Does Place Branding Work?

Ed BurghardI love a challenging question and one of the more challenging is the question of success measurement. If you invest more time and money in place branding, can you reasonably expect a return on investment? It is a great question and definitely not simple to answer.

First a caveat, the answer needs to assume a well-executed place branding effort. There are certainly many poorly executed attempts and just like in product and corporate branding they end up being a failure. Poor execution rarely leads to success. But, if we assume a quality execution, what evidence exists that suggests place branding is a successful approach to creating economic prosperity?

Some Great Reading

Here are some resources I found that provide you a degree of insight –

My personal belief is that place branding does in fact work; but, there are far too many projects started that either lack the appropriate expertise or adequate funding to be successful. Project failure leads to general distrust of the process and a unwillingness to invest in supporting it.

One additional contributing factor is the failure to recognize the role of product development in place branding. Product performance is a key criteria for success and that requires the proactive management of product development to ensure a place promise remains relevant and competitive. In place branding, product development can be thought of as generally including public policy reform, infrastructure investment and asset creation. It is important a place consistently deliver its promise in an authentic way.

It Takes More Than a Logo and Tagline

I have read a lot of blog posts and articles that state the obvious – clever logos and tag lines are not sufficient to win. They aren’t sufficient to win in product or corporate branding either. The tactics and the leadership challenges are clearly different for place branding than for product and corporate branding. But, the tactics and leadership challenges are different when comparing the branding of prescription pharmaceuticals and soap. What is important is that the branding principles are essentially the same. Lessons learned in product and corporate branding can be reapplied in place branding.


Feel free to add your personal story related to place branding (success or failure) by leaving a comment on this post. The more we share our experience with each other the better results we each will achieve.

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17 Comments so far

  1. Brenton Schmidt

    December 11, 2009

    Certainly it works. I’m witnessing it first hand.

    I’ve been living in Waterloo Ontario Canada for 7 years. I (and many others) resonate with the brand of Waterloo. This region is one of, if not the fastest growing areas in Canada.

    Waterloo has been defined (not by the city/region but by some international organization) as one of the most intelligent cities in the world. It has a local university that has been called the MIT of the north. RIM (developers of the BlackBerry)and many other technology companies started in the university and now employee thousands and fund numerous research and other types of organizations, sports facilities etc.

    Waterloo region also has a rich history of German settlers and old order Mennonites/Amish who live off the grid.

    I believe there is a shared story that fuels the brand, that people who live here are living and buying into. It is the archetypal story of the pragmatic, humble pioneer/innovator/entrepreneur.

    This is a place where independent minds, hard work and being good citizens and neighbors are encouraged and rewarded. There certainly has been a shift from blue to white collar work but the underlying soul or story of the place is the same.

    The brand and story are continually being told and retold, reinforced and invested in emotionally and financially by the government, business owners and citizens. So the brand gets stronger. People want to associate with and invest in winners and the region is certainly living up to that image.

    This is not a brand that was built through advertising. My sense is that it has been built as a result of business and university leaders having a clear vision, some good luck and timing and the work ethic to make it happen.

  2. Alan S. Michaels

    December 11, 2009

    Some towns have successfully renamed themselves for tourists….

    Some big cities and many states try promotions, mostly for tourists but also to attract businesses… like the “I love New York” commercials from ten years ago.

    I think most states try both tourist commercials and business promotions in the creation of industry clusters (like Boston with biotech / life sciences).

    Some countries like Ireland and some Islands around the world like to brand themselves as low tax or no tax havens

    I believe most locations are really branded by a newspaper or song writer, even more so than a government agency engaging an ad agency.

    Also, in our business where we analyze the top 10,000 global industries, it is amazing how many lines of business governments operate in (and many of these businesses compete head-to-head with private companies).

    Alan – Formerly from the Big Apple, now from a small city some brand as the “Spiedie Capital of the World” (I’m not sure that’s an example of success, unless you’re a restaurant around here that features them.)

  3. Kristin Batulis

    December 11, 2009

    Great blog!! And agree that focus should be made on product development (or he meat and potatoes) instead of a fancy logo and tag line. Currently working on branding our Business Retention & Expansion program…. and in the infancy stages right now. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Rob Wolfe

    December 11, 2009

    I agree that place branding does work and is critical. I recently read a Fast Company article about what they labeled the “Best Marketing Campaign Ever” — achieved by a small Tourism board promoting a little known island off the Great Barrier Reef. Very interesting:

    Local tourism offices and countries are challenged to market and manage the brands of their destinations, which is complicated by our current economic situation. While most of us can probably think of a small town or even a large city that has built a successful brand image, we might be harder pressed to name a country that is currently doing the same. Country brands usually are not focused, resulting in unsuccessful branding of nations. According to authors and place branding experts Teemu Moilanen & Seppo Rainisto (book: How to Brand Nations, Cities and Destinations: A Planning Book for Place Branding), it is possible to successfully raise your national identity to the level of an attractive brand.

    The emergence of this topic is interesting given this year’s transition on our own political front. Earlier this year, I read an editorial in the Toronto Star titled, ‘Obama Stressed America’s ‘Brand’. While the election may have had more to do with the branding of Obama himself, the branding of our nation is certainly an interesting topic for ongoing discussion among branding experts. I question whether the voice of a new president with a strong personal brand under the roof of the branded house of the USA is enough to change or strengthen the nation’s brand image. Just as for any product, the management of the brand requires laser focus on all the components of the brand.

    If you’re interested, earlier this year I posted an article, The USA Brand, with insightful, provocative and emotional responses representing five different nations:

  5. James O. Armstrong

    December 11, 2009

    There is absolutely no question that Place Branding works. I have had the distinct privilege of working in an Economic Development capacity at each of the following publications during my career: (1) BusinessWeek Magazine, (2) Industry Week, (3) The Financial Times, (4) Financial World Magazine, and now (5) Inbound Logistics, where I also serve as the point person for both Economic Development clients worldwide and especially for our Economic Development Special Sections.

    During 2009, we ran seven (7) such supplements. The Missouri Partnership Special Section during 9/09 actually ran 25 Pages in our magazine and it will run for 12 months Online in our Digital Edition, where I estimate that it will be downloaded a total of 3,000 – 5,000 times.

    A simple principal is this: (1) Doing womething is better than taking no action, (2) Doing more of anything is the next best step and (3)Pulling out all of the stops will always beat the alternative. Advertising, Public Relations or Trade Shows will all work.

  6. George

    December 11, 2009

    Does Place Branding Work?

    An excellent question. The simple answer is: Only if you want it to, because there is an abundance of certainty in tracking results and an equal abundance of tools to do so. However, place branding can only work if a place is “brandable” to begin with. The ad campaign for the destination Rob mentions is an example of a great promo, but place branding? Definitely not. And Rob, I do appreciate you reminding me of that campaign because, well, like most campaigns, I forgot about it. So how do we get to PROVE place branding works?

    First: Let’s start with the rules or at least the premise: A brand is a distinguishing name and/or symbol intended to identify a product or producer. Now just substitute the word “product” with “place” for the sake of “place branding” if you wish, even though I think the added jargon is unnecessary.

    Second: Now task brand as a verb, i.e. Branding. Specifically, what ACTS create the brand so that it is distinguished from others? Well, in the case of New Orleans perhaps it will be Mardi Gras and Katrina. For New York, perhaps Broadway and 911, and I do agree with Alan’s comment on the “I Love New York” campaign. The shear conceit of New Yorkers in those ads was a promotional coup. Nonetheless, it will always be a combination of ALL attributes that distinguish the brand, including but not limited to the efforts of advertising and PR. The public accepts all input on a brand, both good and bad. The campaign Rob refers to for that nameless place in Australia is an example of non-brand specific advertising. The advertising did nothing to “distinguish” the “place” as a unique “brand” and that tactic could have been used for any tropical getaway. Although it was a great promo, it did not distinguish the brand (which is why nobody remembers the name of that beach, not even the ad award judges). Brenton also makes a great point about little Waterloo (really enjoyed my visit there) in that the brand is “defined” by a culture of intellectualism. I would only add that the brand is what it is. No one gets to define it really. That is, no one defines Waterloo as anything but what it inherently possesses. Not the best brand expert can define anything. Brands can only be communicated and recognized, and only by what can be genuinely distinguished. When it comes to branding, the tail never wags the dog.

    Third: Prove the ad or PR or whatever effort is worth the branding expenditure. You can even apply this discipline to infrastructure planning… how a bridge is designed or the selection of art on a waterfront. Does it distinguish the brand? This is where there is much mischief and sometimes no real thought or effort at all. But on those rare occasions where branding followed the consumer’s perspective all the way through economic decisions, there is little question as to the value of branding, only some questions as to the exact value. There are many methods to trace branding to revenue, and I used them all in state and regional campaigns I’ve worked on over the years. The best ones involved cooperative ad efforts where revenue channels helped track results. These things always work best when everybody has some skin in the game. The Hiltons of Florida Campaign when I was at McCann Erickson comes to mind. I had the Florida Tourism TV ad mashed with some Hilton footage and 1-800-HILTONS tagged to track intent and bookings. Bingo! However, in my experience, there has been little motivation to build “proof” as a requirement for branding efforts because it is considered expensive and it has a frightening component of accountability, which leads me to a question for all of you…

    Fourth: Who really wants to know if place branding works anyway?

  7. Assaf Guery

    December 12, 2009

    Place branding requires a well balanced mix of authenticity, spectacle and a wide reaching consensus across all the groups required to fund, launch and implement it…
    I am currently involved in creating a destination brand for a highly innovative VC firm whose vision extends the VC model in terms of academic, philanthropic, artistic and creative dimensions…

  8. Joe Wallace

    December 12, 2009

    Of course it does and there are usually spill over effects. Silicon Valley is a brand. Detroit is a brand that tarnishes the entire Midwest in some way. Recently Louisville has done a fantastic job of place branding with the “possibility city” campaign. I understand they had a $4M development budget. Most places however don’t get it and don’t commit the funds to get any traction. Logo’s and tag lines don’t clean streets and create lifestyle. Elected officials are nearly hopeless in the branding department and unfortunately they hold allot of the economic development purse strings.

  9. Kevin Blackburn

    December 14, 2009

    Yes, with the right level of investment, a good team to implement it and a strategy that can evolve and move as the place itself does. You can’t just slap a label on a town or city – it really doesn’t work.

  10. Mike Simmons

    December 14, 2009

    I believe place branding can work, but it has been my experience that the majority of communities simply regurgitate the same tired copy points (especially in economic development circles).
    Read any of the major site selection magazines and almost every location ad talks about “great workforce, excellent quality of life, strategic location, etc.” You can simply insert any community into these ads.
    Place branding works when you have a niche or can find that distinguishing characteristic that makes you different or unique. It needs to spark an emotional response which most place brands do not do.
    We are working on strengthening our brand among local residents. If the locals do not believe or support our brand, then no one else will either.

  11. Tom Garrett

    December 14, 2009

    Interesting post and interesting comments – can it work? The best answer is Maybe. Several criteria have to be met though: 1) there must be an organic and truly unique basis for the brand; 2) there must be internal alignment on both understanding the truth behind that organic basis AND to coalesce (financially and as a community) behind that inherent brand; and 3) there must be patience: significant results will not be seen in one or two years. It takes a LOT of money and a LOT of time to embed a brand image in the mind of consumers. My observations of destination marketing after 25 years in the field are that in most instances (say 95% of the time) the supporting constituents (both the public sector who funds much of the effort and the private sector who provides the product) do not have the patience needed to uncover the organic brand and then project that brand image to the public. And to be completely fair, the same is true for most companies!

  12. Steve S. Chandler

    December 14, 2009

    First of all, great blog post. The initial post and the subsequent posts from others is good stuff.

    As a former President of a community branding consulting firm, I’ve worked with many places for the purpose of creating a strong destination brand. Whew! It’s not easy, but it does work. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of failed attempts, but I’ve seen many that are doing it right now and have results to prove it. What’s the difference maker?

    1. Commitment from the entire community leadership

    2. A great product (you can’t sell a great place in marketing if it’s not)

    3. Patience and focus on marketing what you can deliver outstanding.

    Just my thoughts towards the topic.

    Here are some great place brands. Some are tourism towns but others are economic living machines.

    Dublin, OH; McKinney, TX; Spartanburg, SC; Augusta, GA; Lansing, MI

    Here’s a related post on how destination brands are not created –

  13. David Lukshus

    December 14, 2009

    Great question, Ed.

    George’s comment (“…the brand is what it is. No one gets to define it really. That is, no one defines Waterloo as anything but what it inherently possesses. Not the best brand expert can define anything.”) is right on.

    It reminded me of my favorite Bill Parcells quote— “You are what your record says you are.”

    Any level-headed branding professional will tell you — that is, when she/he is not in a presentation — that brands are created by its results, and reaffirmed with truthful “branding” efforts.

    So, yes, I believe “place branding” works. In fact, it works EVERY TIME. The harder question is: Will/Can those people responsible for their brand (i.e., “place”) accept Coach Parcell’s ruthless and elegant prism. Because, until they do, successful branding — be it product, service, or place — is both impossible and counter-productive.

  14. Jeff Bach

    December 14, 2009

    I also agree that place branding works and that it takes time. I would offer up:
    #1 – the Wisconsin Dells, WI. This is a regional draw within 4 hours of Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicagoland. Originally (~50 years ago) the Dells was a destitute burg with barely a gas station on the edge of a reservation. Today it is known as a waterpark destination, drawing millions of people year round primarily from Chicagoland, to dozens of indoor and outdoor water parks. Bruce Neviaser, founder of Great Wolf Resorts should get a share (if not more) for really getting this concept up and going. He also took it nationwide to the Poconos, the Portland area, and several other locations.

    #2 – Also here in Wisconsin and also benefiting from a proximity to Chicagoland, Minocqua is another place brand that has built up very successfully over the last 50 or so years. Minocqua is known as a place full of summer vacation cabins,lodges, and resorts, nearly all of which are on water.

    #3 – Lake Geneva is another place brand, although I perceive it to be a great deal weaker than the above examples. Like the others it is a weekend getaway type of area, loaded with weekend cabins and hedonistic pleasures that have long attracted the wealthy and corrupt from Chicagoland. It has done the least to promote itself, but has likely been the most successful at popularity spread by simple word of mouth.

  15. […] branding being practiced. These communities are definitely not getting an acceptable ROI. But, does place branding work? Actually, yes it does if done correctly. And, it actually requires very few incremental new jobs […]

  16. Gunter Soydanbay

    April 5, 2012

    Based on my experience, the smaller the destination, the better the brand. Creating a strong brand requires sacrifice and overcommitment. Large destination cannot agree on a common vision easily. That’s why successful destination brands are usually the small ones. Here is a good example of place branding:

  17. […]   […]

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