I submitted an article for a student publication last week on public diplomacy and place branding. Shortly speaking, I describe how and why we are using public diplomacy and grassroots movements in a regional branding project. I am not going to discuss the details of the article (-as both the article and the project are under review).Though ever since, I started thinking about legitimacy in place branding. In other words, who gave us the authority to work on the regional branding project? Even further, who gave a committee the authority to brand the place? ABS had a great issue on “Legitimacy in the Modern World” last year. However, branding & legitimacy necessitates further research and an explanation for itself (rather than being discussed under a general legitimacy title).
Therkelsen & Halkier* remind us about a classification in branding: inside-out and outside-in. A good branding campaign chooses the former style, and tries to find the brand identity in a place. You are supposed to discuss the local values, traditions, life, actors etc… Does anyone else see the irony here? As an outside consultant, you are expected to lecture local figures about their own values.. Now, even if you have an official title, even if you are a politician, governor, president, or a king; you are never given the authority to build up an identity for your citizens/subjects. So, how can you even think about creating a place brand?
The place branding project that I am a proud part of, therefore, underlines the importance of grassroots movements and public diplomacy. By engaging with the local stakeholders, by raising awareness, and by talking with them about how they see their own home towns, we aim to create credibility, legitimacy, and eventually a long-lasting brand for the region. In communication, it is a known fact that meaning is ‘negotiated’ and created among several parties. Before setting sail to reach our target audiences, we negotiate the region’s meaning with the residents. We encourage them to be a part of the branding. The entire project is based on creating a community pride within people.
Once the brand identity is negotiated with local people, and a sense of social involvement is created, it is time to reach out to the target audiences. Again, public diplomacy and grassroots movements are very effective ways especially during the initial stages of the project. By creating direct, people-to-people communication bridges, you are automatically involved in the ‘negotiation’ process, and you can create more effective and persuasive brand messages. Moreover, as you enjoy the opportunity to receive instant feedback, you can use your projects as focus group studies as well.
I still have ethical doubts about legitimacy and place branding. As far as I can see, grassroots movements is the best course of action (although I really don’t know how effective they will be in larger populations) because firstly you strengthen the community spirit within an inclusive campaign. Secondly, you don’t fabricate a brand image but use an inside-out technique. Even before you start disseminating your message, you guarantee a long-lasting brand. And lastly, by sharing your messages through public diplomacy, you build real relations with your audience and hear their feedback. Shortly, if you want to be legitimate, talk with ‘everyone’.
* Therkelsen, A., & Halkier, H. (2008). Contemplating Place Branding Umbrellas. The Case of Coordinated National Tourism and Business Promotion in Denmark. Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, 8(2), 159-175. doi:10.1080/15022250802221229