Creating Purposeful Places: is brand, help or hindrance?

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Creating Purposeful Places: is brand, help or hindrance?

7th May 2019


“You don’t change perceptions of a place with advertising. You change people’s perceptions by finding the truth, finding an idea(s) that embraces the truth and putting it through everything.”  Wally Olins


The guru of branding held a strong belief, certainly not shared by all, that nation or place branding was the key to economic growth and creating prosperity; it is a philosophy we at thinkingplace strongly agree with.

Part of the reason this concept is not widely accepted is the ‘b’ word, yes, another one! In many ways brand is a very relevant word to use for a country or place; it allows it to project its values, determine its identity, highlight its assets and demonstrates something people belong to.

However, the problem is that when talking with most stakeholders in a country, city or town brand often conjures up profit not place, commerce not community, logo not legacy, veneer not values and corporate not collaborative. Whilst many of the principles are great for place it just doesn’t sit comfortably with the way many understand and interpret brand.

This challenge is exaggerated by the fact that for lots of places brand has meant a route of logo, advertising and collateral which often hasn’t delivered them the results they hoped for be that greater awareness, engaged stakeholders or more investment enquiries. This can then breed cynicism about, and a disconnect with, anything associated with place and branding.

To go back to Wally Olins where is the truth? What are the forward-looking ideas that will define what a place can become?

When it comes to place, various of the rules are different which is why there is sometimes a brand backlash. A product brand can be developed top down and rolled out; in a place there is a requirement for ownership, ‘buy in’, understanding and simplicity.

This is why from our perspective developing a story sits at the heart of creating a purposeful place. The very act of engaging a broad group of stakeholders in discussing what their place can become is a success in itself; they are being reconnected to their place and beginning the journey of being an advocate for it. A story is the simplest, most accessible way of articulating the distinctiveness of a place, celebrating its assets and highlighting its ambition. Most people are desperate to shout about their place and want it to do well; the story gives them the words to shout about and something to get behind.

In many ways a place can be the ultimate ‘b’ word in that it encompasses communication, product/service, environment and behaviour. The story can influence what the place says, what facilities it develops, its public realm and signage, how it acts and so much more. This place story is the truth and can be played out in myriad scenarios influencing the whole place experience.

The most amazing thing about what is ultimately a combination of place making and place marketing is it energises and excites stakeholders about their place; it gives them the opportunity to come together with others to celebrate success, to explore the art of the possible and share and deliver an ambition.

We see many purposeful places who are changing perceptions and reality. Success to them is a widening of place leadership, organisations and individuals acting as ambassadors for the place, people using their networks and influence to promote the place, being place not organisation led, collaborating across sectors and geographies and being unified in their approach.

Did Coventry win City of Culture 2021 because of advertising; did North Notts create the first place-based Business Improvement District on the back of a logo; did Burnley become Most Enterprising Area in Britain via a slogan?  No!

They used their story to give them confidence, clarity, coherence, collaboration, consistency and celebration. Individuals were inspired, organisations became optimistic and aspirations were achieved. These places and many others have created a movement, momentum and buzz and that can move mountains. Perhaps we just need to redefine the ‘b’ word as a means of creating a purposeful place?


John Till, Director