Perspective On Place Branding – Malcolm Allan

dsc_0459BRAND AMERICA INTERVIEW – Malcolm Allan

Place branding is often a misunderstood strategy.  Many community leaders want to initiate place branding, but end up disappointed when the exercise results in little more than a revised logo and tag line.  In my opinion without a sound understanding of what place branding is, the exercise is doomed from the start.

I have been communicating with Malcolm Allan and reading his musings for awhile now.  Malcolm is an experienced practitioner of place branding.  He started Placematters consultancy in 2012.

Malcolm is a qualified town planner who has worked as a place maker and place brander for forty years in both the public and private sectors in the UK and in many other places around the world. In 2003 he co-founded Placebrands, the world’s first dedicated place brand agency, and then joined Locum Destination Consulting in 2007 to lead on its destination brand work. In 2009 he joined the Development Solutions Team at Colliers CRE and managed the work of its international development team, developing his specialism as a place and destination brander and manager.

Since 2012 Malcolm has worked on a range of place and destination brand strategies; for example the brand strategy for Cork Docklands in Ireland; the brand strategy and proposition for the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, the world’s longest tourist driving route; the brand strategy for the Cork City region in south west Ireland; the city brand strategy for Mississauga in Ontario in Canada; the brand strategy for the London Bridge area of central London; the brand elements of the development strategy for the Glasgow Airport Development Zone in Scotland; and the brand strategy for the Pier District of St Petersburg in Florida, USA. Malcolm is a regular speaker at place and destination brand conferences and blogs for city Nation Place and the Place Brand Observer.

Hopefully, you will find this interview educational.  If you have any follow-up questions, I encourage you to contact Malcolm directly.  He has indicated to me that he’d be more than happy to discuss your community’s needs.

You have been working in the field of place branding for a while now.  What are a few of the big changes you’ve seen in the discipline from when you started?

When I co-founded Place Brands in 2002 few people in country, regional and city governments and in the real estate development community had heard of the concept of place and destination branding, by which I mean the development of a strategy for the offer and experience of places, as opposed to the design of graphic logos and marketing tag-lines.

Now, in 2016, that situation has changed significantly although on a regular basis I am sent requests for proposals for a new brand for places that are focussed on the design of a new logo and a more- catchy tag line. There will always be places that are playing catch-up in this respect.

Also, in the intervening fourteen years, there has been an explosion of academic interest in the field of place and destination branding and consequently I now get invited to numbers of conferences on the subject where eminent and not so eminent academics promote their take on what constitutes the theoretical basis for practice in the field. This is a paradox to me as many have never actually practised in the field.

Fortunately, for both practice and the legitimacy of theory, there is a small number of academic thinkers who understand the challenges of practice, in particular the politics of working in the public domain, whose academic work has informed my practice. Chief among the realist and experienced academics I would mention Nigel Morgan, Robert Govers, Mihalis Kavaratzis, Keith Dinnie, Cathy Parker and Giannina Warren.

Particularly welcome in this context is the inaugural conference of the International Place Branding Association being held in London from 7 to 9 December, being organised by Robert Govers and others, one of whose aims is to bring together practitioners and consultants active in the field and academics studying the field. Details of the conference can be found at

Place branding seems to be more accepted outside the U.S.  What are some of the barriers you observe to adoption of place branding by U.S. Economic Development Professionals?

Interesting that you think place branding is more accepted outside of the US. In my opinion it is more accepted outside the UK where I am based but rarely working.

In the last four years I have worked for two North American cities that completely get what place brand strategy is about and its relationship to spatial planning of the areas they are developing. These are the City of Mississauga in Ontario in Canada and the City of St Petersburg in Florida. In Mississauga, in partnership with Trajectory of Toronto the task was to create a brand strategy for the city and one for its downtown. You can read about the Missauga brand story here In St Petersburg, in partnership with Colliers International (Tampa and Dublin) and Paradise Marketing of St Petersburg, the task was to create a brand strategy for its new waterfront Pier District. Readers can read information on the Pier here and they can watch a one minute video of me talking about the project here

More widely I have been impressed by the interest of the US-founded Urban Land Institute in my work and the topic more widely, having spoken recently on it at ULI conferences in Toronto and Hong Kong in whose audiences were economic development officers, town planners, architects and developers. The value and benefit of place brand strategy was very apparent to those in these two audiences.

I remain puzzled by why the lack of interest in place branding by economic development professionals in the US. I suspect that it may be because they still think of branding in the context of place marketing rather than as a strategic activity making a meaningful contribution to the future development of place, especially a contribution towards spatial and economic planning.

Luckily in the UK a body that I am a member of, a body of built environment professionals who are interested in the development of innovations in the development of towns and cities, the Academy of Urbanism, kindly gave me a platform last year to explain my practice and the benefits of place branding for place making. Your readers can download a video of this workshop and a copy of my presentation here

For further reading on this topic I suggest readers get hold of a copy of “Place Branding in Strategic Spatial Planning” by Eduardo Oliveira (his PhD Thesis), published by the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

You have had the opportunity to work on place branding at the nation level (e.g. Paraguay) and community level (e.g. St. Petersburg, Florida).  Are there any differences in approach or unique challenges driven by the level of geography?

I’m a serious student of geography by which I mean the implications of geography for place branding; for example, at the national level the implications of international relations with neighbouring countries which can affect the acceptability of national brand propositions, at the regional level the relations with adjoining regions which can affect brand competitiveness and, at the city level, the implications with regional hinterlands and with constituent boroughs within the city which can affect brand coherence. At all these levels place branding is highly political. Pols are pols at all levels of government and may or may not support place branding depending on a mix of the potential benefits for the place collectively and benefits for themselves as politician, principally getting re-elected.

At the national level there are often very many more stakeholders to be interviewed and engaged in the brand development process than at the level of a city although the level of engagement in a city can be equally demanding. My principal learning experience from working at both levels is that brand development requires and demands that brand builders engage with place stakeholders in a deep and involving way on a long-term basis. This is not simply consultation to determine what they currently think about their place; it’s much more about their ongoing engagement in the brand development and implementation process. Whatever the scale of the place, my goal is always to mobilise the stakeholders of a place as an active brand partnership taking on the responsibility for joint brand implementation and management, and brand marketing once it has been agreed.

Another difference in scale is that of the nature of the response from communities in the place. At the national level those getting involved in consultation and brand engagement tend to be national or regional organisations that are well funded and well established. At the level of a city or town those wanting to engage in the brand development process are typically a mix of the established lobby organisations (often termed “the usual suspects”) and those formed specifically as a result of the invitation to contribute and become involved. In my experience the debate at a local level can become vitriolic and toxic if consultees think it’s a token exercise, which rarely happens at a national level.

Many economic development professionals are trying to use social media as a communication tactic in their place branding efforts.  What advice would you offer them?  What tactics do you feel are generally successful and should be considered when developing the place branding communication plan?

Social media now offers many different channels to market for place brand strategists, place marketers and economic development professionals. The challenge is being clear on which ones are the most effective for your purpose and which ones are most relevant to your target market audiences. For example, Facebook is unlikely to be front of mind as a channel to communicate with potential major real estate investors on a targeted or one-to-one basis. By comparison LinkedIn can be very effective at introducing investors and senior executives in target companies to your proposition.

The more “social” of the channels available like Twitter and Facebook can be effectively used to garner public opinion on what people think of a place. In our work with partners on the development of the brand strategy for the Cork City Region we made very effective use of those channels to find out what young people thought about the quality of life offered by the city and its regional hinterland and the scale and quality of the response played a large part in developing our thinking about the foci of the brand and its eventual promotion under the heading of “Cork – Big on Life”.

We also used social media to test out our chosen draft brand proposition for the city region which garnered many more responses than the traditional town hall meetings we had to hold with established interest groups. For this purpose, we created on-line what we term a “Brand Descriptor” which is essentially a summary of the brand proposition, which was designed to be seen on laptops, tablets and mobile phones. It was accompanied by a short questionnaire designed to capture respondent’s views on the component value propositions of the brand. When analysed we used the responses to amend and finalise the proposition and to create what we term as a “Brand book” for all the staff of the key stakeholders to use in promoting the proposition to target market audiences. You can download a copy of the book here And you can read my blog post on the role of brand books here

Readers can find out more about our experience in Cork in a blog for The Place Brand Observer here

You have created a brand compass.  Share some insights into how the compass helps guide the place branding process.

The Place Brand Compass© was one of first proprietary tools we developed to work with clients on the development, implementation and management of their place brand strategies.

Its origins lie in a previous activity of mine, climbing mountains and orienteering; I would never set out without a map and a compass to ensure I got to my objective and did not get lost on the way. In a “Damascene” moment about ten years ago I realised that clients needed clarity on where we were planning on taking them in the development of their place offer (a map) and a tool to get there (a compass), a pathway. The Place Brand Compass was the solution to these needs and it has been in continuous development over this period of time, regularly being updated and expanded as we learn lessons from the brand development process with many different kinds of clients.

The Compass has six elements as illustrated below, which, taken together, guides clients from their current reality to their desired future place.

First we work with them to create a vision for their desired future place.

Then we take a cold hard look at the nature of their current reality – e.g. what’s their existing offer and set of experiences; how well does the place work; what problems do they have? We also determine with the client who are their current market audiences and which audiences they want to also reach in the future.

Then we work with the client to determine what improvements and new propositions they want to introduce to retain their existing audiences and capture new ones. This is the mix that will form the desired future brand identity and determine the future reputation of the place.

Next we test this mix of propositions on both existing and new audiences to determine its fit with their needs and aspirations. For this purpose we use our Brand Descriptor© described above. Essentially this is an online summary of the mix of propositions in the form of carefully crafted web pages that link to a short questionnaire that respondents complete and send back to us with their views. We then use these responses to refine and finalise the overall brand proposition and its component elements.

Next we work with the client to undertake detailed planning of the investment required to deliver and implement the brand propositions. This we term “Experience Masterplanning”, which I describe below.

Finally, we help our clients to devise an appropriate structure to manage the implementation, delivery, promotion and evaluation of the impact of the brand strategy.



Readers interested to know more about the Compass can download a short presentation on it from our web site at

Can you give an overview on the “Experience Masterplan” tool you created and its role in place branding?

Experience masterplanning is about planning and delivering the desired actions, offers and experiences that will bring a place brand strategy to life – in other words the agreed brand propositions of the place for its target market audiences. It means populating spatial and economic planning with an understanding of consumers’ needs, wants and desires. All too often spatial masterplans do not sufficiently take changes in consumer behaviours into account and economic development rarely devotes sufficient attention to consumer behaviour, as opposed to the intentions of real estate developers.

My initial work on the development of this concept, a paper given at the 2012 Bi-Annual Place Branding and Marketing Conference in Cardiff in 2012, can be downloaded at

My motivation for developing the concept was simple. Having helped clients to develop brand strategies to improve the offer of their place, make them more attractive and to stand out from their competition, their next challenge was to transform the agreed brand strategy into reality. In my experience the key to successful brand delivery is developing and implementing detailed plans for funding, scheduling and delivering improved or new brand propositions; identifying who is best placed to fund and deliver them; and which specific developers, providers and operators of these assets to attract to the place.

You are running a workshop at the forthcoming City Nation Place conference in London in November on the contribution of place brand strategy to place making through Experience Masterplanning.  I view place making as an activity of place branding (e.g. product improvement).  Are we actually seeing it the same way and articulating it differently, or are their important differences in our viewpoints?

In a perceptive article by Susan Silberberg of MIT entitled “The Common Thread” in the Journal of the Royal Society for Art and Manufactures (Issue 3 2015 she discusses the evolution of place-making and the reasons for its current resurgence, given in more detail in her major report “Places in the Making” for the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning ( ). She defines place-making as “the deliberate shaping of an environment to facilitate social interaction and improve a community’s quality of life”; which others, like the US Project for Public Spaces, have likened to the shaping and making of places by people for people (

She notes that different interest groups look to and champion place-making for different purposes including strategies for regenerating residential neighbourhoods and commercial districts, to attract inward investment, to make better use of public spaces for the common good, to plan facilities and services to attract and retain businesses and talented workers, and to improve the marketability of real estate developments.

So, spatial socio-economic place-making is a complex process and has many “building blocks” which place brand strategists need to understand and become familiar with to interact more creatively with place-makers and to demonstrate to them the worth of their discipline and practice.

So, I would agree with you Ed that place-making can be a product of place branding. I also believe that, as Susan Silberberg identifies, that it’s an activity that many kinds of professionals are involved in.

However, in my experience a major challenge for place branders is to gain acceptance from these other actors and interests that they have a role in place making and a legitimate contribution to make to it.

Readers wanting more information on this important debate can read my blog for CNP on it at and they can obtain details of the conference in London on 9 and 10 November at where I will be running a workshop exploring how this collaboration might be achieved for mutual benefit.

Where do you think the field of place branding is headed?  Will it increase or decrease in importance?

Having invested sixteen years of my professional life in the development of the field my desire is that the practice of developing place brand strategy increases in importance and that it is recognised as legitimate, relevant and value-adding by governments at all levels, by real estate developers and by investors in leisure, entertainment, recreation and sports attractions.

At present, unlike many of the other built environment and economic policy professions, such as architecture, economics, engineering, marketing, transportation, and other professions such as marketing, place branding lacks national and international professional bodies, higher education foundation degrees and continuous professional development recognition. A consequence is that some in those other professions and bodies look down on the work of place brand strategists as unprofessional and unregulated. Yet, there is hope in that a growing number of countries, regions, cities and developers are hiring people like us – migrants into the field from other professions and job experiences, such as myself (with a background in town planning and place-making) to undertake brand strategy work.

The other significant development in the field in recent years has been the explosion of people in academia studying place branding (and the related field of public diplomacy) which I touched on above. I very much welcome this growth in interest by academics and welcome the recent creation of a number of conferences encouraging sharing of experience and promoting dialogue between practitioners and academics.

I’d find it very helpful if one of these sets of conference organisers or the recently created International Place Branding Association ( ) might compile a global register of the place and destination branding issues and topics that academics are investigating so that practitioners might draw upon them and, additionally, suggest topics they would like to see researched. This would provide a much needed focus for a conversation among practitioners and academics.

In Closing…

If somebody wants to connect with you to talk about their place branding needs, what is the best way to reach you?

Through email at

And I would recommend them to visit our website at and follow me @MalkyAllan on Twitter

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