We’ve come a long way since the idea of perceiving of places as brands first emerged in the 1990s, followed by a city and country branding boom in the last decade.
Back then the concept of place branding was (and unfortunately often still is) interpreted as rather simplistic, as a way to enhance the competitiveness and reputation of a city, state or nation through marketing, promotion and advertising.
Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent and most place branding initiatives have failed. Why? Because marketers and advertisers are put in charge of a task as challenging as is place branding.
Don’t get me wrong – creative ideas and catchy, inspiring communications campaigns can be very useful to get the message across. But this is only one part of the place branding process.
When we talk about place branding, we need to be clear whether we are actually referring to marketing, or branding as understood by leading professionals.
To borrow from The Place Brand Observer’s interview with Ed Burghard, economic development expert and founder of the Strengthening Brand America initiative, branding in the place context is about developing and managing your location’s identity, it is about who you are.
Marketing, on the other hand, is how you communicate who you are. Former head of Destination Scotland and long-time destination branding advisor, Tom Buncle, puts it like this: “the brand forms the basis of a place’s marketing communications.”
Dubai is a good example for how successful place branding is achieved through placemaking, making sure that what you’d like to be known and admired for actually exists.
Luxury travel destination, global transport hub, MICE destination and entertainment oasis – most of what Brand Dubai stands for today has been built from scratch.
Dubai’s ability to set long-term visions and plan accordingly without much interference of opposing opinions is a place brander’s dream. A situation very unlike that of most cities or countries, whose reputation-building efforts are often complicated by a long history of competing interests and changes in leadership and political priorities.
As Tom Buncle notes: “It would be arrogant to assume we create destination brands. We don’t. Apart from places such as Las Vegas and Dubai, we cannot manufacture a destination. Generally, the place has been around for generations and is defined by its history, culture, topography, way of life, built and natural environment, and people.”
Which brings us to another crucial point: not every city, region or nation has what it takes for strategic place branding to succeed. Some cities are simply too diverse, which makes it impossible to distil a clear, distinguishable identity which can then serve as basis for marketing and promotion.
In such cases, place leaders are best advised to celebrate diversity and to focus on initiatives aimed making the city or region a great place to live, visit and work.
What makes Brand Dubai so successful?
From a place branding perspective, Dubai is a story of success. But why? Let me offer two examples: Dubai as destination for international events, and as transport hub.
Smart & Resilient Cities editor Frank Cutitta told us in his interview with The Place Brand Observer that the choice of Dubai as host city for the IAA World Congress wasn’t just because of the city’s “ability to provide the technical aspects for such a large congress, but also because they wanted to associate their city with leadership in the advertising and media industry.”
Dubai’s brand appeal was that “they were very proud of the incredible ‘Media City’ they built to reinforce the UAE’s media footprint to the rest of the world.”
Dubai’s strategic decision to become a leading air travel hub is another reason for its branding success and illustrates how placemaking , rather than ‘just’ promotion is what it takes to succeed in place branding.
European aviation and tourism executive Gregory Pomerantsev in his interview told us: “With full respect and admiration of Dubai, it would not have become as popular and desired worldwide without developing itself as a transfer air hub serving around 80 million passengers annually.”
Jeremy Tamanini, founder of Washington-based DualCitizens LLC, as Fulbright scholar investigated the link between place branding and economic development in Dubai.
He links Brand Dubai’s success to the fact that “From the beginning of its hyper-development post-2000, Dubai leadership understood how the “aura” of place could be a tool for attracting tourism and investment.”
Placemaking – such as the development of world-famous real estate projects like the Palm, the World and the Burj al Khalifa tower – formed the basis for targeted promotion of Dubai as destination to more affluent segments. Diversification soon followed, and Dubai now attracts conferences, events, and talent and investment thanks to its strategic clusters and focus on education, medical services, advertising and finance.
In Jeremy Tamanini’s words: This place branding served a specific function: to attract tourism, investment and human capital to Dubai, often at the expense of other countries in the region facing domestic brain drains as a result.
It worked to advance economic development because of Dubai’s relative stability in a turbulent region, the emirate’s unique geography, and the vast wealth of neighbouring Abu Dhabi emirate that could subsidize Dubai during times of crisis (as it did during the global financial crisis).
This approach, like all smart place branding strategies, is unique to Dubai and tailored to its particular strengths and realistic aspirations.
Smart place branding with a strong focus on placemaking as the basis for promotion (not the other way round) lies at the core of the success story of Brand Dubai.
Florian Kaefer is the founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer, an online magazine, think blog and knowledge hub for those interested in latest place branding research insights, expert advice, trends, tools, and seminars. All persons quoted form part of an ongoing interview series with place branding professionals, conducted by The Place Brand Observer. Visit PlaceBrandObserver.com to learn more about their professional insights and work.
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Gulf Marketing Review. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Gulf Marketing Review. To subscribe please call: +971 4 369 7573