Last week, City Nation Place came to Sheffield — the erstwhile city of steel now firmly positioned as The Outdoor City, with a third of its borders inside the Peak District.

City Nation Place’s geographically-themed annual conferences bring together economic development and place brand managers in a series of forums that are part connection, part catharsis.

The gatherings are a chance for local, regional and national government bodies to share wisdom on how to better communicate the narrative of their cities, nations and places in general. And, of course, commiserate about woeful underfunding — with Birmingham joining other councils in declaring bankruptcy, money’s too tight to mention.

But it was by no means all doom and gloom. DNCO led a roundtable discussion on how to defeat the doomsayers and “own the narrative of your evolving city centre”.

“Where there is data smoke, there is business fire.”

Gavin Smyth, Glasgow City Council

1. Surface and celebrate the good news

In our discussion, Burnley place manager Rachel Bayley exemplified the power of positive narratives, especially in the face of a media tendency to home in on the bad.

Burnley has defied expectations by using video to show what’s really happening, and surfacing what’s good to great effect. They’ve even spoken to taxi drivers to communicate all the great things happening, in order to give them a better patter about Burnley, about real progress to be proud of.

This became a central thesis — start by galvanising internal destination marketing teams on the good, because we can all get bogged down by the news.

Sheffield Winter Garden

The iconic Park Hill housing development

2. Stories matter, but so does data

Simon Yewdall, strategy director of DNCO advised the group to lean on research. Confront doomsayers with a “research shows” narrative that removes the oxygen from hearsay and can change the weather of the conversation. The naysayers are often louder than the yaysayers — it’s important to be confident about vision and get the real place narrative across.

Data was a key topic thread throughout the conference, and Glasgow demonstrated what great looks like. Gavin Smyth of Glasgow City Council has implemented an exceptional data dashboard for investors to understand the tech scene at any time with the stroke of a button. “Story is your emotional connection. Data is your credibility”. The Glasgow City Region Platform shows every business and its growth and investment and Gavin says, “Where there is data smoke, there is business fire.”

“People don’t travel the world wanting identikit experiences. We need to get better and deeper into our roots.”

Sarah Green, CEO of NewcastleGateshead Initiative

3. Turn competition into collaboration

Collaboration was another theme that stood out, and we saw a great example of how organisations can club together to get a bigger bang for their proverbial buck. London & Partners and Visit Scotland joined forces to get tourists to do a double-destination trip, with results so far looking positive.

With great place brands having their own distinct narrative, it’s great to see destinations working together for a better result overall, instead of operating in competition. As one delegate said, “we’re all in the UK and feeding into the overall economy, so let’s work together”.

4. Dig deep into your differences

Finally, a prevailing theme was around place brand narrative, and specifically the need for a good one. Audiences want to know and understand your destination’s differences. Sarah Green, CEO of NewcastleGateshead Initiative, spoke about the need to dig into this. “People don't travel the world wanting identikit experiences. We need to get better and deeper into our [place specific] roots.” Homes England is similarly moving toward a place focus: this is an important framework and, we believe, an opportunity.

Great place branding requires a distinct yet authentic narrative, relevance to audiences, and patient and consistent investment over time. Notwithstanding the unpredictable weather the economy is experiencing, our role as place branding professionals transcends the ups and downs and has a much longer horizon. If we keep our heads up, we can all do effective place brand work.

Header photo: Benjamin Elliott

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