Interview with Joao R. Freire – Place Branding Expert

Joao R. Freire is an economist by trade, who has worked in the fields of finance and marketing for several multinational companies in Brazil, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Joao is also an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Ecoterra, a company specialized in the marketing of natural food products. He holds Ph.D in Place Branding from the London Metropolitan University (UK), where he is also a guest lecturer in marketing. His research focused on the analysis of the interaction between "place brands" and consumers. Joao’s greatest interest is in branding and, more specifically, Place Branding. After years of quantitative and qualitative research, intense studying and working on branding issues, he has developed new ideas and a unique methodology for brand identity construction. Joao is a frequent speaker and author on Branding topics. His articles have appeared in international publications such as Place Branding, Journal of Brand Management, Social Responsibility Journal, the Journal of Tourism and Development and the book "Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice". He has also been invited to serve as a reviewer for the Place Branding journal, which is published by Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK. Joao works as a Brand Consultant for Brandia Central in Lisbon. Joao papers on the subject can be found at (go to Think Tank and then Papers).

I became acquainted with Joao via email. He introduced himself after visiting and shared some of his impressive work. Joao recently authored a paper that challenges the concept of place branding. I liked it and wanted to ask Joao a few questions about his findings. I believe you will enjoy the interview and will find Joao’s perspective both interesting and thought provoking.

  1. Question: In your recent paper "Place-branding, are we talking nonsense? A theoretical reflection on brands applied to places." you speak about stereotypes as a mechanism people use to shorthand and store information. In principle, is this the same concept as a brand image (how a brand is currently perceived)? You conclude "… the worst thing an aspiring community, country or any other type of place could do is not intervene in their own image creation and ignore branding concepts." Do you feel this is just as true when it comes to capital attraction as it is with tourism?

    Yes I do. Place Branding is an essential activity that helps managers have a strategic view of the place’s positioning. This positioning contributes to the successful attraction of resources where those resources typically include: tourists, capital, and labour. The task of place branding is, therefore, to build and to transfer certain attributes of a desired identity to a pre-selected target market. Essentially the objective of place branding is the development of a brand that will satisfy the needs of the target market. It is successful if both the local citizens and businesses are satisfied, and if the expectations of target market, such tourists and investors are met. Place marketers, however, must ensure that the images transmitted to the target audience are understood and contain relevant and favourable meanings. In order to achieve these objectives it is important to define the main target audience. Doing this allows place marketers to differentiate the place from its´ competitors, to understand its’ strengths, weaknesses, and differentiating factors in order to attract investment.

    Therefore, when we talk about capital attraction and investment we have to define and understand the requirements for investment. If, for example, the investment will need to attract specialized labour from other outside areas to work in the site, then it will be important that the place has a positive image. A place’s positive image will attract more people and it will be cheaper for the company. This is relevant because if the place image is negative the company might have to spend extra money simply to attract the specialized labour to the place. Whereas if the place has a favourable image then the company will not have to give extra benefits to attract labour. Basically, places that have a negative image will not attract many people and the people that are attracted will be attracted just by compensation packages. In conclusion terms of expats it will be cheaper for the company to invest in places that have a favourable and positive image.

  2. Question: Is there a valid comparison between the storytelling role of primitive shamans with the role of television and the internet to creating a place image? What are the implications to a location when the "standardized" truth may not be a fair or favorable assessment of the objective reality?

    As you mentioned in an earlier article, often the terminology brand image and brand identity are not used in the correct way. Therefore, it is relevant to clarify and distinguish the difference in the meanings between image and identity. Image, or more specifically place image, is something that is perceived by the consumer. It is about consumers’ perceptions and beliefs. Identity, on the other hand, is something that the brand manager aspires to achieve. Brand identity is created by the brand owner so that what is transmitted to the consumer is a carefully thought out projection of the intention of the brand owner. In order to manage place-brands successfully and therefore reduce the gap between identity and the standardised true (or image), it is necessary to understand the variables that compose the brand. This concept is a major aspect of branding. Which variables can the place use to align identity with image? By managing the variables at a product and communication level the brand manager can align identity with image.

  3. Question: What are the differences between communication and brand building?

    The exercise of brand building is often confused with communication. For some practitioners and researchers brand building is seen as even being synonymous with communication. There is often the belief that the creation of intangible values and bonds between consumers and a place-brand is only achieved through advertising. Consequently, the place-brand building exercise will mainly be the responsibility of advertising agencies with a low involvement of other stakeholders. However, empowering advertising agencies with the place-brand’s identity building demonstrates a lack of understanding of this concept. By focusing the attention solely on communication, all other areas that might be relevant for the brand identity construction are obscured and considered irrelevant. The main argument against this point of view is that brands exist with or without advertising. A destination is embedded with meaning, which means that place brand managers might even decide to manage their brand without any agency or without any promotional campaign. The brand building process is not about advertising or communication but about what the product can offer.

    The fact is that the branding exercise is more complex than communication. For example, one of challenges associated with place-branding is ownership. Products or service brands normally belong to an organisation, which manages them in a specific manner in order to fulfil certain objectives. Furthermore, those branded products, services, or concepts are protected by legal mechanisms that give exclusive ownership to the organisations. While a product or service has clear ownership, a place does not. A place is composed of a number of different and independent organisations. There are the local and state agencies that have concrete planning objectives. There is also a plethora of privately owned organisations who pursue their own individual objectives. Adding to this complexity it cannot be forgotten that the people living in each particular place have the freedom to act as they wish. Places, obviously, will have to deal with the multitude of citizens, who will have different values, attitudes and beliefs. This is in contrast with organisations where brand managers have direct control over their employees, recruiting only the ones that share the same values as the brand. In this sense, place branding is a highly complex task, and achieving a pre-determined position will be more difficult than if dealing with a product or a brand.

    An essential point to guarantee success of branding places is developing and having a common platform; where all relevant players, governments, citizens, and the businesses can communicate and share their vision. In order to achieve the desired coherent identity, place managers will have to take into account several relevant factors. There has to be a planning group that is composed not only of the local and regional governments (and in some cases national government), but also of the business community and citizens. It is their role not only to develop a vision of what the community wants to achieve, but to also consider how to achieve it. This group will have at its disposal several marketing variables that can be managed in order to reach a set of proposed objectives. The job of the planning group will be the management of marketing variables – infrastructure, attractions, image, quality of life, and people – with the intention of influencing the behaviour of a selected target group. Therefore, it is important to understand the role each of these variables has on the brand- image formation. Managers can only successfully work with variables if they know the relevant impact upon brand image formation.

    Nonetheless, the impact of the variables on image formation is also dependent on the target markets. Therefore, in order to understand the role of the place-brand’s variable on image formation it is necessary to define and segment the audiences.

    Segmentation is a basic marketing principle that seeks to increase business effectiveness by rationalising the use of limited resources. Companies will tailor their offers to a strategically selected target segment. Undoubtedly the same process will apply to place-brands. This means that when place-brand managers develop a marketing plan they must clearly define the audience they want to reach. Each audience will be motivated by different needs and desires. Therefore, in order to understand the role of place-brand’s variables on image, its markers and its workings, it is necessary to define the nature of the audience.

    To sum up, there has to be a clear participation of all relevant stakeholders in the brand’s identity creation and management. It is fundamental to involve, explain and inform all relevant stakeholders in order to have a coherent communication strategy and to assure that the desire brand identity is coincident with the consumer’s brand image. This is a consequence of how information flows and how it affects the brand’s image formation. Therefore, different key stakeholders should be involved and share similar responsibility in the brand building process. Eventually, consumers’ brand images will be affected by not only marketing communications (controlled by the brand manager) but also by organic processes such as news in the press, education, literature, companies and other brands.

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