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8 Lessons in Place Branding from City Nation Place Americas

DCI at City Nation Place Americas

I was fortunate to be among about 200 “place makers” from around the world who attended the inaugural City Nation Place Americas conference in New York City in mid-June – an all-too-rare mash-up of folks from economic development and destination marketing organizations. It was inspiring to learn about place making campaigns, from the UK’s signature GREAT Britain campaign to a funny campaign launched by the Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs that invented its own alphabet and social media emojis. But what I took away most from the conference were these eight lessons:

1. Placemaking should never stop.

Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, asserted that constant invention and reinvention is critical for cities, which all have their own personalities. Diversity is in the DNA of the Big Apple and eccentricity is vital to the city’s success. He talked about the preservation of New York city’s landmarks and icons, while casting a spotlight on game-changing new attractions like Hudson Yards and Destination St. George, which will have a huge observation wheel with passenger capsules the size of subways cars.

2. When policy gets in the way of place branding, start listening.

When House Bill 2 (HB2) passed in the North Carolina legislature in 2016, the state’s tourism officials had to go rapidly into crisis communications mode since the so-called “Bathroom Bill” sent an anti-LGBTQ message to the world that was so against the state’s brand of “There’s Beauty Here.” Wit Tuttell, VP of Tourism and Marketing for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, said that even though they decided that they couldn’t comment on policy matters, they could hit the pause button on most of the state’s tourism marketing efforts and be really good listeners – monitoring social media and responding to every post and every email in a personal, honest and authentic way.

3. Focus on what millennials want.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer likened his city – which has the tagline “You don’t know the half of it” – to a “teenager growing up,” adding that “we’re not what we’re going to be yet.” He spoke about focusing on what millennials want to fuel the future workforce – a vibrant downtown with 10,000 new units of housing; commuter rail and a burgeoning sports and entertainment complex.

4. A place brand is sticky.

According to Mayor William Bell of Birmingham, Alabama, it’s difficult to change stereotypes of a city and sometimes it’s best to face them head-on. Just over 50 years ago, Birmingham was at the epicenter of the turmoil during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the Magic City is emerging as a global model for human rights, crime prevention and inclusivity. Bell and other civic leaders recently led a successful charge to secure a Civil Rights National Monument to tell the stories of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church– which was the site of a bombing in 1963; and Kelly Ingram Park, where Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor turned water hoses and dogs on young civil rights protesters.

5. Creativity can drive a place brand.

When Detroit was named as one of only 22 cities worldwide to be a UNESCO City of Design, Olga Stella, Executive Director of the city’s Creative Corridor, swung into action to break down the silos between designers, architects and creative businesses to drive sustainable economic development. To create a “wow” factor beyond the typical “boring” economic development initiatives, the corridor sponsored a fashion show in a cool industrial shed and leveraged hot corporate brands like Shinola that are doing global marketing to help put a new face on Detroit. Stella asserted, “Design and creativity isn’t the icing on the cake – it’s the flour in the cake. If we raise up the talent in Detroit, the city’s trajectory can really change.”

6. Movies can work magic.

Ernest Wooden, Jr., CEO of LA Tourism, said that a survey conducted after the release of box office smash film “La La Land” showed that 87% of those surveyed felt more positive about Los Angeles and more likely to visit.

7. Bottom-up branding can really work.

When citizens play an active role in identifying issues and coming up with potential solutions, they feel like it’s their process, according to Jeannette Hanna, Chief Strategist of Trajectory. Tapping into the “wisdom of the crowd” can generate better ideas and well as mitigate risk so you aren’t so vulnerable, she noted, pointing out that people will accept “no” if they know they were heard.So when Tourism Colorado set out to create a new strategic plan called the Colorado Tourism Roadmap, they conducted more than 20 listening sessions around the state. One of the issues that kept bubbling up was sustainability, with residents having concerns about water resources, impacts on public lands and just too many people in one place at one time. Anti-tourism sentiment was growing, so sustainability became one of the four pillars of the roadmap that was printed, posted on the Tourism Colorado website and turned into a video.

8. Amsterdam has a beach.

Well not exactly. But faced with the enormous popularity of Amsterdam and tourists flocking to the center city, Frans van der Avert, CEO of Amsterdam Marketing, talked about his organization’s efforts to promote and drive visitors to attractions on the outskirts of the city – like the beautiful beaches nearby. Instead of using the hard-to-pronounce names of the coastal towns of Zandvoort and Bloemendaal where the beaches are actually located, the organization simply cashed in on the cache of Amsterdam and collectively called them Amsterdam Beach. Now that’s genius place making!

Written By

Dariel Curren

Dariel is the Executive Vice President at Development Counsellors International and directs the Economic Development Division. Since joining DCI in 1995, she has worked for clients spanning the globe, including destinations from Maine to Miami and from New York to New Zealand.

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