So far, most of the work my colleagues and I do takes place in Dutch cities. Recently, however, we’ve had the privilege to shed a light on the marketing challenges of cities abroad. In April, Gwenda and I visited Sofia for the first time. Sofia, a city of 1.3 million people, is one of the oldest cities in Europe – and a city on the verge of a renaissance. Already, over a million people visit Sofia every year, and visitor numbers are increasing: Sofia is one of the top 10 European cities when it comes to tourism growth. I secretly fell in love with this intriguing city, and with the energetic and perseverant city makers we met. So when Maria Gergova-Bengtsson, founder of Sofia-based PR agency United Partners, invited me to join a Creative Lab on City Branding Sofia and to share my view on place branding, I accepted straight away. This second visit proved to be even more inspiring, fueling energy, enthusiasm, and a myriad of insights over the course of my trip. Hence this blog; it turned out to be quite a long read. But it would be a waste not to share this with you – so please bear with me!


The occasion for this Creative Lab was the international conference SOPR: SOMARKETING: SOFIA, organised by Maria’s agency. United Partners also developed the new communication strategy for Sofia, a city on the verge of its EU Presidency in 2018. Furthermore, this new communication approach is also part of ‘Vision of Sofia’, the newly developed general strategy aimed at establishing an innovative, green and resilient Sofia by 2050.

My fellow panelists were Adriana Andreeva and Boiana Gjaurova, the young founders оf Studio Komplekt and co-founders of Generator – Center for Design and Innovation. Studio Komplekt was recently invited by the municipality to work on the new visual identity of Sofia. Also present was Stefan Ognyanov of 365 Association. His NGO organises, among other things, free tours of Sofia. The municipality and the Sofia Investment Agency were invited to join but either declined or didn’t show up. Adriyana Mihaylova, communications coordinator for Vision for Sofia, served as moderator of the discussion. She put the main question on the table: ‘How to create a strong city reputation, that attracts visitors, businesses and employees alike, while making residents proud of their city?’

Some form of city or place branding is often seen as the answer. Despite the abundance of complex and long definitions of the concept, I like to think of place branding as a way of making places famous. And loved. Or actually, in reverse order: first loved and then famous. To create a good reputation, you have to build a brand that is meaningful and relevant to your main target groups, and that distinguishes itself from the competition. This cannot be done top-down and/or in the black box of an advertising agency. Building a successful place brand can only be done together with the people who make their city every day: residents, entrepreneurs, cultural and educational institutions, NGO’s, and all other entities that have an impact of some kind on the city. In order to get to the essence of those place characteristics that are valued most and that you can build on, you need to collaborate with those who live and breathe the place: you need to figure it out together.

Contrary to a consumer brand, building a place brand isn’t something you do from scratch. Every place has its history and people have already contributed certain assets and values to that place. And therein lies the challenge for Sofia. What struck me during a visit to the Museum of History was that the story of Sofia abruptly ends right after World War II. The more recent decades of Sofia’s history can be found in the Museum of Socialist Art, tucked away in the suburbs. Statues and paintings together with propaganda films paint the picture of a time most Bulgarian people are trying to forget. But is that really possible? The legacy of communism can be found all over town, with Luylin, a suburb from the sixties with its resident numbers exceeding 230.000 people, as its biggest physical reminder. When I confronted the audience with my observation, most people were utterly surprised visitors took an actual interest in this part of history. A dark yet prominent page in Sofia’s history, it is definitely worth investigating what is the legacy of the communist era in the city’s identity, and how it translates to today’s way of life in Sofia.


The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia.


Experiencing the brand

Place branding is also all about experiencing the place. Posters, TV commercials and online advertising alone won’t do the trick. They will maybe trigger curiosity but to really experience a place brand you need to be in the city. Next best thing might be a documentary on TV or a travel piece in a newspaper. And with the rise of social media, you can have the (illusion of) this experience through the posts of bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers. But do not underestimate the impact of the people from Sofia themselves, as they are the real ‘urban influencers’. All of these people share impressions of Sofia online and offline, and they too are responsible for the reputation of the city beyond the city borders. ‘Content is king’, especially when it comes to place branding.

The need for slogans

Apart from one or two successful implemented slogans, the added value of this kind of one-liners escapes me. The danger also lies in the overestimation of a slogan. A slogan will not autonomously attract people to a place – especially now that every self-respecting city or even village has its identity enveloped in a one-liner (of varying quality…). But how about the immensely popular ‘iamsterdam’? The best feature of iamsterdam is that it is both the brand and the motto, all in one. Additionally, iamsterdam is a very well-designed integral marketing strategy. But the question remains: does Sofia need a slogan? Both the panel and the audience feel that this is not a priority. The real priority is defining the core values of the city. What does Sofia stand for, what connects the people of Sofia and what makes them proud?



What Sofia stands for

According to my fellow panelists Sofia is most famous for its Vitosha mountain; the fact that it is a very green city; and that it’s very centrally located. It is also a very walkable and compact city. Not to mention that it’s an affordable place to live and work, especially compared to other European cities. More specifically, the sound of the old tram is typical of the city. According to Stefan, tourists also mention the police booths at intersections and the so-called ‘klekshops’ as features that stand out. In the nineties, a lot of Bulgarians wanted to start a shop, but they didn’t have the financial means to do so. So instead, they started a shop from a basement with a small window just above street level. Costumers had to squat down to purchase something. These ‘squat shops’ or ‘klekshops’ are very typical of the city, even though only a few of them still remain. Apart from this collection of characteristics, however, we can conclude that hearing the name ‘Sofia’ doesn’t really bring one or two striking images to mind.


Sofia’s typical OK taxis.


For me, however, the image of Sofia is inseparable from the yellow OK taxi’s. I got warned before my first visit to only take taxi’s with the OK-logo and the right set of digits. I failed once and got ripped of right away. So taking the right taxi is definitely part of my Sofia experience. And it will be one of the Sofia-stories I tell and re-tell in the future.

We do notice that the word ‘diversity’ pops up quite a lot of times during the discussion; to describe the visual language used in the city, to define the people, the places of interest, the things to do. Yes, this might be one of the unique selling points of the city.

Use what is already there

Involving the people of Sofia is at the core of the approach that is needed, everyone seems to agree. This crowdsourcing is not entirely new to Sofia. Adriyana started #sosofia a couple of years ago. It is now a very popular hashtag used on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It started as a platform to define the ‘visual language’ of the city, but now it’s also a way for Sofia people to share their love for their city. This could also be a good source to research what are the defining images of Sofia.

Start tomorrow

The branding of Sofia is already happening. With every visit to the city, with every story that is told and every social update that is posted. But strengthening and coordinating this process can start tomorrow. By mapping out all points of encounter that a visitor or resident has with the city. By welcoming everyone and making every experience one to remember. By working together in expressing the core values of the city and by facilitating and rewarding the young urban influencers I encountered during my visits. They are the true ambassadors of Sofia.


Want to know more about place branding? Have a look at our expertise page.
Want to know more about our first visit to Sofia? Read it here

Cover image credit: Boby Dimitrov.

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