Can small towns be brands?
Written by Giacomo Felace
The other day I was talking with a couple of friends about the complexity of living in the north-eastern Italian province. As the pandemic hit globally many people escaped from their expat life abroad to their small Italian hometown or rushed to relocate outside the city reassessing the concept of well-being and quality of life.
We cannot generalize, every part of Italy has its pros and cons but in addition to the unquestionable advantages and the importance of “local” in our modern and globalized society, we cannot hide some dark sides of living in some Italian areas. Naturally, some people decide that province’s not for them and others decide it is. There are no right or wrong answers.
From our discussion among friends with a few years of experience abroad under our belt, we find that moving here means clash with the first big challenge: working.
No career prospects and job security. Then, the scarcity of cultural events and the difficulty to weave new social relationships make that the only point of aggregation and discussion is the bar and no longer the square, the event, the cinema, or the concert. Don’t get me wrong, God save the bars but I think there’s a lot more to it than that.
So we asked ourselves, how can a small province will survive culturally and socially with the progressive disappearance of traditions, professional development and culture? Are they becoming a poor residential areas without a community soul? What really drives people to live here and what drives visitors to come here? Can a small town develop and promoting education, tradition, innovation and creative activities creating its own brand?
The stakes are beyond high. Perhaps more than companies, locations and destinations need to brand themselves. They need to have an identity, and to have a say in the stories that are being told about them. The biggest challenge for city branding is to find the answer to the questions: what makes a city a brand? Why we are doing it, who for, and what we are trying to achieve?
I think we can set six dimensions, with which it measures city brands:
1. PRESENCE: the national/regional representation of the city on the cultural and scientific scene;
2. PLACE: geographical potentials – climate, environment, positioning of the building and green areas;
3. PREREQUISITES: people’s impression of the city’s basic services – how satisfactory, how affordable, the quality of public services such as health facilities, schools or cultural centers;
4. PEOPLE: what kind of people live in a given city, how open and kind they are?
5. PULSE: is there content where free time is spent?
6. POTENTIALS: measures economic opportunities and opportunities for learning and professional development.
From small communities to entire boroughs, new place brands are cropping up at an increasing rate. Thought to boost tourism, attract investment and boost morale among local people. But two big challenges exist:
︎ For one, the playing field is vast, and it’s hardly level. Some places are already “cool” while others simply aspire to be.
︎ The other big challenge: a place is a truly immersive experience, and its reputation depends on its natural and cultural attractions, its leaders and its community, its visitors, marketing strategies, and specifics of day-to-day life. In other words, everything.
But as we all know, in 2020, everything communicates. Even trickier, a lot of what is communicating is snapshot impressions from others—and really, does watching an influencer eat something outlandish and set out for parts unknown help you truly understand what a place is all about? Most of what other tourists, and media sources say is pretty random and trivial. Place branding aims to counter this by taking a strategic, well-thought-out approach to creating knowledge and experience of places.
First, branding says that successfully selling a destination, company or individual is not simply about giving it some catchy promotion. We all know that when you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. So in 2020, just because you give an undesirable destination a clever slogan and stylish logo doesn’t mean it will be a place where people get really excited about visiting, living or doing business. Selling a location involves so much more than sticking a label on it.
Local residents’ attitudes matter a lot for modern place doing. Selling a destination is the ultimate example of “everything communicates”; visiting or living in a city is by definition an immersive experience. Place branding has to reflect, engage and activate the people of the place. Otherwise, it’s all just a banner or a slogan placed in the city center.
The next step in the evolution of place branding and place doing is the rise of localism. We all want to be of somewhere and to have experienced something authentically. Empowering residents, help them understand who is responsible for delivering services and boosting morale in a community is another reason for branding a place. Understandably, people tend to have strong connections with where they live or work and branding an area without getting the community on board shows poor judgment.
Stories behind a place are important, and capturing these by talking to the people who know and live them seems like a responsible way to encourage those people to support their place. When it is done right, place branding can be a powerful thing, boosting civic pride, attracting tourism and investment, and empowering communities.