Place Branding – The Story of Bejing, China

Ed Burghard“No one is less ready for tomorrow than the person who holds the most rigid beliefs about what tomorrow will contain.”

— Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor and Howard Means
The Visionary’s Handbook: Ten Paradoxes That Will Shape the Future of Your Business

I had an opportunity to travel to China  and visit a number of the country’s biggest cities.  My take-away impressions of Bejing were very different than my going-in perceptions.  This is a city that is clearly working hard at transforming itself and is poised to be a world leading location projecting both global business and political influence.  The amazing thing is the way Bejing is embracing its rich heritage as a platform for defining its future.  This lends to creation of an authentic brand promise that residents can emotionally and intellectually support.


In the spirit of “scholarship” (a phrase specifically used in the HKU Scholars Hub copyright approved usage) I thought I’d share this 2008 case study on the branding of Bejing.  Special thanks to the author Ge Qin for authoring a wonderful paper.

Download Case Study


Several highlights From The Paper

“Good branding can assist in making cities desirable, just as bad branding can assist in making cities undesirable.” … “A strong positive image has the potential of giving a powerful and distinct competitive advantage for a place.”

Branding is a strategic exercise.  It is the key to creating guidance on how to move your community from its current image to its desired identity.  You can ;earn more about these concepts by reading my blog post entitled “Place Brand Identity versus Place Brand Image”.  Understanding these terms are important to you community’s barbing success.

“City marketing may be too superficial to change the image or quality of a city.  A high-level strategic branding plan may be needed to achieve an expected unique pro-position and experience of a city.”

Marketing is often incorrectly used as a synonym for advertising and promotion.  As a result, community’s falsely believe all that is required is to invest in telling their story.  This devolves into a “painting the pig exercise”.  In my blog post “Put First Things First”, I talk about the importance of making your community’s brand promise competitive before you invest in marketing your community.  As Gi Quin suggests, you need a branding plan in place to guide your tactical choices on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform that neutralizes competitive disadvantages and extends your community’s competitive advantages.

“Once planners understand a place’s current image, they can deliberate on what image they can build. … For an image to be effective, five general criteria [must be met] – valid, believable, simple, appealing, and distinctive.”

My list is a little different, but directionally the same.  In my post “Articulating Your Brand Promise”, I advise that it needs to be relevant, competitive and authentic. And you need to constantly work at ensuring the promise is delivered at each and every relevant touchpoint.

“Building an attractive city image is rarely easy because of the complicated nature of a city; even though the city may have all the substance, it still may not be attractive enough.  In this respect branding should link a memorable experience to the brand, and create contextual cues that underline the brand position.”

It is hard work, and can benefit from the help of a professional.  But, it is far from impossible work.  You can find my recommendations on consultants I believe “get it” and represent a good value in my post entitled “Place Branding Consultant Short List”.

Bejing’s objective – “Bejing seeks to obtain legitimacy as a city that is able to impact the rest of the world.  It is seeking approval for its past accomplishments and its current economic might.  It understands that in order to demand such respect it needs to further enhance its global image.”

You always need a reason for investing in branding.  It costs time and money, and it takes patience.  A worthwhile objective helps keep your community leadership focused on the desired need result.  In the US, I believe every community should adopt the object of enabling residents to better achieve their American Dream.  It is an objective that will empower every economic development professional and elected official to get out of bed every morning with a burning passion to make a difference.  You can read more about this objective in my posts – “Attract Top Talent By Focusing on Enabling Their American Dream”, and “Time To Change The Dialogue”.

The paper describes how Bejing used hosting the Olympics as a tactic to achieve that objective.  I think what you will find very interesting is the objectivity of Ge Qin’s assessment of survey results and recommendations for what Bejing needs to focus on to better achieve the objective.

Discussion: Brand China versus Brand America

In an earlier post entitled “Will The Chinese Dream eclipse The American Dream?”, I suggest we need to start paying closer attention to Brand China as a competitor.  Ge Qin’s paper supports my point.  China is getting better every day at figuring out how to apply place branding principles as a strategy for competing globally for capital investment and intellectual attraction.  They understand that it is not just about marketing, but rather about “product improvement”.  Bejing appears committed to identifying the changes required to make the city’s brand promise even more attractive to people and businesses.

I believe Brand America and our major city brands are resting too much on past laurels.  The world is changing rapidly around us and the competition has shifted from regional to global.  For many industries, no longer do you have to have a business operation in the US to serve the US market.  Increasingly, international locations are appearing on the location short list for site selection decisions.  We need to recognize the competition and not be complacent.  Arguments like “their economic system will never eclipse free enterprise, so no worries” are naive.  Based on my private sector experience, the minute you underestimate the competition is the minute you go down the path of losing market share.  I fear we may be on that path if we don’t wake up and begin addressing the growing disconnect between Brand America’s promise and behavior.  As you can deduce from my previous posts on this topic, I advocate better understanding the barriers to residents achieving their American Dream and taking decisive action to knock down those barriers.  I believe strongly that Brand America’s promise is the most globally compelling position but its authenticity needs to be strengthened.

Of course, in addition to Brand China, we also need to compete with Brand EU.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

Read About My Journey To Learn More About The American Dream

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