Who are you? Legitimacy in Place Branding

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

This blog post is also posted on http://cc608.blogspot.com/ and http://placebranding.ning.com/.

Going viral ain’t easy

I have been pondering about the impacts of internet communication, Web 2.0 in specific, on nation branding and public diplomacy. A friend of mine and I have decided to launch a Web 2.0 campaign for Turkey’s nation branding. We have started working on our project proposal around May 2009. I have been working on the issue for around 6 months. There is a great literature on the subject. Dr. Craig Hayden of American University discusses Web 2.0 and Public Diplomacy in his blog post Soft Power and the Open-Source Ethics of Public Diplomacy 2.0 which practically gives you an idea about the discussion. I only want to underline four challenges we have faced while we were trying to build up our project proposal.

Firstly, it is difficult to establish ethos online. What gives you the legitimacy to talk about a nation’s brand? Who has the authority to work for the brand? In our case, we based our claims on academic expertise and nationality. Two Turkish citizens with a theoretical background might contribute to the nation branding processes, however, there is no formal way to establish ethos. The nature of Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, probably gives authority to the most popular source. In other words, the larger your audience is, the more credible you are.

Another challenge we have faced was authenticity. Even if you come up with an original idea to promote your messages, how do you protect this originality? We have chosen to legally protect our project. We have copyrights of logos and ideas. Given the volume of websites and simplicity of creating new ones, it is difficult to protect your ideas.

User contribution in Web 2.0 is a blessing and a curse. In case of political communication, extremists constitutes a problem as well as an ethical dilemma. On one hand, it is better to leave out the outrageous ideas and voices in order to build up communication bridges. But on the other hand, once you start judging and censoring people’s ideas, the project loses its apolitical stance. In our case, we have decided to leave out all controversial and contentious subjects entirely. Although we are planning to acknowledge the existence of these subjects, we will simply guide our visitors to outside resources instead of hosting discussions on our pages.

It is difficult to choose Web 2.0 tools to be used. There are many (maybe too many) Web 2.0 platforms. Should a nation branding campaign appear on Second Life? What about on MySpace? We chose to start our own networking site and market our idea through selected online media, namely Twitter, Facebook, and Blogosphere due to budgetary constrains and limited time, as well as through offline networks. A strong audience analysis is compulsory to choose the most viable online media. Also, it is important to support the promotion attempts through more traditional methods.

Oh, did I mention Web 3.0? Maybe we haven’t comprehended Web 2.0 and its implications yet but this fact doesn’t seem to slow down technological advances. We should start getting ready for the next online wave.

What I have observed in communication field is that new communication technologies attract scholarly attention and sometimes are hyped. Let’s not to forget Web 1.0 or traditional media. Let’s not forget Web 2.0 is not the final destination of technological advancement. Let’s look for ways to reach more people more effectively, not cooler ways to reach our audiences.