The power of outsider perspectives in place branding
Few categories of branding are as emotive as place branding. So why would we presume to brand a place halfway round the world?
Few categories of branding are as emotive as place branding. Home, after all, is a place. So is the cafe where you first met your partner, and the street you went to school on.
After many a place branding project, an inevitable question arises: can you brand a place you don’t have a history, a lived experience or personal connection with? In the shadow of this question is its opposite: can you objectively run a place brand with all that lived experience in your head?
The answer to both questions is yes.
Full disclosure, I sell place branding and we do it for places the world over. From two international studios we have created place brands in San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur to places across the UK.
So why would we presume to brand a place halfway round the world?
Let’s start by acknowledging the commissioning clients. Clients are going to run a process, and with cities and cultural institutions these are almost without exception public tenders. In my experience, these processes are open, rigorous and fair, with the aim of creating maximum value to the public that the client serves. Thank you for your hard work, clients.
Public tenders lead on neatly to the next point: economics. In free market economics, sellers can set their prices, buyers can decide where they spend their budgets. This is good for clients, who are looking to achieve ambitious goals: millions of visitors, millions of revenue, millions in inward investment, millions of square feet let or sold. It is right that clients would focus on finding a partner that will provide the highest return on investment, as opposed to prioritising keeping the place brand fees — paltry compared to the returns — inside the local economy. In expensive cities, an outsider agency may even have lower fees than local agencies. The clients must assess based on bang for their proverbial buck.
Place brands must also carefully navigate the political landscape as it is, and should be given the space to be created unfettered by ‘always hire local’ protectionism. We are now acutely aware of the benefits of diversity of thought, of getting out of our own echo chambers. In other arenas we are actively inviting outside thinking, not boxing it out with a ‘they're not from around here’ attitude. The creative industries should lead the way on broadening thinking, sharing new ideas under a philosophy that a good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from.
Local or not, transformative place branding is about having an experienced agency with the tools and experience to run the process. Residencies, public consultations, qualitative and quantitative research, partnering — these are not business activities that are second nature to all agencies. Experience is as much in running the process as it is in the subject matter.
Let’s also not forget about chemistry. Branding is something that organisations do not want to go through with any regularity (if they’re doing it right). For the client-agency creative partnership, chemistry matters. Every brand consultant can point to a project team that had a magical quality, and can equally detail others that just never really gelled. Chemistry will play its natural part, and can be a potent part of the mix in high performing groups. After all, clients are just humans picking a team of humans.
All other things being equal — price, experience, process, chemistry — objectivity still requires perspective. Perspective benefits from a bit of distance; you can’t read the proverbial jam jar label from the inside.
Try asking anyone selling office space right now what their views are on flexible working and they’re almost entirely likely to be vehemently against working from home. Who can blame them? They are too close to the problem, one that is directly linked to their livelihood. Outsiders can provide perspective because they have distance, are free of deep-seated beliefs, and free of fear that might be an unwelcome guest tagging along with personal connection.
Knee-jerk rejection of outsiders is, in the context of place branding, facile — and in other contexts, bigoted. There is so much more to the equation than where an agency is from.
Photo: Amogh Manjunath / Unsplash