Because the term 'branding' is used in all sorts of contexts and disciplines, here are some clarifications upfront. One of my favourite definitions of place branding comes from American marketing veteran (through Procter & Gamble) and economic development advisor Ed Burghard. He describes place branding as proactively managing a location’s identity and its ‘future state’, which requires a strategy plan (he suggests 10 years) on choices such as asset creation, infrastructure investment as well as public policy reform.

Essentially, place brands are built from the inside out, as Oregon-based Bill Baker (the author of highly acclaimed Destination Branding for Small Cities) puts it, which requires looking beyond logos and design.

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Malcolm Allan of consultancy Place Matters in London draws a clear line between “fluffy and surface approaches to place branding (logos, tag lines and advertising campaigns), and the substantial and robust nature of an in-depth strategy, executed in a professional way”.

In short, contemporary place branding goes beyond marketing, PR or promotion in that it seeks to create, rather than ‘just’ communicate, place identities – a challenging task, which requires sound approaches and ways to measure success. Below are a few ideas on how to achieve the latter, and the main challenges involved in determining the effectiveness of such initiatives.

Further reading 

Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Published by Palgrave, this journal is unique in that it combines academic and professional views: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/pb

Visit The Place Brand Observer for latest insights and expert interviews, including those mentioned above. For book suggestions, visit the recommended reading section on http://placebrandobserver.com

Why and how to measure success

Time is of the essence in place branding, as Juan Carlos Belloso of branding consultancy Future Places in Barcelona stresses. Because “changing and improving the image of a place (its brand) is a long-term effort, you need to be able to understand how the image of the place is changing over time and what the impact and effectiveness of the different place branding and marketing strategies is”, he says.

The time dimension clearly is a key reason for making sure appropriate measurement mechanisms are used. Sebastian Zenker, assistant professor at Copenhagen Business School, aptly describes the process as a marathon rather than a sprint. “If you, for instance, change something in the brand communication, the effect will be measurable much later – maybe after a couple of years. That is not very politician-friendly,” he says.

Asking the right questions is key. For Raquel Goulart, brand strategist and expert at the European Place Marketing Institute, the right questions include: Is the message clear? Is it fully understood and embraced by the place’s public? Do target audiences clearly recognise the brand promise at different contact points?

Establish KPIs

How to measure the effectiveness, success or return on investment of place branding activities really depends on its initial purpose, which ranges from attracting foreign investment to increasing student or visitor numbers, to public diplomacy or even strengthening a sense of community among the local population.

As nation branding scholar Keith Dinnie of Middlesex University, London notes, in theory, measuring the success of such projects is not difficult. “You should clearly define your objectives, implement your strategy and evaluate to what extent the objectives have been achieved,” he says.

In a similar line, independent city branding consultant and university lecturer Martin Boisen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands suggests agreeing on key performance indicators (KPIs) before each funding period and setting realistic and measurable targets.

Mr Zenker also stresses the need to clearly define goals, such as more visitors from a particular country, in order to judge the success of an initiative. For example, Roger Pride during his time at Visit Wales created the 'magnificent seven' KPIs, which were then used as a proxy to evaluate the success of the principality's destination marketing.

Also referring to KPIs, Robert Govers, managing research partner of the Good Country Index and a leading scholar and advisor on the branding and reputation of places, stresses the need to differentiate between outputs, outcomes and impacts. “Often, agencies claim or insinuate that their actions had real economic impacts in terms of increased visitor spending, export growth or new investments or residents. However, any causality between such inputs and impacts would be very hard to prove,” he says.

A better approach, in his view, would be “to measure the effects of brand initiatives on the outcomes that are specifically intended, i.e. increased name recognition, awareness and improved image among international populations and an enhanced sense of pride among residents.”

Benchmarking

For Monaco-based Jörgen Eriksson and Svetlana Masjutina (Bearing Consulting), benchmarking is the best way to measure effectiveness, since “the results of place branding cannot be measured in absolute values, but in comparison and ranking with comparable and competing places.”

Benchmarking can be particularly useful in times of recession, where the mere fact of not declining might mean great success in comparison to competitors, argues Mr Zenker, for whom measuring a location’s own performance without regard to its peers is not sufficient.

Real-time tracking

On a destination level, Kevin Bowler, CEO of Tourism New Zealand, says that his organisation uses multiple approaches, always keeping in mind the destination marketing organisation's main purpose – to increase the value of international visitors to New Zealand. To measure the effectiveness of the country’s commercially very successful 100% Pure New Zealand branding and marketing campaign, Mr Bowler uses intermediate measures and indicators: intelligence generated through tracking studies in key markets. Those intermediate measures include the intention to travel to New Zealand and a range of destination brand attribute ratings. Most of Tourism New Zealand’s marketing now focuses on responsive digital channels, which allows the organisation to capture exposures, interaction levels and referral levels to travel sellers and operators as measures of success.

Stakeholder satisfaction

While most leading place branding professionals interviewed by The Place Brand Observer regard stakeholder involvement as an integral element of successful initiatives, few focus on qualitative indicators, such as stakeholder satisfaction, which Mr Govers of the Good Country Index considers an essential KPI.

Equally, Magdalena Florek, place marketing scholar and co-founder of the Best Place Institute in Warsaw, Poland, urges “taking into account the consumers’ perspective, which in this case is provided by place stakeholders, external target groups and internal inhabitants”. In her view, “this is a superior mode of evaluating completion of any place-related strategy and marketing activity”.

While measuring the effectiveness of these initiatives might sound easy in theory, in practice this can be a difficult task.

Establishing causality

A key issue lies in establishing a link between place branding activities and improvements of a place brand. Ares Kalandides, CEO of Berlin-based consultancy Inpolis and director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, sees the problem as the fact that “you can register economic growth or a positive urban place development, and you have ways of measuring the improvement of a place brand, but it is practically impossible to show links between the two”.

Lack of causality was also a topic addressed by Mr Govers during his keynote speech at the Economic Forum in Poland in September in which he reported that while agencies often claim or insinuate that their actions had real economic impacts, in terms of increased visitor spending, export growth, new investments or residents, causality between such inputs and impacts is very hard to prove.

The fundamental challenge for Mr Boisen of the University of Groningen is that “in place branding we deal with the overall perception of a place, and there are many factors that influence this perception. A lot of these factors are external, and often beyond the control and beyond the influence of the organisations in charge.”

Lack of clear goals and KPIs

The absence of formulated goals and success criteria are a major hurdle, according to Mr Boisen. He further points out that, while vague and loosely formulated KPIs might be understandable in the beginning, this becomes a large problem later on – when evaluations are based on (often failed) expectations, instead of agreed measures. In his opinion, this forms one of the reasons why a lot of place branding projects have a very poor life expectancy, as it is too easy to blame politics when the managerial aspects are not professionally implemented.

Limited budgets

Lastly, insufficient funding can hinder proper measurement of place branding success, according to Mr Zenker from his work with cities. “Budgets are very small in place branding – and a measurement of brand image or customer satisfaction on a regular basis could easily take 20% to 30% of your budget. That is hardly something you can do every year,” he says. Limited budgets are also a key challenge on a country level. As Gustavo Koniszczer, managing director of Future Brand Latin America, says, for place branders the usual dilemma is: should I spend available funds in actions or in research? Establishing clear KPIs and setting apart funding to measure place branding success according to those might be the best way to overcome this dilemma.

Dr Florian Kaefer is the founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer, a niche portal and think-blog providing insights into the reputation and branding of places – cities, regions, countries and destinations.