Interview with Robert Govers – Place Branding, Image and Tourism Expert

Robert Govers is currently serving as Adjunct Associate Professor, holding the Visit Flanders Chair in Tourism Management on the Master in Tourism program of the Consortium University of Leuven, Belgium. He is co-author of several journal articles and conference papers on the topics of place branding, image and tourism. He is also co-author of a book entitled "Place Branding – Glocal, Virtual and Physical Identities, Constructed, Imagined and Experienced". Robert has a unique perspective on place branding well grounded in both theory and practical application. I wanted to learn more about his new book and probe his thinking about the image of Brand America. You’ll see that Robert is optimistic that Brand America can be strengthened if appropriate steps are taken to ensure the authenticity of the Brand America promise. Or as you will read, Americans and their institutions begin to "live the brand". I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I did conducting it.

  1. Question: You have a new book entitled Place Branding about to be published by Palgrave Macmillan. What is your assessment on the general quality of place branding being practiced around the world? What are a few of the gold standard examples that impressed you the most when doing your research for the book?

    Let me first clarify our perspective on place branding the way we build it in our book. We think that place branding is about bridging gaps between: the identity or sense of place; its product offering; the experience that visitors (tourists, expats, potential investors and traders) get when they visit; and the image / perception that people have of a place. Of course, communication (which is not the same as advertising) is an important policy area that can be exploited in bridging these gaps, but as important in place branding, we think, is what we call ‘construction’ and ‘cooperation’. Construction is about product development or real actions / policy initiatives that support the brand claims (e.g. development of infrastructure, events, cooperative quality improvement programs, maybe occasionally even the creation of icons or other symbolic actions). Cooperation is about finding common ground between stakeholders, private and public sector and civil society, in order to determine what makes place unique and attractive regardless of the industry you are in or the promotional interests one is serving and to make sure that institutions, companies, but also the population ‘live the brand‘. To put it differently: we agree with prolific place branding author Simon Anholt when he states that "actions speak louder than words".

    So, talking about the general quality of place branding being practiced around the world, it is often disappointing, because in many cases place branding initiatives are reduced to short-term underfunded projects given to advertising agencies that develop a logo, slogan and advertising campaign, just to revise them all again a year after. Obviously that does not work as branding is for the long term and one should walk the talk. Without the search for a link with the unique sense of place and cooperative support all too often these campaigns lead to meaningless messages that reflect the haste with which they were devised, without attempting to force strategic choices and consensus among stakeholders. This leads to standard messages of "place x: having everything in one place", "place y: the heart of…", "place z: diverse and dynamic". In our book we refer to a typical example from our part of the world: Vlaanderen. An US example could be: "Massachusetts: It’s all here". Sometimes such campaigns are very creative and get attention, utilizing mixed media and the opportunities of Web2.0 and viral marketing, such as for instance, but the message is lost or meaningless nonetheless.

    Wales is a case that we like. They have thought about who they are, what makes them different and what uniqueness they have to offer the World. See for instance: and Another well known example is, of course, Spain with Joan Miro’s sun as its symbol, but linking that to many ‘on the ground actions’ in terms of attracting mega-events and creating new infrastructures and icons such as in Barcelona or Bilbao. The Ausies have also done interesting things; look at the tremendously successful “best job in the world” campaign which, this week, won the prestigious Cannes Lions PR Grand Prix. Although it was initiated by Tourism Queensland as a destination branding campaign (aimed at tourism as apposed to general place branding which also includes attracting Treasury (FDI), Talent and Trade; 4Ts) this campaign has probably grown beyond its initial objectives and changed Queensland’s name awareness and image throughout the world and not just as a tourist destination. Note how in all cases the programs are not just communications initiatives, but are supported with real policies and actions.

    However, the case study that we refer to in our book as our signature case, is Dubai. We have done extensive in-depth research on how Dubai developed from being a desert backwater 40 years ago into a major global hub today. It has created itself a global reputation in no time, through bold action (interestingly, Dubai does not have a branding strategy in the narrow sense of logo’s, slogans and advertising). Extensive data illustrating its success so far, but also on how Dubai projects itself as well as how it is perceived internationally, can be found in our book, but the result is that it receives recognition for its global competitiveness (see Obama mentioning Dubai 9 minutes into his speech) and cosmopolitanism (see Giuliani 26 minutes into his presentation and Obama 45 minutes into his Cairo speech).

    At the same time it is important to mention that since we think that place branding is much more than a successful communications campaign, but should be about the strategic direction of a country, state, region, city or town, it is too complex to name a best-practice example without reservations. Any place, even with a successful place branding strategy and implementation will have its share of problems. For instance Dubai is criticized for the environmental impacts of its projects and businesses and the socio-cultural issues among the local population as well as immigrant labor force. Also, of course, the current economic crisis has not been mild on Dubai. An economy that is growing fast, based on tourism and population growth because of immigration, attracts investments into real estate, retail and tourism sectors that are often speculative in the hope of more future growth. So now that cash is tight and global tourism shrinking, Dubai is hit twice as hard. Nevertheless the IMF has stated that, contrary to many other regions in the world, the GCC countries of the Arabian Gulf will still see growth, while the United Arab Emirates is one of the economies driving this. The fundamentals are still there for Dubai: attractive tax policies; good infrastructure, education and health care systems; cosmopolitan character; global connectedness; attractive lifestyle and year-round sunshine. It will pick up again.

  2. Question: In addition to your book, you also have a series of three International Place Branding Yearbooks 2010-2011-2012 planned for publication. What is the thinking behind the need for capturing and sharing the latest thinking on place branding?

    What is needed, we think, is a state of the art series of annual publications with broad multi-disciplinary principles-based conceptual perspectives on place branding. We are looking at economic, geographical, political, technological, socio-cultural as well as management and marketing perspectives to place branding. Therefore we have contributing authors from within as well as outside the field. Each yearbook is edited by us but all contributions to the yearbook series will be benchmarked against the series’ identity, particularly the criterion of “principle-based practice” of place branding and relevant perspectives. Every place branding situation is unique, but decision makers have to understand how to analyze a particular issue and apply the appropriate tools based on relevant principles. Therefore, the proposed yearbook series presents, first, the principles supported by theoretical research and evidence. Second, offers situations and cases that serve as illustrations how selected organizations faced particular challenges and the actions taken to resolve their problems.

  3. Question: The world economy is more interdependent now than it has ever been. The latest global economic crisis has truly highlighted the degree of connectivity. Competition for foreign direct investment is increasing with the rise of multinational corporations and dramatic improvements in telecommunications. What impact do these conditions have on the importance of mastering place branding as a means for economic growth and prosperity?

    As I have tried to explain and illustrate above from both a theoretical and applied perspective such as case Dubai, place branding is for the long term. Whatever the impact of the current crisis, we know from macro-economics that it is highly likely that economic growth will continue in the long run and global flows of finance, technology, people and media attention will be trying to find their way again to the best locations (which they will do in the meantime as this crisis has not stopped the world from turning, such as in Dubai, where hotels are still virtually full, but at a lower room rate). Therefore, this is a good time to develop your strategic place branding: in order to increase your current competitiveness in today’s tight market, but particularly as a way to prepare for the future. The biggest risk therefore is that with tight budgets and crisis-driven haste we end up again with quick meaningless solutions and many places trying to shout louder than the other: “please come to us, we have it all”.

  4. Question: The image of Brand America has been declining worldwide. Do you think the promise of Brand America is no longer as relevant, no longer as competitive, or no longer as authentic?

    Well, if you want people to like you, particularly if they do not know you very well, it does not help if you expect them to offer unconditional love or otherwise be an enemy. In other words, George Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” policy has not done brand America any favors. Only through dialogue can one build strong relationships so Obama’s stretched out hand will definitely boost America’s image. Of course, openness, dialogue and patience makes one vulnerable to those who intend to do you harm in order to serve their own purposes, but it builds respect and reputation with all others and therefore makes you stronger by building community, partnerships and therefore competitiveness. Brand America’s promise of freedom, opportunity and consumerism did not sound very authentic under the Bush administration, but my guess is that most people in the World still wanted to believe in these American values. This maybe explains Obama’s international popularity to some extent, but at least the opportunity to rebuild Brand America’s relevance and authenticity has been created. I would encourage Americans to again ‘live the brand’.

  5. Question: Most people do not understand that branding includes proactive management of the product development process in addition to communication of a core promise. In place branding, what does product development really mean?

    An important contribution to the literature that we are trying to make in our book is the idea of experience management. We brand places in order to attract tourists, investors, talented people and businessmen. When they visit your region, city or state, they will have some expectations on what they are likely going to experience there. Through place branding communication we try to influence these expectations, but also ‘on the ground’ we should do things in order to make sure that we fulfill our promises and create memorable experiences. This has very broad implications and requires cooperation between many actors as mentioned. For instance, you might need to improve tax systems; (international) education and health care; cultural production; housing; transport systems; hospitality training for accommodation, catering and service personnel (some places do this for customs officers, airport personnel or taxi drivers as first points of contact for visitors; first impressions count); create events and maybe build icons that reflect your identity, aspirations and brand promises. Online social media and immersive technologies or travelling exhibitions might help in bridging the gap between image and identity, by creating alternative place experiences, because again “actions speak louder than words”.

  6. Question: What is the best way to purchase your book and the yearbooks as they are published?

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