Cities are turning to brand consultants to improve their image — does it work?

Critics say it's PR to cover up bad policy — proponents point to boosts in tourism and investment

Governments have been using nation-branding — the application of marketing and public relations techniques to “sell” a destination — to put themselves on the map for decades.

New York’s ubiquitous “I ♥ New York” trademark, owned by the state’s chief economic development agency, has earned it some $30 million a year since the 1970s. “I Amsterdam” draws in hordes of tourists; “Keep Austin Weird” nurtures the Texas city’s reputation as the live music capital of the world.

But the industry has exploded in popularity over the past 10 years, with place-branding consultancies popping up all over the world to help governments mould and market their identities. Some say governments are simply paying for PR to cover up bad policy, and should focus resources on fixing inequalities rather hiring than flashy consultants. Natasha Grand of the Institute for Identity (INSTID), which helps governments develop branding strategies, disagrees. The industry is more than catchy slogans and well-designed logos, she argues: it’s about building a coordinated identity for a city, region or country.

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Grand and her team conduct ethnographic research to pinpoint a place’s character and values, then help governments figure out how to voice them. Identity-building can attract tourism, boost investment and entice skilled workers. It can also help governments devise a coherent message and purpose, and better position themselves in the global conversation. Their brand, governments are learning, can be their most important asset.

We spoke to Grand about the business of place-branding, how she goes about discerning a nation’s identity and why hers is a job of the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why was the Institute founded?

I got the idea when I was working as a political risk consultant in London and saw emerging market countries trying to attract investment. They would try to persuade investors that they won’t take corruption, or that their legislative process was honourable. They were trying to put on a nice face, but in fact, they were quite faceless, because they were not telling the story of their culture.

Initially, we thought it was just due to bad communication, and would just be a matter of helping these countries present themselves properly to the global market. Then it became much bigger, when we realised that there often wasn’t a sense of self, even within the country or city or region.

This whole place-branding and place identity market emerged maybe 20 or 30 years ago and has grown so much. It became about these places trying to make sense of themselves. In Britain, in France, in America, even, there’s a huge debate about what we are and where we are going. It’s no longer about selling the place, inviting tourists or investment. It addresses what our purpose is and where we are going as a society.

An Instid campaign to promote tourism in Siberia, commissioned by the government of Russia

What does it exactly mean to ‘brand’ a place? What’s the process for determining a nation’s identity?

Branding and identity are slightly different, and the reason I want to draw a distinction is that branding is often seen as a gimmick. Initially, some clients thought that we didn’t do proper, serious work, and that branding is just about consultants coming in and drawing some logos and inventing a nice slogan. What we do is not about visuals and slogans and marketing. It’s about working deeply with the government to find out what unites people in a particular territory.

We do extensive research to try to find the common character of the place: what makes people belong to this particular community? We try to unravel the mentality of people who belong to a particular terrain, given its history, geography, climate and so on. So we talk to people from all different age and socioeconomic groups: government officials, people doing traditional crafts, big businesses, musicians and so on.

We don’t just ask them “Why do you love this place?” or “What makes you want to live here?” We ask them how men and women should treat each other; what makes a family; how a person should spend their money; how children are brought up. We build an archetype: an abstract personality that expresses an entire group of people as one person.

Do you think there’s an increasing appetite from government for advisors like you?

I think the need is very salient. Years ago, in the early 2000s, it was just about attracting visitors and investors. Now, the world is battling these questions: What do we say about ourselves? What are our priorities? Who are we as a nation?

Clothing design for the Ural region of Russia

With the rise of populism, there’s ever more emphasis on national identity. Is that good for business?

We called ourselves the Institute for Identity 10 years ago. Now, you hear the term identity politics and it has a negative connotation as a way of labelling people or groups within a particular nation and setting them apart.

We think the rise of populism is a symptom of the need for this soul-searching. You get these negative phenomena like populism and extreme right-wing agendas — but at the same time, there should be a positive answer to the question “What is our identity as a nation?” It shouldn’t just about who we are not and who we are against.

The Tatarstan government hired you to help create unity in its community, particularly between Muslim Tatars and Russian Orthodox citizens. How did you go about this?

Well, we had to be very careful about it — because, on one hand, they wouldn’t say it was a problem. They had Muslims and Russians living alongside each other for quite a long time and the government’s policy was one of tolerance and equality. That meant if they built a church, they would build a mosque next door. Then they started getting the sense that people were getting a bit weary of it. So, our goal was to find out about the community — what did it have in common in terms of attitude, how people behave and how they see things.

What we realised is that the Russian people in Tatarstan are very different from the Russians in Moscow. They were much more goal-oriented, much more efficient — in ways that are very similar to the Tatar Muslims. That’s what we stressed. The project was called Tatarstan Heritage, and focused a line of materials — “Visit Tatarstan” clothing, backpacks, t-shirts — expressing the values and attitudes of the people.

They were a great success. It has helped them mobilise and retain youth in a region where brain drain is a huge problem. The idea is that you give people, both in terms of ideas and materials, something they can get enthused about. Not just tourists, but the locals.

An image from the Visit Tatarstan campaign, designed to promote tourism in the region

Do governments have the capability to manage the strategies you build for them once your contract is over?

A lot of place-branding projects used to be very dependent on the particular person who commissioned them. If that person left for another department or quit, the project died. We try to build up a momentum behind the project, and introduce officials from different departments and different levels of government into a committee that brings together all the officials responsible.

How do you measure success in your line of work? What sort of impact are you looking for when you work on a project?

It’s always one of the first questions an official will ask us, and it’s something that our industry has grappled with massively.

I think the top indicators for a successful project are a reduction in brain drain, tourism growth or increased investment flows. In Tatarstan, for example, particular destinations had a tourism increase of 140-180% after the Heritage project.

But it’s also more intangible impact. It’s a sense of optimism that suddenly starts transpiring in the region. It’s officials that now know what to tell people about their region, who now have a coherent message to disseminate at international exhibitions. It’s a hospitality sector having a clear agenda and common goal. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: the Instiute for Identity)

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