As the former co-organizer of the 2013 and 2014 editions of the first major conference dedicated to place marketing in France, the Place Marketing Forum, it seemed logical to me to share my thoughts on the equivalent event in Britain, which I had the great pleasure to attend, the highly anticipated conference City Nation Place, held on the 4th and 5th November 2015 in London.
Symposiums, meetings and conferences dedicated to the attractiveness and marketing of cities, regions and countries, although still not very frequent, have been spreading in recent years. This trend, which is particularly visible in some developed and developing countries, if not on a transnational perspective, clearly shows growing interest for the discipline. This phenomenon illustrates the bold attempts, though not always successful, to gather around the sharing of inspiring ideas and practices, for one or two days, influential representatives of the scientific and professional community of place marketing.
For its first edition, City Nation Place fits well with this trend, yet mostly targeted at place branding professionals. The conference raised many hopes, while leaving some room for improvement, basically summarized here :
- Clarifying some key concepts and addressing the multi-scalar nature of place : The first issue relates to the confusion that might stem from the conference title, City Nation Place, rightly pointed out by Hila Oren, CEO of Global Tel Aviv early on her speech. Putting side by side the two terms "Nation" and "City" does not reflect the very specific marketing handling each place scale requires. The possibility of branding a city, region, country or even a continent, is totally relevant, but requires at least, a brief conceptual and methodological justification. No doubt this lack has something to do with the relatively low scientific and academic representation during the conference. Only the round table dedicated to the measurement of efficient place branding, involving brilliant thinkers such as Mihalis Kavartzis, Robert Govers and Martin Boisen, allowed to provide, though succinctly, a necessary methodological cropping.
- Conviviality and networking : A fact highly appreciated by many, was the great importance given to the opportunities of informal exchanges among cross-sectoral marketing professionals from tourism, real estate, economic development, urban planning, media and communication sectors. During more than 2 hours and a half, the afternoon workshop taking place on the eve of the conference, rather than feeding the participants with new knowledge or coming across solving-problem proposals, raised major concerns shared by place practitioners in a friendly participatory mode. Working groups, arbitrarily selected by participants, were each assigned a key place branding theme : definition of Place Branding, public consultation, managing inputs of politicians, evaluation of brand strategy, securing funds, effective brand partnerships, the contribution of place-making, media involvement, using the brand to attract inward investments.
Although the seminar only scratched the surface of these proposed topics, high-level participants from around the world played the trick of sharing anecdotes about their practical challenges encountered in their various place marketing activities. The intensity of the exchanges, aroused by the main host Malcolm Allan (place brand specialist and founder of Place Matters ltd), along with the other facilitators appointed for each thematic group, helped to set the tone of the conference. They managed to engage a friendly and constructive discussion among participants on key issues. The conference that followed the day after, kept the exchange and convivial momentum, thanks to the many pauses that punctuated the day.
- Some very inspiring but also sterile interventions : the marketing efforts and initiatives led by large geographical areas took over top billing during the conference, often with some generosity in the sharing of stories : Great Britain, with its impressive communication campaign Britain is Great, the continent Africa, with a notable intervention from Thebe Ikalafeng, charismatic manager of Brand Africa, or Ireland with Connect Ireland, now regarded as one of the best cases worldwide in economic attraction trough ambassador involvement. Cities such as London, Tel Aviv or Eindhoven also unashamedly displayed their incontestable strengths and successes while remaining discreet on the implementation challenges of their strategy. The case of Paris, which echoed that of Tel Aviv, in the session entitled Reinventing the city from inside out, was supposed to illustrate a competitive and attractive model of regional development and planning for a metropolis. Unfortunately, Paris's case rather shed light on the intricate administrative complexity of its region, and did not find its place among the more marketing oriented interventions.
- Stimulating debates : despite the overarching "promotional" style of most presentations, backed by entertaining video clips, a rather predictable thing in an event dedicated to the marketing development of places, some high-quality debates emerged. The use of an interactive online tool, Sli.do with interposed screen, to gauge opinion and directly raise the inquiries of the audience, forced the speakers to consider the more technical, if not troublesome challenges raised by the public : Can we evaluate place marketing without measurement ? How to value in a differentiating way, a place's DNA ? How to manage the reputation relation between a city and a country ? etc. The appointment of expert facilitators to each sessions also contributed to ease the round tables discussions and keep the conference's lively pace.
- Place Branding & Place Making : Though the workshop afternoon gave an opportunity to briefly address the relationship between the two concepts, the conference did not sufficiently highlight their articulation, yet a crucial place branding challenge. Tel Aviv’s energic presentation underlined the strong idea of city-making as a core principle driving the city's marketing strategy, and which primarily consists in helping to create high-quality and vibrant urban spaces for its users, particularly for its start-uppers, beyond promotion campaigns. The section devoted to the role of real estate operators in the place branding process, led by the Director of Colliers International destination consulting, also stressed the need to develop architectural and urban products that resonate with the story-telling of the place.
- Selection and award ceremony : The well organized awards ceremony, seemed inspired by the famous competitions commonplace in the audiovisual industry : official jury made up of high-calibre experts, a catchy video clip recalling facts and figures associated with each practice, the suspense of the award result ! Given the limited number of place applications for a first edition, about fifty, the range of choice was necessarily limited, with an overrepresentation of cities and countries. The utter absence of France could not be overlooked (except Lyon who won nothing). Yet, France can boast with remarkable place branding professionals, evidenced by the outstanding achievement of regions such as Alsace, Auvergne, Bretagne and Picardie, or cities such as Bordeaux, Marseille or Nantes. The best cases were selected according to three broad criterions : creativity, intelligence, and effective strategic planning to deliver results. The award categories (Best Citizen engagement, Best Communication strategy, Best use of social media, Place Brand of the year) on which Ireland, London, Oslo and Croatia stood out, could have been further explained with respect to their content (read more about the awards ceremony).
Conclusion : In short, for its first edition, City Place Nation stands out as a promising event on place marketing, thanks to the professionalism of its organization (managed by the London event agency Hubbub Ltd), its location at the heart of London, its media exposure with renowned sponsors such as the BBC and the New York Times, its expertly managed staging, numerous networking opportunities within a community of passionate place thinkers and doers, from diverse professional and geographical backgrounds.
However, to gain momentum, the common thread throughout the conference will have to be redesigned to better highlight the links between each place branding sessions and topics. This could allow to step back and draw more easily cross-sectoral as well as operational lessons from each case. Clarifying the concepts and approaches at one point of the conference would also be welcomed, through maybe a stronger dialogue with the research field, to address, for instance, the interrelation of place scales or the strategic and practical framework for the designing of successful place brand strategies.
Editor at City Brand Explorer, ex-Manager of the "Place Marketing Forum 2014"