Perils of Ambiguity: Interdisciplinary and Cultural

After another very long break, I’m back blogging. Last week, I was in Bogota, Colombia attending the 2nd International Place Branding Conference. The conference was an invaluable learning experience – and a great motivator. I decided to write down some of my ideas as blog posts to share my impressions as well as to build up some background information for future publication ideas.

First of all, I owe a big thank you to all the organizers. The conference was perfect! We were around 80 practitioners and scholars around the globe (and it took us around 5 minutes to divide the group into two camps –practitioners and scholars– with several people, including myself, stuck in between). Moreover, both practitioners and scholars were coming from different backgrounds: marketing, political science, communication, international relations, geography, history, architecture etc… We discussed individual presentations, as well as the development of (the need for?) place branding as a distinct discipline.

Right now, I am on my flight back to Washington, DC and have several ideas in my mind. Let me start with the first one. We (i) label place branding as interdisciplinary without really naming the ‘disciplines’ and (ii) claim that ‘one does not fit for all’ in place branding because of the role of culture without really explaining what that role is. In other words, we avoid some –very difficult to conclude– discussions via our safe words: ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘cultural’. I have less to say about the latter, so I’ll start with that one.

It is not possible to replicate a successful place branding project out-of its cultural context. But what is that context? Are we talking about the variation in how audience(s) perceive messages? Do people from different cultures have different place understandings? Do different places have different properties? Is the relation between locals and audiences different in every place? – I know, the answer to most of these questions is just yes, but this doesn’t disprove my point. We can still identify, at least try to identify some of the dynamics that make up the culture difference in place branding campaigns and come up with ‘guidelines’ if not modifiable/flexible models.
Interdisciplinary…. During the closing panel, I tried to mention about the peril of this work. I, myself, have written about the interdisciplinary nature of the field formally and informally. I have also tried to name those disciplines: communication, marketing, political science, international relations, (and as I learned at the conference), history, place management, geography and more…. I do not know a scholar who has a working knowledge in all these areas. Alas, I even cannot think of a team of scholars from all these disciplines working together.

However, several of the questions we have been trying to answer in place branding/nation branding/and to an extent public diplomacy have already been answered by scholars… Our answers are out there in the literature. Though, it is difficult to pinpoint which literature we are talking about in this sense…

Therefore, how should we approach to the study of place branding? Should we send out scouts to the domains of unknown literatures and wait for their return with precious knowledge? Should we figure out what we can agree on in our limited experience of knowledge-creation in place branding and then focus on them? Or should we just accept that place branding is not and will never be a discipline? Should we build up theories on practice? on ideological stances? Or should we just not build up theories?

I, personally, think we should recruit brave knights from several different disciplines…

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Istanbul 2010 – An Opportunity for Branding

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me what Istanbul 2010 was. She saw Istanbul 2010 ads at Heathrow Airport in London, but didn’t have much idea about what exactly the ads tried to say. Istanbul has been selected as the European Capital of Culture 2010. Hosting international events, and being recognized by international organizations are good opportunities for promoting a place. Given the variety of events and images you can promote under ‘culture’, it is also a good branding opportunity. So how well did Turkey use it?

Okay, first of all, I have to admit one thing. I really didn’t have a clear understanding of European Capital of Culture. I know there were three cities in 2010, and one was Pesc. What was the other one? (I just checked, it was Essen). Although some might be my ignorance, some might be because currently I am not in Europe but still, I am not sure how well the idea of ECOC is promoted.

Istanbul will be hosting several events throughout the year (If you plan to visit Istanbul, 2010 might be the best year to do so). You can find additional information about the event on Istanbul 2010 website. They also had interesting videos (some of which did not even show the subway system!) Although I have no idea why they chose the background music, the video below is quite good – especially the last 45-50 seconds (even the music makes sense). We see Turkish ‘people’ and scenes from daily life as well as important places (i.e. touristic attractions historical places). We have business people, small business owners, people walking, kids, even traffic jam on the video. The scenes pretty much describes both the modern and the historical, the Western and conservative, the serious and fun-having sides of Istanbul.

Though I do have one main question. Recently I started reading, writing, and thinking about authority and legitimacy in branding. When I look at Istanbul 2010 from that point of view, I cannot stop questioning whether they have the authority to claim brand ownership and legitimacy to brand the city. The names on the executive, advisory, and coordination boards (yes, there are three boards, maybe there is a fourth board on boards) are quite well-known people, high-level bureaucrats, and professionals. But where are the people? It seems to be an adequate project with a few shortcomings.

What Went Right
– Although public doesn’t seem to be on any of the boards, everyone had the opportunity to submit a project to Istanbul 2010. In other words, if one wants to be a part of the event, it is possible.
– The domestic and (as far as I can see from my friend’s anecdote) international media presence of the event was great. Everyone knows that there is something called Istanbul 2010 (we are just not so sure what it is).

What Went Wrong
– There doesn’t seem to be an overarching theme. I don’t like “a place where you can do everything” as a brand message and Istanbul 2010 subtly gives this message. Unfortunately can-do-everything messages never give a sense of inclusiveness. Even worse, you end up with a ‘generic’ place which is lost in messages. The website pretty much symbolizes this chaos.
– Project members seem to be very involved with Istanbul 2010 and be living with the idea. This is why the website fails to explain what Istanbul 2010 is. If you look at benefits for Istanbul part, you will see that Istanbul 2010 will make Istanbul the greatest place in Europe, maybe in the world. But there are no substantive explanation about why or how. (A trivia question: Which city was the ECOC 2009? What about ECOC 2011?)
– The communication methods don’t go down to foreign publics. In other words, Istanbul 2010 uses mass media, and tourism fairs to promote. I couldn’t find any people-to-people, Web 2.0, social media communication understanding. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much direct interaction between Istanbul 2010 and target audience.

In short, ECOC is a good regional promotion opportunity. Istanbul 2010 is a successful campaign. It might have been better if more communication/public diplomacy and less advertising techniques were used.

For those who are curious, ECOC 2009 were Vilnius and Linz, ECOC 2011 will be Turku and Tallinn.
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