Corporate Sector Role in ‘Place Branding’
Mr. Jeff Swystun, Global Director of the leading branding company in the world, Interbrand, provides his perspectives


 By Rafi-uddin Shikoh
 Posted, July 20, 2006



When Dubai Port World’s qualified bid to acquire P&O was vehemently opposed in the US, it exposed in no uncertain terms the global marketing challenge for the corporate sector of the Muslim world. This highly publicized affair simply exposed the challenge being faced by thousands of marketers competing on the global stage, from textile manufacturers in Egypt, Pakistan, to tourism or technology service providers in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Even if you ignore the US market, which is hard to do given it is the largest consumer market in the world, it still shows the sheer vulnerability of the brands from the Muslim world to the un-controllable acts of extremists and geo-political situations.

With emerging global success stories such as the Emirate Airline, or Orascom Telecom, or Dubai the city itself as an investment and tourism destination, the question is, what can the corporate sector do, if anything, to consistently overcome the uncontrollable branding challenges?

In other words, how can businesses from the Muslim world control the message before others keep shaping it?

Interbrand – A global leader in Branding

The above question was the premise that kicked off a short conversation with Mr. Jeff Swystun, the Global Director of the leading branding company in the world, Interbrand.

Mr. Swystun is responsible for firm strategy, communications and knowledge management, innovation and managing Interbrand’s own brand.

Interbrand, certainly knows a thing or two about branding given it is behind many of the leading brands in the world including AT&T, AstraZeneca, Nikon, UBS and even branding of cities and countries (eg. recent work with Estonia and the Canadian province of Manitoba). Today, it delivers on the sophisticated art of evaluating, creating and managing brand assets globally through its 30 offices in over 20 countries giving it the global reach to conduct research, investigate emerging trends, and introduce brands across markets.

Interbrand, is also the consultancy behind the BusinessWeek ranking of the Best Global Brands Report which presents the ranking of the Top 100 most valuable brands of the world. This ranking which gives a pure value to corporate brands—known as brand valuation, is perhaps Interbrand’s most important contribution to the development of the branding practice. Its sophisticated 5 step discounted Economic Value Added methodology helps companies value their brand assets in a credible and tangible way.

Even with such depth of branding expertise, Interbrand’s Mr. Swystun is quick to acknowledge the stark challenges faced by the Muslim world corporate sector, but nevertheless offers some concrete strategies around corporate sectors role in an emerging practice of ‘Place Branding.’

What is Place Branding

Place Branding is a practice that is gaining momentum across the globe with which a country or city collaborates with its stakeholders to deliver a consistent global message around tangible positive attributes. The efforts aim to permeating consistent positive brand associations.

Dubai, India and China recently are certainly on an aggressive path to shape their ‘Place Brands’ more positively. Other more established Place brands include, Germany (for its precision engineering - BMW, VW, Siemens), Japan (for its consumer electronics dominance – Sony, Panasonic), Swiss (for its Swiss cheese, chocolates), Italy (for its fashion industry), Egypt (for its Pyramids), and the list goes on.

Mr Swystun however, points out that the real endearing differentiation in Place branding is the ‘people’ and not just the ‘place.’

He says, “Place Branding is actually a misnomer, it’s actually about people branding. It’s about branding the people that represent the region because there are actually very few pure differentiators that you can hang your hat on from a geographic basis.”

“When targeting tourism – a lot of places have beaches, and mountains and beautiful sand, whereas when the target is broader economic development - a lot of places have a great rule of government, fair trade and access to infrastructure for businesses. So there is little differentiator in place. Where the differentiator comes about in a geographic region is the people who populate it and what makes them unique. At the end of the day that’s the attraction.”

Simon Anholt, another leading branding expert known specifically for Place branding, also shares Mr. Swystun’s views. Even in his hexagon of six aspects that shape a Nation Brand, he identifies ‘Culture’ as playing the most prominent role in branding a nation for a fuller more durable understanding of the country and its values. Afterall, Japan is also known for its art, cuisine and philosophy, and Italy for its artists Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Galileo.

Nation Brand Hexagon - Simon Anholt

Source: Nation Brand Hexagon © Simon Anholt 2002


Dubai’s Place Brand – a work in progress

Speaking of Dubai, Mr Swystun is impressed by the emerging brand of Dubai but sees some short-comings, saying, “Dubai is interesting only because it has positive associations, yet still remains totally unarticulated in my mind. It’s certainly a place of growth, wealth, beautiful living area – that’s all exciting. But, I think they are still missing an overall message. Nothing seems to be resonating, with say in the western world as much about Dubai, except a strong economic message.”

“It really boils down to you’ve got to hit on live, work and play. I think they’ve hit on the work and play, but to me they are like a transient Hong Kong. I get the sense that people are going in there making their bucks for a few years, and then they are leaving.”

Emphasizing the role of building upon the very positive place attributes, Dubai now needs to include the people and culture aspect as well. “It should be a global center, but not a transient one--one that attracts and makes people loyal.”

Place Branding – no more a domain of the governments

It has been thought for a long time that Place branding is only the purview of the local governments. However, lately more and more local corporations are actually driving it. Mr Swystun gives the example of the US city Atlanta which has recently rebranded itself more at the direction of the business leaders in the city led by CNN, Home Depot, and Coke. Initiatives today are expanding beyond purely Government led and policy driven to a more fair representation of the stakeholders in a given place. These stakeholders include obviously governments, businesses, community leaders, religious leaders, and the public - all of them have to be represented.

Mr. Swystun adds, “The issue is that government spend takes place regardless; at the same time festivals, arts and other culture events are also taking place, and businesses are also making their separate efforts, etc. Wouldn’t it be powerful if all of them were saying the same thing?”

Corporate Sector – Leading and participating in Place branding

No doubt, the perception of our nations and the region has a strong effect on our ability to compete for investments or exports. So there’s certainly much at stake for the business community to get involved with Place Branding.

For any kind of branding, specifically place branding, if you don’t manage your image or brand positively and proactively, the market will define who and what you are. So that’s the biggest challenge in getting out ahead of stereotypes, anecdotes, historic references, and building something more progressive and positive.”

But how?

Mr. Swystun suggests that corporation’s role in place branding is multifold; one is that they can be a driver for it by getting together and taking the initiative, or they can fund it, or they can be a participant and articulator of what a place brand is going to be.

What should happen is that local corporations should step-up and say that we do business all over the world and we’ve got an image problem, and that we need you—government, to work with us in changing perceptions of who and what we are.”

For an effective Place branding initiative first a common brand platform is identified. This is done by carefully evaluating the strengths and key attributes that shapes the brand positioning and then identifying key target audiences and channels. This is what firms such as Interbrand do.

“Corporate guys can then be the catalyst for progressive change. Because they have influence and because they have contributed so much to the health and welfare of the geographic region, they can kick off these communication efforts and either lead or participate in them equally and move the government along. Generally they are more progressive communicators anyway. They are in business. They know how to standout and have the notion of branding somehow or the other,” says Mr. Swystun.

Amman is not Baghdad today

When faced with the difficult question of what can corporation’s do who suffer from the stigma of terrorism in the region, Mr. Swystun is first clear in stating that place branding requires that true issues be addressed. Certainly, branding Baghdad as an outsourcing center today will not work! However, for those places that are merely suffering from a perception issue because the whole region regardless of isolated problems gets a bad rap, certainly can be addressed.

“The best example of that is Ireland. They’ve had their ‘Troubles’ as they call it from 70’s through early 90’s mostly focused in Belfast, Northern Ireland (part of UK), but at the same time when the situation was still fractured with the IRA, they were somehow able to communicate to the business world that Ireland overall was not Belfast singularly.”

“Even-though, their were these centered troubles in Belfast, this other region in Ireland, all of a sudden became the Silicon Valley and they are attracting tons of high-tech business.”

They did it with a combination of substantive policy change around taxation, providing skilled labor pool, and then they did that in hand with a new image and an enhanced brand. So if they just came out and said, do business in Ireland that wouldn’t have worked. If you do a cost benefit on what they did, it was really a successful strategy.”

“It’s an absolutely fascinating case where they were able to overcome a very strong reality and perception as to the situation in Ireland.

Has to be real – not fake

One key cautionary point that Mr. Swystun emphasizes is that the promise of the brand has to be real.

Brands should be both inspirational and aspirational. Inspirational to the internal audience, so you are motivating them to behave along the brands values and guidelines. Aspirational so it takes you to a future point. The problem happens when you are too aspirational, i.e if the delta is too great, and if you are over-promising and you cant deliver against it.”

“So if you make a false claim and you entice people to use your brand, whatever it is, Dubai for tourism or living here, and what was promised in communication is not delivered, then in actuality, the brand breaks down. Afterall, a satisfied customer will tell three people, and an unhappy will tell 8!”

In the end, as the business entities from the Muslim world, DP World or any other companies from the Muslim world competing globally, continue their global forray, the hope is that real, strong positive cultural and brand attributes would be present to counter any existing stereotypes that hurt their brands.