Is Place Branding Marketing?

Ed BurghardThe keys to brand success are self-definition, transparency, authenticity and accountability.

Simon Mainwaring

I have been reading Simon Anholt’s writing about place branding for the last 5+ years. It is interesting to see his thoughts on the subject develop.

I recently read his editorial “Place branding: Is it marketing or isn’t it?” published in Palgrave’s Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2008).  I think the editorial does a nice job of putting forward some operational definitions and discussing the common misperception that branding (or any sort) is synonymous with marketing.

Because I too observed how confused people are on the terminology, I actually authored three posts on the subject intended to provide additional perspective and hopefully some clarity:

Brand and Branding Defined

Branding versus Marketing

Selling, Marketing and Branding Defined

Understanding the terminology is important because so many community leaders either believe that 1) a great marketing effort is all that is needed to create sustainable economic vitality or 2) place branding is a complete waste of time and resources.  In my experience, and opinion, both beliefs are absolutely false.

In his editorial, Simon raises the need to connect public policy with place branding.  In this, I believe he is absolutely on the mark.  For perspective, in place branding, the strategic levers typically are asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform.  I think of these as a community’s product development strategies.  They are how you can proactively manage the perceptual gap between a community’s image (today’s reality) and its desired identity (tomorrow’s desired reality).

Simon also brings up the point that “Strategy without substance is spin.” And “Strategy that is accompanied by symbolic actions but no real substance is worse still.”  Again, I think Simon raises an important point that is spot on.  To be effective, a community’s brand promise (just like a consumer brand) must be authentic.

I started the Strengthening Brand America Project because I was concerned the authenticity of Brand America’s promise was being eroded globally.  I was, and still am, concerned that our walk was/is not matching our talk.  The longer we allow this dissonance, the less believable Brand America’s promise becomes.  People around the world and in our country will increasingly believe the American Dream is simply an inspirational idea, but is not truly attainable.  I find this alarming and the negative implications for our nation are both real and significant.

Here are some blog posts I authored on the importance of authenticity in branding.  They will give you additional perspective.

Authenticity – A Critical Element of Place Branding

Make an Authentic Promise

Is Brand America’s Promise Losing Authenticity?

The World Now Expects Authenticity

Probably the best way to underscore the difference between branding and marketing is Simon’s last paragraph in his editorial.  “But then, did not the wisest marketers always know that the most important aspect of any marketing initiative was the quality of the product?  Good advertising [marketing] as Bill Bernbach once remarked, can only make a bad product fail faster: and the same is most certainly true of places.”  When I was responsible for branding Ohio, one of our Board Members said it a little less eloquently when he challenged our mission.  He said – “This better not be another put lipstick on a pig exercise”.

If your community is not competitive, then a great marketing campaign will simply make more site selectors and CEOs aware that it is not a viable location choice.  The harsh reality is that if you put lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig.  It is like I said in my blog post “Put First Things First”  – Investing in promoting a non-competitive promise is a complete waste of resources.  And, as an aside, the judge of whether your community promise is competitive is not your Board of Directors or local elected officials; it is the audience you are trying to convince to invest in your community.

Simon also states “Whether they like it or not, countries and cities and regions in the age of global competition all need to market themselves: the most effective methods for doing this may owe little to the art of selling consumer goods, yet the challenge is precisely the same.”

I like the intent of his comment. He is correct that the tactics used in place branding are not the same as those used in selling consumer products.  But, branding is first and foremost about strategy.  In my experience the strategies used to successfully brand corporations and products in the private sector do in fact work in place branding.  The tactical expression of those strategies is certainly different.  But, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water simply because the tactics are different.  My branding career at Procter & Gamble was in their prescription pharmaceutical business.  From a tactical perspective, it would have been easy to argue that marketing a prescription product to doctors was very different than marketing diapers to Moms, therefore the P&G branding expertise did not apply.  It would have been easy and dead wrong.  In fact, it is the knowledge to reapply those very principles that is needed to make place branding effective.  Take a look at the Four Step Process For Building A Brand post for some insight into how you should apply those principles.


I hope you spend some quality time with this post and look at the references provided.  I believe the economic development profession needs to dramatically improve its game when it comes to place branding.  If we don’t, then Brand America’s global image will continue to decline (as measured by FutureBrand’s annual global image study).  The economic implications of a continued decline are not something any of us want to see on our watch.

If you are a branding professional in the private sector, please share your thoughts on how you think the principles could be reapplied in place branding.  If you are an economic development professional, please share your stories (positive and negative) on the challenges you face to effective branding of your community.

I would love to get a good dialogue going on this subject and your participation will help.  Thanks in advance.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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