Place Branding illustration

As globalisation rages on, the competition between places is more than ever. Nations, cities, regions and towns strive to differentiate themselves from the competition in order to attract people, capital and institutions. 

A powerful tool to achieve that is a place brand. Surprisingly, this is a relatively new concept and is a result of a type of backwards-development. 

People love to focus on the promotional aspect, the marketing tactics. What is often overlooked is the strategy that lies behind; the branding. 

In this article you will learn:

  1. How place marketing paved a way for place branding
  2. What place branding is
  3. The difference between nation, city and destination brands
  4. How to build a place brand following the CBM framework

Unfocused place marketing created place branding

Places need to run and market themselves like businesses if they aim to survive. 

This concept, called strategic place marketing, was introduced by Philip Kotler in 1993 as a response to the increasing competition between places. 

Globalisation had broken the status quo. In order to grow and even hold steady, cities needed to strategically promote their attractions and culture to potential residents, tourists and investments. 

This concept has really been taken to heart by many places. It’s not uncommon today that a city has an individual or maybe even a whole department fully dedicated to promoting the place as a whole; although this is less common on the national level. 

In the wake of the second world war, the concept started increasing in popularity tangent with increased consumption and elimination of country borders. Ad hoc promotion turned into strategically mapped out marketing activities. 

But there was something missing in the equation. The brand.

What is place branding?

Some time later practitioners started catching on. They realised that all those marketing communications about places needed to come from a grounded source. 

That grounded source is a well established brand. 

To start off, a brand and branding isn’t really the same thing. 

A brand is the result of all negative and positive perceptions a consumer has about a product or a company. Branding is the process of managing those perceptions. 

Thus a place brand is how consumers feel about a specific location and place branding is how those feelings are managed. 

It’s about improving your core capabilities and making it known to people in order to differentiate one place from another. This includes identifying features that are unique to the location in question and using them strategically.

Within place branding, a few subsets can be defined.

Nation branding

Nation branding is essentially reputation management. It’s a vital ingredient for competing in the global economy. Additionally, it can be very useful to debunk stereotypes. 

Most countries started out with an initial brand. France was the country of Franks, England was the country of the Angles and Ecuador was simply positioned at the equator. 

This isn’t what we really associate with these countries today is it?

Nation brands, also known as country brands, are less susceptible to marketing tactics because of the grand scale they operate on. For them, practising what they preach becomes the main determinant of the brand. 

Nation branding objectives include the typical goal of attracting tourists. Additionally, countries are concerned with winning over investors and increasing exports. 

To achieve this, tactics may include:

  • Communicating captivating cultural feats
  • Demonstrating stable exchange rates
  • Increasing political influence
  • Strengthening international alliances

As you can see these aren’t elements you can communicate without thoroughly backing them up. Thus, if a country wants a brand element of stable exchange rates, the only branding involved in that is actually taking measures to make that happen – and then communicate it and make it known. 

most valuable nation brands
Top 9 most valuable nation brands in 2020 according to Brand Finance

City branding

On a slightly smaller scale than nation branding comes city branding. 

A city brand can be the result of a strategic initiative or it can simply come to be with the passing of time; although most major cities today have done at least some element of branding to support or even change their identity and image.

Cities have many reasons to do so:

  • They want more tourists
  • They want to attract new residents
  • They want businesses to operate in the city
  • They want to host mega events such as the Olympics. 
  • They want more global and domestic visibility

Again, many similarities but a slightly smaller scale. 

Cities want to capture distinct perceptions within your mind. They want you to get excited about traveling there, moving there, operating your business there and hosting your large-scale events there. 

City branding can also offer numerous benefits to existing residents. A strong  brand by nature reduces clutter and helps consumers make decisions. In this case, it can help people feel a certain sense of belonging. It can even result in tribalism and an element of lifestyle branding – think New York for example. 

Destination branding

Destination branding sets the premises for destination marketing, or for simplicity’s sake – tourism marketing. 

It can apply to a country but is more generally about a specific region, city or some smaller location. 

Destinations are rarely ever created. Of course if we are to include resorts, or places like Dubai or NEOM , that can be contested. But generally you are working with something that has established itself through time. 

Thus, it becomes important to put yourself into the shoes of potential visitors and emphasise what they find appealing about the destination – not what you want to tell them. 

To assume you know what tourists are after is a dangerous myopia to fall into, but not an uncommon one. 

David Ogilvy illustrates this perfectly in his book:

“Research told me that what American tourists most wanted to see in Britain was history and tradition – Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Oxford, that kind of thing. So that is what I featured in the advertisements, only to be slaughtered in the British press for projecting an image of a country living in the past. Why did I not project a progressive industrial society? Why did I not feature the nuclear power stations which the British had just invented? Because our research had shown that American tourists had no desire to see such things, that’s why”

David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising
Destination brand westminster
When branding a destination it is important to consider that the consumer wants to see what they know, even if that may contribute to a destination’s stereotype

A successful destination brand examines its own elements and aligns them with what the visitor is looking for – and research plays a major role in making that happen. 

How to build a place brand

Building a brand is a long term commitment and chances are that it happens somewhat automatically. 

This doesn’t mean it happens in isolation. Branding is a result of tens of thousands of interactions between people over a substantial period of time. 

That being said, you can intervene and strategically steer the process in a desired direction. 

As briefly mentioned above, branding isn’t a communication tool; it’s a strategic vision. It’s about managing how people perceive you. To help people, and emphasis on help here, perceive you in a way that you want, you must give them a reason to. 

In the simplest terms, you can start building your brand by answering three questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Why does it matter?

This is a quick test for the differentiation qualities of your brand. If you are unable to answer these compellingly, you likely don’t have a brand. 

The city brand management model

For further depth, the city brand management model from Gaggiotti, Yunak and Cheng is an excellent resource. Although it is created mainly with cities in mind, it can easily be adapted to other circumstances. 

Its objective is to act as a framework for building a city brand, identifying a strategic direction and the specific brand building tasks that need to be carried out.

The model splits up into four sections:

City Branding Framework
City Branding Framework

1. What we are now

The first section is a situational analysis.  This stage thoroughly assesses the what resources and assets the place currently obtains. It is vital to have good knowledge on this in order to be able to leverage the brand assets in the building process. 


This includes geographic location, cultural heritage, history and the environment. Infrastructure such as transportation is also included here as well as economic clusters. 

In a brief analysis of Denmark, we could say: “Denmark is a small country located in Scandinavia. It has a population of 5,8 million. The climate is temperate with mild winters and cool summers.”

The country’s cultural heritage goes back to vikings who raided and settled in England and France. Today, both Greenland and the Faroe Islands ‘belong’ to Denmark, although they are self governed”. 

This small illustration touches on geography, environment and culture. In reality, you would want to go deeper into each and further examine other factors such as main industries. 


People includes human measurements such as diversity, education levels, technical literacy, mentality, attitudes and talents of local residents. 

To continue our Danish example: “The official language is Danish but English is widely spoken as a second language (4th on the English proficiency index). Denmark has one of the best education systems in the world. It is free of charge and offers grants to students aged over 18. “

“The society is influenced by the state monarchy. The capital, Copenhagen, is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world and has the busiest airport of all the Nordics. “


This section looks at governance and the strategic orientation. Also included here is the effectiveness of legal systems and how well the place integrates with other regional and global economies. 

Corruption, bureaucracy, environmental friendliness, management style and accepted norm of behaviour should also be considered here – anything that can help or prevent economic and social development of the place. 

“Denmark is a representative democracy. Currently the country is governed by a left wing coalition led by the Social Democrats.  Denmark leads the Rule of Law Index with a score of 0.90, compared to the global average of 0.56. A major influence to that rank is the nation’s lack of corruption.”


Partners refers to a place’s affiliation with interest groups. This could be a group of countries, non governmental organisations, specific sectors or large companies. This factor is very important portraying the nation’s image to the rest of the world. 

“Denmark’s largest companies are Maersk Group and Danske Bank. The two might not serve as the best ambassadors for the country’s external image. Maersk has a large oil drilling arm which contradicts the nation’s environmental performance.  Danske Bank was recently involved in a money laundering scandal which puts the country in a bad spot.”

Lego is a Danish company that could be leveraged in branding efforts of the country or the city (Billund) in which its headquarters are located

“The Danish are prominent in the science and technology scene. It’s engineers are at the very top globally in handling diabetes. They also have a strong link to programming, having participated in creating many of the current languages.” 

The country’s affiliations play a large role in how it is perceived by the world. Danish companies have a responsibility to create a certain image in lines with the nation’s values. 

2. What our options are

Usually places have at least a vague idea of what they are, their identity. A choice now is between maintaining the same image or crafting a new one. 

Everything constantly changes and so we must with it. Sometimes it might make sense to revamp a brand whereas other times conservatism serves better. 

If the first stage was completed thoroughly, the place should have ample ideas of how it would like to be perceived – and now it’s time to put the ideas to the task. 

Go through each idea with established criteria. It’s important that the criteria favours the elements that resemble the highest return to the place brand. These are criterions such as financial attractiveness, longevity of the chosen image and the best fit between existing resources, external opportunities and the image. 

The best fit within these criterions will direct you to “what you want to be”. 

3. What we want to be


What will bring the country the greatest economic and social profit? 

The positioning acts as an umbrella for all sub-brands. E.g. a nation brand is an umbrella for city brands and so on. 

A major caveat here is the feat of competing complexities. On a nation, city or destination level, odds are that there are many conflicting voices that constitute the brand. 

It is essential to stay clear of this and focus only on a single line of messaging. A place cannot be a successful brand if it positions itself as the place for x, y, z. Consumers want simplicity and multiple messages get in the way of that. 

Align your city’s strengths with what the market demands, and be pretty brutal about zeroing in on one communication strategy; and then stick with it

Adam Hanft

4. What we need to do

Lastly, it is all tied together with a framework for action. This lists out the critical tasks to support the positioning. 

It is a compass that guides strategic actions that focus the attention of all relevant entities to achieve the goal. 

It is a strategy that needs to be broken down into tactics and operational objectives.

Final thoughts

Place branding is about managing the cumulative perceptions of people directed towards a specific location. It is a necessary prerequisite and can multiply the effectiveness of place marketing. 

Done correctly it can bring on a host of benefits such as:

  • Can enhance a nation’s political influence
  • Can decrease the cost of exports and make them more sought after
  • Can make a city more attractive to tourists, workers, businesses and investments
  • Increase visibility and identification

Achieving this is a massive task. Although place branding is similar to corporate branding on most dimensions, there are distinguishing elements to it. 

The factors behind a place’s country and image are difficult and slow to change. In most cases, there will be some that are impossible to control. 

Second, resistance is harder to manage. Interest groups and political parties are likely to have a different vision of how a place should identify itself, further slowing down the process.  This is more complex to deal with in public forums than inside corporations. 

By following the city brand management model, these limitations can be mitigated to certain extent as the criteria will rule them out in exchange for more favourable elements. 

There are undoubtedly complications that must be satisfied in each scenario, that’s why strategy is ever more important.


  1. Ind, N., Iglesias, O., & Schultz, M. (2013). Building Brands Together: Emergence and Outcomes of Co-Creation. California Management Review, 55(3), 5-26. doi: 10.1525/cmr.2013.55.3.5
  2. Ind, N., Iglesias, O., & Markovic, S. (2017). The co-creation continuum: From tactical market research tool to strategic collaborative innovation method. Journal of Brand Management, 24(4), 310–321.
  3. Markovic, S., & Bagherzadeh, M. (2018). How does breadth of external stakeholder co-creation influence innovation performance? Analyzing the mediating roles of knowledge sharing and product innovation. Journal of Business Research, 88, 173–186.
  4. Kapferer, J. (2012). The new strategic brand management. London: Kogan Page.

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