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August 9, 2022

Ryan Tym

Place branding: 6 reasons why a city might fail

Get your place branding right and you can revitalise a region, get it wrong and you will have a lot of explaining to do.

In April 2022, a small market town in Herefordshire was slammed in the local and national press over its rebrand. The criticism centred on turning the D backwards in the town’s name (Bromyard) in an apparent attempt to appear “edgy” – and it’s not the first time a town or city has faced backlash over its attempts to create a new brand identity. 

place branding in Newington estate, Ramsgate
The rebrand for the estate of Newington in Ramsgate, Kent. (Photo courtesy of Lantern)

Rebranding anything is an important undertaking: it can increase tourism, stimulate investment, or simply make residents feel more positive about where they live. But a place – be it a city, town, or region – is made up of many things and it is not easy to get a new brand identity and strategy right. 

Here are six mistakes that regularly lead to place branding failure – and how local government and councils can avoid them. 

1. Trying to be all things to all people 

Obviously, you want place branding to appeal to the widest demographic possible and keep all your stakeholders – such as community groups, local government, or investors – happy. 

Businesses and residents need to be confident ambassadors for the brand but, sometimes, stakeholder agreement is met at the detriment of a clear, focused strategy and identity. There can be 30 to 40 different stakeholders, and you do need to consult them, but if the rebrand is an attempt to please everyone, you often end up speaking to no one. 

It becomes neutral and bland, with slogans like “Leeds. Live it. Love it” or “People Make Glasgow”, which don’t really say anything fresh or grab people’s attention. The best branding has an attitude and a personality to it. 

Balancing opinions is crucial, but never be afraid to challenge stakeholders, or the brand identity risks falling short.

2. Failing to embrace the truth of a place

A new brand identity stands out by embracing what is unique about the place – good and bad. It’s impossible to hide what’s difficult about an area. For example, Leicester Square can’t hide from its reputation as a tourist trap, but it can challenge that narrative and embrace its offering for entertaining visitors, whether through film and theatre, retail, hospitality or food and drink. 

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The Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah is a great example of welcoming the negative: it used one-star reviews that referenced how difficult the slopes were to challenge skiers to come and visit. Embracing the truth perfectly aligned the brand with expert skiers. Honesty and acceptance are crucial to success. 

In 2018, the West Coast of Tasmania launched a new brand identity and strategy that welcomed the isolation of the Australian region and its “harsh weather”. Their brand said “this isn’t for everyone”, but it was brave and honest.  

3. Ignoring the community

To some it might seem like the point of a rebrand is to entice outsiders in, so why bother asking the community what they think? This couldn’t be more wrong. The local community are the ones who know the place best, who know its quirks and what it stands for. They hold the key to that. A rebrand should also be for the community. 

In the Newington Estate in Ramsgate, the people living there are the heart and soul of what makes the place special. The estate had felt isolated by the local government, but this had led to tremendous community spirit. Telling that story through new branding was its goal. 

There are many ways to properly engage the community: conduct surveys and workshops, and live like a local. If those creating the campaign fail to experience the place and its people, they won’t be able to capture that richness.   

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4. Fearing outsiders

Often, places are focused on hiring an agency from within that area to rebrand it. There’s a nobility to this, but it can also be extremely limiting. Being so close to the place can lead to an agency failing to see it from an outsider’s perspective. 

Take Visit Estonia, for example. If you spent weeks outside of the capital of Tallinn in the country you would discover that many Estonians have an incredible knowledge of how to forage in the woodland and this can be incorporated into the campaign, which focuses on the experiences you can have in the country.

That sort of insight wouldn’t have jumped out to a local agency: to them, it is an everyday occurrence but it’s extraordinary to visitors. Being able to see each project with open eyes and a beginner’s mind – seeing the destination as many first-time visitors would do – ensures the campaign captures the uniqueness of a place and the imagination of its audience.

The logo is almost the least interesting part of the brand system. Ten years ago, Shrewsbury did a great rebrand that was very ahead of its time. Instead of focusing on a new logo, an entire campaign demonstrated why Shrewsbury is so unique, with taglines like “Higgledy-piggledy streets you want to say out loud” and “bread, still warm, made from the flour of a water mill a few miles away” that brilliantly evoked the essence of the town. If you focus too much on getting a new logo, you lose the story and messaging that makes a rebrand powerful. 

6. An expectation of immediate results

Changing and improving the image of a place is a long-term effort but far too often stakeholders and residents expect immediate results. Reactions to place branding launches can become negative, as the pace of regeneration and transformation often fails to match expectations. 

This needs to be handled delicately, to rebuke the “waste of money” comments that will follow the brand’s launch – with people arguing the money could have been spent on policing, healthcare and education instead. 

Bromyard’s debacle ended with the designer having to defend his work on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. But there are opportunities to negate this risk, from involving the community at the early stages and making them feel part of the project – which they are – to creating a script for launch, which can be used to inform press releases and local correspondence. 

Even the most inspiring strategy can’t succeed without long-term commitment and investment.

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