Place Branding: Friend or Foe?

Last week I was given the opportunity to attend the inaugural Place Branding Australia conference in Sydney where we heard from the most knowledgeable people in the industry, including Neighbourlytics’ own CEO, Jessica Christiansen-Franks. Being trained as an urban planner and having previously worked for CoDesign Studio in the burgeoning field of placemaking, I was excited to learn the latest on place branding. In particular, how my work with Neighbourlytics goes hand-in-hand with this important industry movement.

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What is Place Branding?

It is the notion that places can brand themselves with value, messaging and imagery to stand out from other places. It’s underpinned by the concept that places compete for resources, people and business. Amidst such competition, cities and towns must differentiate themselves from other places by promoting a distinct identity that is positive and will encourage people to go there and invest or spend money in it. But it’s also much more complex than that.

Incorrect place branding paired with a lack of pre-planning and foresight, can often lead to a range of irreversible negative consequences such as environmental impacts, the outpricing and displacement of the community and the disruption of culture. Correct place branding can stimulate the economy, create a shared sense of identity and bring opportunities to the residents through embracing locality and culture.

A common thread in discussion at the conference was that place branding is not just about making your town or city stand out from the competition, but creating a shared identity - one that is unifying and not uniform.

Economic Success vs. Liveability

Raising GDP is only useful if it has positive impacts on the people who live there, otherwise what’s the point? A question raised at the conference was - How do you boost the economy and culture of a place without displacing the community or causing the socio-environmental consequences that often come with place success?

Venice, a vibrant city with a booming tourism scene was cited as an example. While Venice is rich in culture, history and uniqueness, it has become a tourist theme park. The mass of visitors has led to a major decrease in resident population as locals have made the choice to leave in order to avoid the crowds. Local artisan shops have been replaced with souvenir shops selling cheap replicas imported in from China. Rent has exploded and is no longer affordable and the constant flux of cruise ships is eroding the foundations of this millennia-old city; in other words, there has been a death of authenticity. Authenticity was a word mentioned multiple times during the conference. What is authenticity, why is it so important and how do we protect it?

When it comes to trying to reinvigorate a place, gentrification is always a hot topic. This was spoken about at the conference. You can’t let gentrification get in the way of making better places for people. However, it is important to put plans and policy in that negate the negative effects. It’s about the local government taking responsibility and having a clear picture of what their future goal is, and why it’s important.

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Authenticity and finding your brand

So how do we make sure place branding spurs positive outcomes? Authenticity, that’s how. Place branding is not about imposing an identity but uncovering it, protecting it and building on what is already there. Other answers discussed were - identifying the granular parts of what makes a place special, bridging the past with the future, learning from Indigenous understanding of place, finding and inspiring pride in the stories that unify us and finding your collective rally-cry. Working for Neighbourlytics, this is the part that struck me the most - this is exactly what we do. We collect these granular aspects of a place and identify the patterns that exist, both ‘soft’ (stories and activity) and ‘hard’ (places and assets). Through these patterns we can identify places that are thriving with authenticity and those that are not. While in some neighbourhoods our data may show that the most popular place is the local live music venue, Irish dancing club, Sikh temple or horse riding venue, in others it’s a fast food restaurant or expensive hotel. Although it might seem trivial, these patterns can capture the essence of a place without us even having to visit.

Place branding is not about imposing an identity but uncovering it, protecting it and building on what is already there.

Measuring return on investment for non-economic goals

This brings us to other important questions - How do you measure return on investment when the return might not be economic? How do you prove that your place branding project led to the soft goals as well as the hard ones? And how can you prove that your place is losing what made it special in the first place? At Neighbourlytics, we believe these things are all possible to measure through identifying patterns in social data. Emerging technology is opening up opportunities to measure things that were once immeasurable, meaning we can really begin to take these qualitative ‘soft’ aspects seriously. Creating change requires investment. Obtaining investment requires evidence. Therefore creating evidence is absolutely integral to facilitating change.