The Real Definition Of Place Branding


I thought I’d share this article authored by Simon Anholt who is generally recognized globally as an expert in Nation Branding. The article was published by the City/Nation/Place website.

I am sharing because I believe Simon has missed the point of what place branding actually is.  This is a point of difference I have had with his writings over the years.

Simon states ““nation branding”, but this is a term which sounds more like a promise than an observation: if a place doesn’t like the image it has, they seemed to be saying, we can upgrade, enhance or alter it through the magic of marketing communications.”  He then goes on to share “place branding” activity is simply conventional marketing promotion applied to the public sector: places buying media to tell the world how wonderful they are. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Advertising, PR and marketing communications work perfectly well for promoting products and services (and of course that includes tourism, events, culture and investment promotion), but all the evidence shows that these techniques have zero impact on the overall image of the city, nation or place. In the 15 years that I’ve been running the Anholt Nation Brands Index (now the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index), I have never detected any correlation between the image of any country and the amount of money it spends on “branding” itself.”

The issue I have is Simon’s argument is premised on a faulty definition of place branding.  He equates it to marketing communication.  That is the equivalent of the Indian folk tale about the blind men describing an elephant.  Simon is focused on one aspect of branding and using it to define the term.

A brand is a promise.  It sets an expectation of an experience.  Branding is the strategic process of bringing that promise to life at each and every touchpoint (interactions with your brand).  For place branding, that means 1) defining an authentic and relevant reason people would want to live, work and/or invest in your location,  2) design and deploying a strategic plan to ensure the brand promise is and remains authentic, and 3) communicating the brand promise in a heart and mind opening manner to people/business leaders with the objective of improving the lives of residents.

In Simon’s discussion he focuses on the communication piece of the process.  He has analyzed whether marketing communication can successfully impact place perception and concluded it doesn’t.  Ample research in the world of consumer package goods also confirms that absent a compelling, authentic brand promise and a strategic plan to guide product development choices to ensure consumer realization  and ongoing competitiveness of the promise marketing communication alone is insufficient to make a difference.  This finding is far from surprising.

In the application of branding to city/nation/place, the toughest task is to define the authentic and relevant promise that will resonate with residents and compel people to live/work/invest in the location. Once that is determined, the next step is to design and deploy a strategic plan to ensure that promise is brought to life and strengthened.  The typical drivers for place branding include strategic decisions regarding public policy, public programs, asset creation and infrastructure investment.

The basic formula I developed to explain place branding is:


I have written extensively on this subject in my blog.  I have outlined the strategic planning process I advocate in a free publication titled “Avoiding The Boom-Bust Cycle”.  I have provided a 4-step model to guide the place branding process.  I encourage you to read the material I have provided pro bono to help you better understand what branding in general and place branding specifically is.  Just go to my blog.

Is the task of place branding easy?  Of course not.

Is the investment of time, energy and money worth it?  I think it is critical to helping residents achieve their vision of a fulfilling life.

Why should I believe you and not Simon Anholt?  You should’t, you should do the research (visit my website and spend some time on it) and make up your own mind.  My argument is Branding is a large subject,  Simon has touched only one part.  My career in the private and public sectors has given me the opportunity to master the subject.  As the folk tale concludes “To learn the truth you must put all the parts together.”  I encourage you to put your hand on my shoulder and let me help guide you (through my website) to better understand what branding really is.

Interestingly, in Simon’s discussion of his “Good Country Equation”, he actually agrees with my position.  He simply states it as an alternative to branding (a point with which I strongly disagree).  He says “It’s not about bragging, and it’s not about promotion: it’s about finding your place in the world and making that real. And the benefits are so much greater than most people believe. Not only can the right approach earn any country or city the respect and admiration of the world’s population, no matter how small or large, weak or powerful, rich or poor that place might be. It can also provide its government and citizens with the pride and satisfaction of knowing that they’ve done so much more than simply brag about their services and attractions: they have actually helped make the world work better.”

What he is trying to describe is the process of branding as I define it.  And it starts with defining your promise (or as he describes it, your place in the world).

Is Simon’s “Good Country Equation” the best approach to branding your location?  Who knows.  It is certainly one approach, but not the only.  Once you understand the fundamentals of what branding really is, you will be in a better position to decide for yourself.

I want to reiterate, the knowledge I share on my website is pro bono.  There is no solicitation of money in exchange for accessing that knowledge.  While I have my own limited consulting practice, I rarely take on projects and prefer to focus on education. Consequently, you should not expect, nor is there, any quid pro quo requirement beyond an opportunity to provide your email address for updates (which if you are reading this post have encountered and know you can easily ignore without penalty).

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Category Place Brand Building, Strategy

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