At a time
where globalization continues to spread and sustains a vision of a world
tending to become a « global village » as the sociologist Marshall McLuhan
predicted, territories are facing a complex challenge : giving themselves a
unique image, in order to attract and retain a wide variety of public and individual audiences.
Territorial branding : far more than a logo
In these times of continuous streams, trade liberalization and free movement of inidviduals, administrative and geographical borders tend to fade away, leading to the redefinition of the idea of territorial space. The current context of a weakened macroeconomic and geopolitical situation has encouraged the local and regional authorities to communicate on their competitive assets, to stand up on an international stage. We’ve witnessed the emerging development of specific identities for countries, cities and regions, positioning themselves as brands. Saying this, destination branding is not a new trend, or an umpteenth fad of the communications industry. The first initiative of this kind was launched in 1969 by the State of Virginia in the US ; « Virginia is for lovers » has been incidentally cited as one the most iconic campaigns of the past 50 years by the magazine Ad Age.
The first territorial branding campaign for the State of Virginia, from 1969 until now
« I love NY » : who isn’t aware of this logo/tagline that is now so cult that other cities have imitated it (I love SF, I love LA, …), as well as numerous brands ? (The French bank La Banque Postale used it to promote one of its savings accounts options for instance).
This symbol turned into a genuine cultural icon has become a Holy Grail for most of the cities in the world : I Am-sterdam, Mad-rid about you, Only Lyon, Be Berlin, It’s better in the Bahamas, C-Open-Hagen, …
However, destination branding can’t be reduced to a tagline, or to a graphic illustration : the final goal is to reveal and show the different intricate facets of a territory, associating a functional dimension (services, transports, architecture, …) and an emotional aspect (culture, heritage, encounters, …) to address multiple and demanding targets. The underlying aim is to switch paradigm and to evolve from location to destination.
What's at stake for a territorial brand
Every country is naturally associated to a mental representation and a reputation rooted in a mix of constituent features such as history, universities, sports teams or its inhabitants’ personalities.
Jean-Noël Kapferer states that “Countries are therefore names with brand power : they have the power to influence through the spontaneous associations they evoke, for good or ill, and through the emotions that they stir up.”
Another look at the countries’ reputation : we learn that Russia is known for its strawberries, Peru for the longevity of marriages and Finland as the biggest coffee consumer in the world ! (Source : DogHouse Diaries)
One of the major issues to deal with for branding experts is to manage to sum up the whole bunch of evocations coming from a territory to one and only icon, which will act as a significant symbol while conveying its values’ set ; and which will address very distinctive private and public audiences. This symbol has to arouse an emotion, in order to be embraced by the people that define and embody the territory. This is the most subtle part of the task and we’ve seen London fail at doing a good job : by dint of letting several identities and universe live alongside, the city doesn’t know which one is right and has suffered from an identity crisis…
At last, as any mass consumption brand, a territory brand must draw on concrete reasons-to-believe, to prove its promise worthy. « What is said » of a territory is more important as what the territory says of itself. It is crucial that the image and perceived values translate into facts, especially in the items – the 6 As - presented in the Destination Marketing Association International : Amenities, Attraction, Activities, Accessibility, Ancillary services, Available packages.
Defining new borders
Mainly motivated by economic purposes, some cities rally around one strong and unique brand – supported by their city halls, their chambers of commerce or their tourist centers – blurring thus the previously well-defined frontiers. Saint-Etienne territory is an illustration of this trend ; its brand positioning, visual identity and signature, as well as communications guidelines have been developed by CBA. This type of association is challenging since it is based on the federation of endorsers with different perspectives and the reconciliation of plural identities around a common legitimate message.
CBA took up the challenge of creating the identity of Haropa, a major harbor group in France
On the other end, some official boundaries get blast under the aegis of inhabitants proud to promote what they consider as their spaces, showing off their local feeling of belonging. In Paris for instance, there is a raging hype war between SoPi (standing for South of Pigalle) and NoMa (standing for North of Marais). A designer from Chicago decided to ally his two passions – his city and his job – and came up with the Chicago Nieghborhoods project : an original creation for the 77 districts of the North-American city, inspired from its own experiences and imagination. Other neighbourhoods go even further and develop their own identity system, targeting tourists and people from close neighbourhoods to go out, shop, travel or live there. Georgetown in Washington D.C. is one example amongst others.
Today more than ever, territory branding is a complex sum of references to institutions and collective meaning and of a personal, emotional and creative reinterpretation of a shared universe by citizens.