Why Place Branding Is Becoming Place Doing (Consider Austin)

Posted on May 24, 2016 by Marian Salzman

Jeremy Keith

Originally posted on Forbes.com.

The stakes are beyond high. Perhaps more than companies, and certainly more than most personalities, locations and destinations need to brand themselves. They need to have an identity, and to have a say in the stories that are being told about them. There’s very good reason that I’ve written a lot about place branding in the past few years.

Around the globe, travel and tourism generated about $7.6 trillion (about 10 percent of the world’s entire GDP, or GWP) and was responsible for 277 million jobs (roughly one in 11) in 2014, according to statistics published in a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council. Cities and even neighborhoods are competing with one another to attract residents (who will increase a city’s tax revenues and, one hopes, add to the location’s cool cachet) and businesses that will generate not only work for residents and imported talent but also good times for the tourists they hope to draw.

Done right, place branding sends destinations into a virtuous circle. People wanting to visit means people wanting to move there means companies wanting to tap that talent means cities becoming even more attractive to tourists and potential new residents.

But two big challenges exist. For one, the playing field is vast, and it’s hardly level. Some places are already cool (or comfortable) while others simply aspire to be. Everyone wants to attract dollars. The old capitals have lost their importance, and small cities are increasingly the places to be. The world is flat, as some pundits like to say, and communities aren’t competing only with their neighbors but also with places half a world away.

While New York and London slug it out to see which will become the ultimate pied-à-terre for the world’s superrich, Singapore is increasingly poised to unseat both of them. India’s IT magnet of Bangalore is attracting new tech talent faster than Silicon Valley is. Around the world, there are 455 metropolises, 3,000 large cities, 2.7 million small cities and towns, and far too many specific districts, boroughs, suburbs and neighborhoods to tally up. And all want a piece of the action, which means it’s time to step up to the plate.

The other big challenge: A place is a truly immersive experience, and its reputation depends on its natural and cultural attractions, its leaders and cheerleaders, its visitors, marketing strategies, and specifics of day-to-day life. In other words, everything. But as we all know, in 2016, everything communicates. Even trickier, a lot of what is communicating is snapshot impressions from others—and really, does watching Anthony Bourdain eat something outlandish and set out for parts unknown help you truly understand what a place is all about? Most of what other tourists, textbook authors and media sources say is pretty random. Place branding aims to counter this by taking a strategic, well-thought-out approach to creating knowledge and experience of places.

Consider Austin. Overshadowed by bigger cities like Dallas and Houston, the Texas state capital was something of a backwater college town. But then local leadership decided to nurture the burgeoning music scene and started a grassroots campaign for the city to promote itself as the Live Music Capital of the World and to play up the “Keep Austin Weird” sentiment that became popular as the city threatened to homogenize. But now, just as SXSW has grown from the small indie music festival it was when it started in 1987 into a massive, must-attend multimedia confab, the city has gone from also-ran to leading light. I’ve written about Austin envy, and now it’s increasingly clear that it’s the place where people want to be. It’s the fastest-growing city in the United States, and in 2014 its total of leisure and business travelers exceeded 45 million.

But when talking about this kind of activity, “place doing” is probably more correct than “place branding.” At least, it more fully reflects what successful PR entails now.

First, “branding” suggests that successfully selling a destination, company or individual is simply about giving it some catchy promotion. We all know that when you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. So in 2016, just because you give an undesirable destination a clever slogan and stylish logo doesn’t mean it will be a place where people get really excited about visiting, living or doing business. Selling a location involves so much more than sticking a label on it.

The I [heart] NY campaign is a great example of old-school place branding. That brand has held from the 1970s until today and into the foreseeable future. The state even makes money from the logo, as Empire State Development, New York state’s chief economic development agency, owns and licenses the trademark for merchandise, to the tune of some $30 million a year.

Austin, on the other hand, shows how ongoing place doing works. Actions speak louder than logos. Local marketers have found ways to play up the idea of keeping Austin weird without alienating the locals who truly want it that way. The music scene feeds on itself, with people moving to Austin for the music, then in turn producing more music, which makes the city even more appealing to the music world. The government is entirely behind that, supporting festivals such as SXSW and Austin City Limits and having a division that focuses specifically on nurturing the music industry. That means that being an Austin musician carries cachet, as does being an Austin resident in general, which means that the locals are actively participating in the positive positioning of their city simply by enjoying their quality of life.

Local residents’ attitudes matter a lot for modern place doing. Selling a destination is the ultimate example of “everything communicates”; visiting or living in a city is by definition an immersive experience. One of the tenets of Havas PR’s place branding manifesto is this: “It takes a village to build a brand; local culture and local engagement are essential.” Place branding has to reflect, engage and activate the people of the place. Otherwise, it’s all just a logo and a slogan.

The next step in the evolution of place branding and place doing, which is coming soon, is the rise of localism. We’re already seeing it with locavorism for dining and shopping, and with the emerging importance of local businesses and local news. We all want to be of somewhere and to have experienced something authentically—a buzzword, perhaps, but most definitely today a call to action today, too.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Jeremy Keith]

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