, Warda focuses on how local governments deal with migration related diversity. She has an interest in identity and inclusion. People often only think of place branding in an economic context, but it’s essentially about identity. Warda therefore stresses the importance that the images that a city uses match with how people experience the city. “Cities want to present themselves as a diverse place, but often you see only images of trendy, young, and handsome people. Or they only show the different food cultures. This is a sort of ‘Coca-Cola diversity’ and it’s a bit phony. It makes people frustrated as cities offer so much more than that.”

Whereas in marketing a simple slogan is often the best slogan, a city is so much more complex than a product or brand. Laura Ripoll Gonzalez also studies place branding, but her focus is more on sustainability and smart cities. She also sees the importance that all people feel represented, not just some groups. “If you recognize yourself in the message, you are more likely to tell others how nice Rotterdam is. You create a sense of belonging”, explains Laura. “This way it becomes a powerful policy tool that can bring people together to solve wicked problems, also to achieve city aspirations like sustainability.”

Understanding mechanisms

In that case, it is important to know how people think about sustainability and how they want to act, and not to just share the city’s ideas of what sustainability means. It is an illusion to think that as a city, you control the message completely. The ‘I Amsterdam’ slogan, initially intended to make citizens proud, was discontinued as it became a symbol for the type of mass tourism they wanted to ban. In Rotterdam, on social media, the slogan #rotterdammakeitNOThappen was used to criticize the municipality because their policies could lead to more gentrification. “With the use of social media, brands are constantly recreated. That’s why you become a curator instead of a creator of the message. The key for us is to understand these mechanisms and see how can place brands, as public brands, be co-created to deliver benefits for all.”

Workshop at Gemaal op Zuid

Even though many cities are involved in place branding, they often lack knowledge about how to market a city in a bottom-up or inclusive manner, as well as the potential impact of their campaigns. On the 23rd of November Laura and Warda will be involved in a workshop about place branding at ‘Gemaal op Zuid’. They will bring together academics and practitioners involved in place branding. Together they want to look at challenges and questions that arise, such as how to work together with local communities. Laura: “Governments are willing to have a bottom-up approach to city branding, yet it’s hard to connect to certain groups in society. That’s why we find it symbolic to come together in Rotterdam Zuid.”

One of the speakers is Nina Wols-Boons, Strategic advisor on City branding. Both researchers are very enthusiastic about the willingness of the municipality to work together on place branding. They also see that the city has taken steps to make their branding more inclusive. Warda: “What I really liked is that they came up with a new city branding database. It is filled with pictures of Rotterdam that are freely available. The pictures also show Rotterdam Zuid and Westkruiskade. So not just iconic places, but images that show the real Rotterdam.”

More information

The event ‘Co-creating place brands’ will take place on 23 November at Gemaal op Zuid. Check out the full program here.

More information

This interview is part of Spark. With these interviews, we aim to draw attention to the positive impact of the faculty's education and research on society. The stories in Spark give an insight into what makes ESSB students, alumni, staff and researchers tick.

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