Limeni, Mani

The future of place branding and place marketing


In a wide-ranging interview, Martin Boisen (Vice Chairman of the International Place Branding Association) and Stella Tsartsara (Impact Investing, Wellbeing, Silver Tourism, Place Branding expert) answer questions on best practices in place branding and marketing.


How was place branding established? What are the advantages of a place branding itself and finding the identity that distinguishes it from other places?

Martin Boisen: First of all we need to clarify that a place is automatically distinguished from other places due to its geography: it is somewhere, not anywhere. This is one of the things that distinguishes places from products, services and corporations. Second, it is important to view place branding as a policy, not just a marketing tool. As your fellow Greek, Mihalis Kavaratzis, stated: “The beginning lies in the realisation that all encounters with the city take place through perceptions and images.” The key here is that all encounters – not just the planned encounters or promotional messages – are continuously reshaping the brand of a city.

This view is in stark contrast with most contemporary policies relating to place promotion. These policies are mainly competitiveness-driven and focus solely on growth (more tourists, more consumption, more companies, more investments, etc.). This is a side-effect of the fact that along with globalisation and European integration, cities are searching for their own position in an emerging, global, hierarchy of cities.


Can you clarify the difference between place promotion, place marketing and place branding?

Well, briefly put: I’d say that place promotion is about generating attention for propositions and developing both demand (for example through promotion) and supply (for example by influencing that what is developed in a place), whereas place branding is about a red thread that goes through everything that happens in and about the place: a story, a narrative, a set of common values and meanings. Borrowing from Simon Sinek, I’d say that whereas promotion and marketing are more concerned about the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ – branding is, or should be, about the ‘why’.


It seems like a complicated matter with unclear terminology and field of application. Why should a place establish that policy? What is the comparative advantage with a LGA (local government authority) that does not bother with PB/PM/PP?

MB: With respects to cities, the basic assumption is that promotion, marketing and/or branding can support urban policies aimed at improving the place to the benefit of residents, businesses and visitors. As an increasing number of cities in countries around the world incorporate these concepts, the confusion about their meaning and their implications for urban policy grow.

Stella Tsartsara: However it is clear that the benefits are important for the places that brand themselves successfully. Their assets gain more visibility. Therefore, they are attracting targeted and more investment opportunities, their local resources are identified and may be revealed in the process of place branding into products that, if promoted correctly, would create jobs and growth to that place.


What is the difference between place promotion and tourism destination promotion and how a place should protect its identity when it is promoted as a very strong tourism destination? Also what are the dangers to “brand” one place only as tourism destination in terms of its carrying capacity for investment driven development?

MB: Tourism certainly is a powerful force but, as all other ‘forces’, it needs to be managed well to avoid substantial side-effects. The main difference is in the word ‘destination’. When places are managed as ‘destinations’, the visitors are implicitly considered the most important ‘user’ or even ‘consumer’ of that place. I’d really not like my city to be managed primarily as a destination; I’d prefer it to be managed integrally as a place – with tourism just being one of the sectors and forces that should be balanced for the better of the people.

From a place branding perspective, I’d argue that the ‘brand’ of many cities and regions around the Mediterranean Sea have been completely dominated by tourism over the last forty years or so. The associations that people have with many of these cities and regions are so tourist-dominated that they might effectually hinder other types of interests and, ultimately, investments. This is not limited to outsiders, when citizens primarily start seeing their neighbourhood, city, regions or even country as a touristic destination, their own place attachment and their own aspirations for themselves in those places might change as a result.

ST: Look at what happens with Venice, or Bruges or Santorini. Those places suffering from pressures in their tourism development carrying capacity have resulted in societal tensions among their citizens. It is a matter of quality of life as main element of the preservation of democratic values, rights of the citizens who live in this place and of the private businesses who need a clear identity to promote themselves. E.g. A Region that has decided to be branded as “Green” attracting a certain high level, high income segment who desires an elevated environmental quality to purchase secondary housing in Greece, for instance, should send a clear message to conflicting businesses with activities with elevated nuisance. Otherwise, the brand of this place will be destroyed and it takes many years to restore this damage to the target groups. E.g. this segment that chooses Greece as a secondary home.

It needs balanced and prospective planning to identify all potential and the stakeholders and citizens should decide the priorities for their region, for their lives and businesses to prosper. Otherwise any place branding strategy will fail if it is not embraced first by its citizens.


What are the steps a municipality or regional authority has to undertake to implement place branding and promotion activities? And do you believe that such entities are, initially, best organized at a regional level in Greece?

MB: In The Netherlands, where I’ve been living for the last thirteen years, it seems to be more of a rule than an exception that Dutch municipalities and provinces occupy themselves with place promotion, place marketing and/or place branding. I do not necessarily think that there’s one scalar level better suited for this than another, I’d argue that places exist as a result of the collective meaning attributed to them. It’s a social process, so maybe the best scalar level to start with is the one that carries the most meaning: oftentimes, I find this to be the cities – as they are defined by their diversity and conflicting, meandering interests.

ST: In 2016, a comprehensive study carried out by Martin Boisen determined that these instruments were a policy issue in 310 out of the 390 Dutch municipalities (79,5%) and that 125 municipalities (32,1%) had established organisational entities explicitly tasked with place promotion, place marketing and/or place branding with inherent confusion of the terminology.

In that sense, I believe that  an external entity guided and facilitated by the mayors today managing the place branding process would be a more efficient scheme. I would add that today in Greece it is the preferred solution since municipalities have difficulties in funding activities and mostly commercial ones, enhancing competitiveness etc. Therefore I believe that in our country, a multilevel cooperation including other local, private and other stakeholders ideally in a self-funded entity, not dependent on government subsidies, should be ideal for the Greek context.

Martin quotes Hospers (2009) when he says that “A city should not simply claim that it is unique – it should prove that it is unique.” The authorities of a place should make efforts to identify the weaknesses and threats to their brand and take mitigation measures with the consensus of all the stakeholders to turn them into opportunities and advantages for the region.


Can you give an example of what should be a successful place branding, marketing and promotion, combining tourism, investments, quality of life, business development etc for a place?

ST: let’s make a simulation exercise in Silver Tourism that is my specialty. A regional authority with the budget and policy decision-making and the means to create a cluster, that is a multilevel authority with a mandate in investments appraisal not just a DMO, coordinates and funds the initial development of a place marketing entity with LAG authorities of a place, stakeholders and private businesses. This entity manages the whole process; it does not have to be an institutionalized one but cooperation among partners. The initial Place Branding Cluster office could be funded by EU funds for the first two years. This body creates the strategy based on deliberations with the public on the regions’ brand. Branding is not decided among one target group only – it is primarily the ownership of the public that resides and does business in this area.

This entity concentrates its efforts primarily in building the product. It identifies its strengths and weaknesses of their brand and take mitigation measures with the consensus of all the stakeholders, to turn them into investment opportunities and advantages for the region. Based on the common assets and resources of Greece, most municipalities have good weather conditions all year round, good environmental infrastructure and healthcare infrastructure, leisure and historical cultural elements. The segment that has the biggest purchasing capacity, time to travel and perform activities all year round is the segment above 55 years of age. Most of them are near retirement or retired, with good pension schemes, good health and appetite for a second life with enriching experiences, learning and merging themselves with the local culture and civilization usually purchasing a secondary home in Greece. We have plenty of such examples.

The local offer should then be enhanced creating products of Active and Healthy Ageing for instance, with adapted local gastronomy, leisure, cultural activities but also road and housing infrastructure, service provision for that segment, insurance and long-term care facilities, that will attract this segment in their places. After that, each municipality should focus on the USP of its product development and its promotion based on other elements such as the landscape (Paros), accessibility and services, (Rhodes, Athens) or in thematic branding, such as longevity (Ikaria, Crete) or historical places (Patmos, Delphi – Epidavros, Hydra, Athens) or Wellness (Municipalities with Thermal Spa facilities) or Lifestyle (prime Greek islands) etc.

The funding of such an entity should be self-sufficient based on commercial non-profit activities. There are plenty of examples of how such an entity of place marketing and promotion can secure funding for its activities.

MB: In the Dutch city of The Hague, for example, the municipality has adopted a brand filter that is used as a guideline for public policies while at the same time being used by the public-private partnerships that promote the city towards tourists, students, companies, international organizations and investors. In this way, the profile of The Hague as the International City of Peace and Justice is continuously given context and the brand of The Hague is strengthened. I guess the main lesson here is: practice what you preach based on tested place branding guidelines defining the core values and the main narrative of the place. Why should it be branded? What is there to brand? Always following the right methods to determine when something is on-brand or off-brand. This way you can guarantee the success of your place branding Strategy and action plan.