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Brad VanAuken Photo Place Branding - Excerpts from Previous Place Branding Articles

by Brad VanAuken, BrandForward, Inc.

May 2007

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Joao R. Freire recently shared a paper that he wrote on Geo-branding with me. It was published in the November 2005 issue of Place Branding.  It makes some very interesting points about place branding:

  • The worst thing a place can do is not try to intervene in the creation of its image
  • Given that brands often are a part of an individual’s self identity construction, places where one might visit will be influenced by the meaning behind the place and what that communicates about the individual’s lifestyle and self image
  • Some people claim that branding might corrupt a place’s authenticity and abuse its natives. The author argues that rather tourism and geo-brands deliver these important benefits:
    • Contribute to the preservation of local cultures and thus global diversity
    • Provide important community resources, especially jobs
      • Most of the resources created for tourists can also be used by residents
    • Help increase community self esteem by reinforcing the place’s unique values

The most interesting conclusion of this paper for me is the importance of branding places and of choosing meanings that will appeal to the tourists (and residents) that the place desires to attract.

Freire, Joao R., “Geo-branding, are we talking nonsense? A theoretical reflection on brands applied to places,” © Henry Stewart Publications 1744-0696 (2005) Vol. 1, 4 347-352 Place Branding

The Branding of Nations

Companies, products, universities, museums, municipalities and individuals brand themselves.  Why not nations?  After all, they have more at stake then almost any other entity – tourism, exports, foreign direct investment, industry formation/focus, immigration, satisfied citizenry, national heritage and support of domestic and foreign policy, to name a few.

Some countries or regions that have attempted to brand themselves include the UK, USA, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Portugal, Spain, Thailand and Dubai.

Branding nations is an extraordinarily complex task   The stakeholders are legion (politicians, businesses, citizens, etc.) as are the potential target audiences (tourists, immigrants, business and political leaders, etc.).  It is extremely difficult to control a nation’s image because of all of factors that can influence that image.  Because so many factors contribute to that image and because brand building is such a long term process, it is also very difficult to measure the effectiveness of even a very well funded re-branding campaign.

Impressions are created by foreign policy including diplomatic and military strategy, participation in multinational discussions and agreements, immigration and trade policy, foreign aid, alliances and media briefings.  Impressions are also created by exports (especially exported media and high profile product brands), tourism, study abroad, exchange programs, friends, relatives, and business associates residing in (or visiting) the country, domestic and foreign press and the hosting of international events (cultural, sporting).  The culture itself is a significant contributor to brand identity as is the nation’s brand building capacity (resources and marketing savvy).  A brand’s perceptions will also be influenced by how long the nation has been an active part of the world community and known by the world community.  Put another way, industrialized countries that export have more brand awareness and “country of origin” associations than developing countries that do not.

“Country of origin” can be important in lending credibility and quality assurances to certain product or service categories.  For instance, Switzerland is known for it precision watch making, Russia for its vodka, Scotland for its cashmere, salmon and whiskey, Germany for its well engineered automobiles, New Zealand for its lamb, France for its wine, Belgium for its chocolates, lace and beer, The Netherlands for its tulips and Japan for its consumer electronics and automobiles (Honda, Toyota).

Countries also have distinctive personalities.  America is known for its prosperity, innovation, opportunity and freedom.  Canada and Australia are increasingly known for similar qualities.  France is known for its fashion, culture and food.  Italy for its art and fashion.

And nations often have other top of mind brand associations (that may work for or against them): Australia (Sydney Opera House, Great Barrier Reef, The Outback, kangaroos, prisoner colony origins), South Africa (apartheid, Nelson Mandela), Austria (Vienna/Mozart/Music, Arnold Schwarzenegger), Canada (hockey, Mounties, maple leaves), Germany (Hitler, The Black Forest, polkas, lederhosen), Switzerland (The Alps), Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro, safaris), UK (London, Royalty, lousy weather, bland food), USA (cowboys, New York City, George Bush, entertainment, materialism), Ireland (potatoes, greenery), China (The Great Wall, emerging manufacturing prowess, emerging world power), Brazil (Carnival), Mexico (sombreros, siestas, Mexican food), Scotland (bagpipes, tartans) and The Netherlands (windmills, wooden shoes, canals, dams).

An interesting exercise to better understand a nation’s top-of-mind brand associations is to ask people of various countries what comes to mind when they see “Made in the USA,” “Made in China,” “Made in Ecuador,” “Made in Japan,” “Made in Taiwan,” “Made in Mexico,” “Made in Brazil,” etc.  What product categories come to mind?  What quality comes to mind?  What styling?  What cultural influences?  Or does nothing come to mind?  A variation on this exercise is to solicit peoples’ reactions to the “Made in [country]” label applied to various product categories for the country or countries in question.

When branding nations, one should think about the following.  Actions taken in positioning the brand can only influence brand perceptions, not control them.  The most important consideration in nation branding is maintaining brand integrity.  That is, telling the truth about who you are.  False claims will be exposed and will likely have an adverse effect on the nation.  It is particularly important to understand how a given brand message will be perceived by people in different cultures.  Look at what you are communicating from their perspectives and sets of values, not your own.  As is true for any brand message, to be effective, it must be relevant, believable and unique.  Extensive research will uncover current perceptions and the most lucrative possibilities for repositioning.  It is always more advantageous to build upon brand strengths rather than to try to overcome brand weaknesses.  And, in branding nations, patience is a virtue that will reward those who possess it.

Countries would do well to constantly monitor what the foreign press writes about them.  Historically, when there has been a conflict between the message sent by a nation’s culture and its politics, many people outside of that nation would understand and accept that seeming contradiction.  A recent (2005) Pew Center of Global Attitudes poll might indicate that this is changing based upon Indonesia and Pakistan’s improved view of the USA but their declining view of Americans.

India successfully repositioned itself from “impoverished” to “a place for spiritual renewal” to attract more American tourists.  It is also increasingly seen as a world hub for IT support with Bangalore at that perception’s epicenter.  The UK is repositioning itself away from several entrenched negative perceptions – cold, arrogant, lousy weather, bland food, etc. – to the new Britain that includes a renaissance in its film, fashion and food industries and its emerging dominance in computer game design.  China too is coming of age as a new brand as it becomes the source for more and more of the world’s manufacturing and builds new towns and cities almost “overnight.”

So far, only a small number of countries have begun actively branding themselves to the world.  This will become an increasingly important activity as more and more countries understand what is at stake.  This could become an important step in helping developing countries accelerate their development.  After all, tourism often leads to consumerism and foreign direct investment.  An effectively positioned brand can help with each of these components.

Example Branding Themes

  • Columbia: Café de Columbia (initiated by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia to position Columbia as the source of high quality coffee, features Juan Valdez and his mule) (1981)
  • Spain: Everything Under the Sun (featuring Joan Miro’s sun design as its logo to communicate a general attitude of optimism) (1982)
  • Costa Rica: No Artificial Ingredients (developed by the Costa Rican Tourism Board to position Costa Rica as an “ecotourism” destination) (1996)
  • UK: Cool Britannia (launched by Blair’s government after its 1997 electoral victory, informed by Geoff Mulgan and Mark Leonard’s book BritanA™ and Ben & Jerry’s “Cool Britannia” ice cream flavor introduced in 1996) (1997)
  • Australia: Australia Made (1999)
  • Hong Kong: Asia’s World City (“where opportunity, creativity and entrepreneurship converge”) (2005)
  • New Zealand: 100% Pure New Zealand
  • South Africa: Alive with Possibility
  • India: Eternally Yours
  • Thailand: Amazing Thailand


I have been working with several geo-brands lately. Geo-brands tend to have many audiences:

  • Current and potential residents
  • Current and potential businesses
  • Developers
  • Investors
  • Tourists
  • Conference and convention planners
  • Sporting event site selection committees
  • Business travelers
  • Residents’ out-of-town friends and relatives
  • Following are important geo-branding considerations for the tourist segment:

    • Defining and understanding the target market (geo-demographic, lifestyle, attitudes, motivations, etc.)
    • Defining/setting appropriate geographic boundaries
    • Knowing what the top-of-mind associations are for the place
    • Knowing which attractions make the place a destination
    • Knowing what makes the place different
    • Standing for something
    • Remaining authentic
    • Knowing and leveraging the place’s assets
    • Building on/enhancing the place’s strengths
    • Capturing the place’s most important point(s) of difference in a slogan
    • Understanding/maximizing the place’s aesthetic appeal
      • Natural features (ocean, lake, mountains, canyon, waterfalls, etc.)
      • Architecture
      • Zoning, code
      • Curb appeal – parks, scenery, landscaping, flowers, fountains, sculptures, etc.
      • Creating a consistent aesthetic (e.g., Santa Fe)
      • Amenities (restaurants, cafes, public toilets, benches, etc.)
      • Sidewalks, bike paths
      • Parking
      • Signage/way finding

    The bottom line is to understand to whom the place most appeals and why, to understand what the place’s unique features are and to consistently build on the place’s unique assets and aesthetics, while adding amenities appreciated by tourists.

    Some marketing options for communities

    • Homes tours and community tours
    • Hosting events within the municipality
    • Making sure people know what town they are in when they are enjoying an event or amenity

    Top U.S. City Slogans and Nicknames
    Recently, Eric Swartz, president of TaglineGuru (www.taglineguru.com) released his company’s list of the top 50 U.S. city slogans and nicknames. Following are the top ten of each:

    1. Las Vegas, NV – What Happens Here, Stays Here.
    2. Charlottesville, VA – So Very Virginia.
    3. Atlantic City, NJ – Always Turned On.
    4. Cleveland, OH – Cleveland Rocks!
    5. Hershey, PA – The Sweetest Place on Earth.
    6. Omaha, NE – Rare. Well Done.
    7. Sante Fe, NM – The City Different.
    8. Eagle Pass, TX – Where Yee-Ha Meets Olé.
    9. San Diego, CA – City with Sol.
    10. Peculiar, MO – Where the Odds Are With You.


    1. New York City, NY – The Big Apple
    2. Las Vegas, NV – Sin City
    3. New Orleans, LA – The Big Easy
    4. Detroit, MI – Motor City
    5. Chicago, IL – The Windy City
    6. Boston, MA – Beantown
    7. San Francisco, CA – Baghdad by the Bay
    8. Hollywood, CA – Tinseltown
    9. Cleveland, OH – Mistake on the Lake
    10. Los Angeles, CA – La-La Land



    Brad VanAuken is president and founder of BrandForward, Inc., a full-service brand management consultancy with clients throughout the world. Previously, Brad was the vice president of marketing for Element K, a leading e-learning company and director of brand management and marketing for Hallmark Cards, Inc. During his tenure as Hallmark’s chief brand advocate, Hallmark received the Brand Management of the Year award. Recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on brand management and marketing, Brad is a much sought after speaker and writer. He wrote the books The Brand Management Checklist and Brand Aid. His free online brand management and marketing newsletter is read by thousands of marketers throughout the world. Brad has a BS degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

    Email: vanauken@brandforward.com
    Company Profile: BrandForward, Inc.
    Company URL: http://www.brandforward.com


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