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When I was growing up, my family moved around a lot to different countries. France wasn’t one of them. Although an amateur vinologist and mountain-lover, my father avoided France like the plague. After being mugged in Paris and rudely turned away from a roadside cafe along the Route de Soleil, France had become his bête noire. I can assure you, no French tourist campaign could change his mind. In our work as place branding experts we meet local councils, developers and property owners every day, wanting to put their spot on the map. Whether it’s a new building, a region or an entire city. Most of the time they want to attract businesses, talent, tourists or residents. And even more often, the first question they ask us is to come up with a great campaign, something fun and snappy—a mediagenic event, an app. They want ‘something’ to generate visibility and attract the much-coveted target group rather sooner than later. But that basically amounts to asking a designer to create a sofa for a house that hasn’t even been designed yet.

Promotion or marketing?

The desire to put a place on the map is not entirely new. Dutch cities were first commended back in 1850 when Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague were labelled ‘capital city’, ‘port city’ and ‘seat-of-government-city’ respectively. It was all about ‘promotion’: in these cases, the chosen approach was clearly supply-driven. The city launched what it had to offer the world more or less indiscriminately. A scattergun approach, a message for anyone ready to receive it, or not.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the marketing profession emerged, the term ‘city marketing’ was all the rage. Overnight, we learned to think in terms of target groups and meeting their specific needs and desires. After all, the needs of businesses and tourists are unalike. Places were defined and marketed in the style of brand products. Marketing stands for the demand-driven approach: you develop a product for the need of a specific group of people with the goal of selling as many products as possible. A great approach for a commercial company that prioritises profit maximalisation, but not the most durable option for a city. The market is fickle, and trends come and go with increasing rapidity. When you’re branding a place, there’s no point in trying to match that fevered pace.

A place as a brand

A relatively new approach to positioning and promoting places is ‘place branding’, literally building a brand for a place. This is all about unlocking the DNA of a place. A brand is a set of associations in the mind of the receiver. BMW evokes a very different set of images and feelings than a Skoda. Some of those associations have been planted in your head by marketing campaigns, some come from your own experiences, while others are shaped by what the media and your network think of the brand.

But where you can largely determine the brand values of the product yourself, acting as product marketeer, locations—irrespective of scale—are much harder to influence. The history of the place, its geographic location, the buildings, the facilities and the behaviour of the people who live there all influence the image you have of a place. For my father, two bad experiences were enough for him to write off France as a holiday destination.

Place branding is not centred around the wishes of target groups, but on the identity of the locale. What are the present and future core values and core qualities of a place? How can the place stand out from others? And how can the place—drawing on that identity—stay relevant and attractive to the groups it wants to attract?

The developed ‘place brand’ then serves as a solid foundation and as a clear compass for the development of the offer (in the broadest sense of the word), the marketing campaigns and promotional tools that emerge from them. It makes sense that if, as a city or place, you know what you stand for, are clear about your ambitions and whom you want to serve, those insights will feed into the kinds of promises you can make to connect with the desired target groups and the means and channels you choose to do that. In other words: first the brand, then marketing and then promotion.

First the house, then the furniture

But how do you do that, building a brand for a place? I always like to compare it to building and furnishing a house. First, you design and build the house. And it’s better if you don’t do that on your own but with a team, made up of people each with their own skills. Once the house is built you can start decorating the rooms. Perhaps every room has a different look and feel, just like the target groups you want to engage with. Last, you get to work on the interior. What kind of furniture works best in the space, and creates the mood that you want? Starting by buying a bright green designer sofa is one way to go about it, but further down the line, chances are it’ll clash with your Oriental living room or, even worse, be way too big for your house.

As we all well know, designing and building a house takes time. Compared to buying a sofa you can take home the same day, it’s a process that doesn’t deliver short-term results. Getting the house built requires patience and trust. But once the structure’s standing, you have a comfortable home for years to come, filled with cool furniture in a gorgeously decorated interior.

Three examples of successful place branding

Over the last few decades, Manchester has deftly reshaped its image from gritty industrial town to dynamic cultural city. The city has successfully positioned itself as ‘the cultural heart of England’. A string of marketing campaigns was crowned by the opening of the HOME Manchester cultural centre in 2015 (based on a Mecanoo design), which slotted perfectly into this brand strategy.

The municipality of Eindhoven has invested more than 10 years in a strategy to (re)position the city. In 2009 the city—which at the time had virtually no identity—resolved to reinvent itself as the leading European region for creative innovation by 2020. The city’s mindset and its inhabitants together formed the core of the ‘Eindhoven brand’. Eindhoven’s limitless energy and drive to constantly reimagine itself served as the bedrock of the visual identity, which crystallised in co-creation with fifteen design agencies. Events, marketing campaigns but most of all the city’s offerings, tie in with this positioning. Eindhoven also made a conscious choice to follow an open-source marketing strategy. Everyone has a chance to contribute to the brand, which encourages the city and its people to own and promote it. In 2019, the city has a distinct, clear profile both in the Netherlands and beyond.

When it comes to urban neighbourhoods, one of the best examples of successful place branding is Katendrecht in Rotterdam. The brand captures the harbour area’s rough and ready past as a notorious red-light area. New residents and businesses were issued a bold challenge with the campaign slogan ‘Can you take on the Cape?’, a reference to Katendrecht’s nickname ‘de Kaap’. As true pioneers, they conquered this new area of the city. The council, property developers and owners teamed up and worked hard to put this place on the map. Activation campaigns and events like ‘Night of the Cape’ took sailors’ shanties as its theme and got visitors to dress up as sailors or ladies of the night, helped give the brand a boost. Katendrecht has grown into one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Rotterdam, precisely because of its somewhat raw, typical Rotterdam profile.

Doing a 180

In summary, before you fall under the spell of an awesome app, a celebrated influencer’s vlog series or a cool social media campaign, be sure you’ve got your house in order. And check again to be sure that you know how you want to position yourself as a place and the values you stand behind, now and going forward. Once you’ve nailed this, it’s much easier to reach the people, businesses and organisations you want to activate using the tools, channels and stories that appeal to them. Which massively increases your chances of success. Build your house before you buy your sofa.

And my father? These days, he spends every holiday in France. ‘Great nature, fabulous wines and super friendly people!’ Ever since close friends of my parents moved to a wonderful house in the Dordogne, his views of the country did a 180.

Rinske Brand
BRAND The Urban Agency 

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