Q&A: Insights from Veteran Place Branding Guru Bill Baker

According to Baker, destination branders too often end up with "watered-down and meaningless positioning "when putting together their brand.

We recently caught with veteran place brander and author Bill Baker to glean some insight from his decades of experience in destination marketing and tourism development. Over the course of his career, Baker has worked with some of the world’s top destinations, including putting together strategies for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Baker recently released a new book, Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions and Downtowns: The Essentials for Successful Destinations. Over the course of 244 pages, he offers advice on the branding process that goes well beyond “the lure of a new logo or tagline.”

Over the course of our conversation, Baker talks about place branding he admires, common mistakes that stakeholders make when developing a brand, advice for up-and-coming Asia destinations, and more.


What’s been keeping you busy lately?

We are currently assisting communities in Florida and Oregon to define their brand identities and development wayfinding systems. Both locations did not have clear identities and had been impacting their tourism performance and visitor satisfaction.

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Additionally, I am working on a book about wayfinding in small cities.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see destinations make with their branding?

The most common mistake or weakness that we see in place branding very often relates to positioning. Defining the brand position for a city, downtown or region is, without a doubt, the most important and trickiest part of the entire process. If they don’t get this part right, everything else will miss its mark, since it’s the positioning and its relevance to target audiences that informs and shapes all other elements of the brand.

Compounding this is the challenge of dealing with the many competing voices of stakeholders. Too often they end up with a watered-down and meaningless positioning that’s designed to appease factions with specific interests or points of view.

Can you share some examples of place branding that you admire?

Firstly, I must preface my comments by saying that place branding can be a perilous journey. Some do a great job with defining their brand identity, but soon falter or fail when it comes to deployment and brand management, and the consistency needed to follow the agreed strategy. Others are unable to sustain the leadership, funding, personnel, and partner enthusiasm required to succeed.

A lack of understanding about branding, particularly among key decision-makers can be the Waterloo or graveyard for a place branding initiative.   

For these reasons, I’d like to point to the efforts of a few destinations that have passed the deployment stage and are into long-term management.

The first is the Yakima Valley in Washington State, who we worked with more than a decade ago. They have continued to keep their brand fresh and relevant through innovative communication and product development initiatives to build a distinctive brand identity that enables them to stand out from other Washington State wine regions. 

For many places, there is a temptation to stray from the agreed strategy and guidelines. This is sometimes too much for some to resist. However, it’s great to see that The Tillamook Coast in Oregon has creatively and consistently managed the deployment of their brand. Their focus on marketing communications has been mirrored by their investments in experience development through grant programs linked to brand identity.

While researching for my book, I was intrigued by how some small, hard-pressed communities were very entrepreneurial and innovative with the “cards” they were dealt. A great example is how Clarksdale, Mississippi (pop 17,962). This small city has been re-energized after decades with a run-down downtown.

This decline was due to big-box retailing and developments on the edge of town. Combined with the loss of jobs and population associated with agriculture, the town’s fortunes were in decline. However, the town’s rich heritage with Blues music and the culture that flows through the Mississippi Delta have been the foundation for its revitalization and fresh identity. 

Clarksdale laid claim to its heritage related to the more than four dozen significant music artists that came out of Clarksdale; a half dozen is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They included Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke, and many others who spent time being influenced and growing their careers locally. Clarksdale’s Walk of Fame and the Rock and Blues Museum salutes bluesmen like Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, and ZZ Top, individuals who’ve made significant contributions, to its history. This has led to a significant economic revival for Clarksdale.

How about branding strategies that failed?

Our experiences have shown that a lack of understanding about branding, particularly among key decision-makers can be the Waterloo or graveyard for a place branding initiative. Unless staff and committees can get beyond thinking in terms of logos and taglines, or mistaking a snappy campaign theme, then their efforts to define and deploy a genuine, unifying place brand will likely fail.  Success takes a strategic mindset.

The focus of my book is on smaller cities and regions, and their focus may not be on tourism alone. Instead, their brand development may be centered on an overarching brand to embrace tourism, economic development, education, relocation and inward investment. Developing an overarching brand often brings to the table many participants who may not be familiar with branding, or in some cases, marketing.

There’s no single custodian or owner of the brand. Community leaders who are aware of the differences in branding places and consumer goods are in a much better space to adapt to these challenges.   

In these cases, it’s highly likely that many committee members and stakeholders are encountering place branding for the first time. If they have no previous in-depth experience with place branding or even branding, they may be at a disadvantage and risk wasting public funds. Their levels of knowledge and understanding can also impact them agreeing to the original scope of work and judging the merits of the methodology to be adopted and the capability of prospective consultants and firms. To the uninformed, they may all look alike.

Some community branding projects fail to gain initial approval and funding or become mired in controversy because key participants, including Board and committee members, had not understood what the project was about or its benefits. If possible, brand education should start before the project and budget are approved, and certainly before the recruitment of outside expertise.

In a nutshell, I would answer your question by stating that a lack of understanding of branding can cause mistakes at any stage of brand development. Experiencing these situations has greatly influenced the content and style of my book.

Across Asia, there are developing countries looking to feed economic growth with tourism. What advice do you have for those just starting out with branding strategies?

Tourism can play a very positive role as part of an economic development strategy. However, locations around the world are recognizing that there is the need for a tourism masterplan to balance the marketing of the destination with the need for sustainable and harmonious development to meet community values and aspirations while meeting the needs of external audiences.

During 2019, we are seeing this dynamic play out in an increasing number of locations. Many tourism destinations are being scrutinized regarding their sustainability. The controversial term, “overtourism” was coined in 2017 to describe the condition where tourists overwhelm a location, impacting its sustainability and rendering the experiences of customers and residents unsustainable.

This scenario should be top of mind for Asian communities seeking to develop tourism. How many do they want? What is to be promoted? Is it sustainable? What’s the carrying capacity? What are the community benefits likely to be?  These economic, social and environmental principles should be fundamental considerations when developing all place brands. Though they often slip between the cracks.

You recently wrote that place branding calls for a departure from the typical path for branding private sector products and services. Tell us more about that.

A multitude of stakeholders will be, or at least should be, involved in revealing a city or downtown brand, and this will depart from the accepted path for branding corporate products and services.  One reason for this variation is the composite nature of places. They are a compilation of many independent and competing businesses, products, and experiences that are owned and managed by many different entities.

There’s no single custodian or owner of the brand. Community leaders who are aware of the differences in branding places and consumer goods are in a much better space to adapt to these challenges when they become evident.

    Locations around the world are recognizing that there is the need for a tourism masterplan to balance the marketing of the destination with the need for sustainable and harmonious development to meet community values and aspirations

When discussing the differences in branding places and consumer products with friends in advertising agencies, they frequently maintain that there is no difference between the two. To some extent they are correct. However, there are differences, and these have a profound influence on the process and outcomes. These relate to the complexities of ownership, consultation, decision-making, brand management, and product development.

During their research and analysis phases, community-based brands must withstand a level of public debate that consumer brands rarely endure. A city brand must stand the test of time, political scrutiny, media questions, and the analysis of marketing partners. The best way to insulate the brand from this scrutiny is to generate buy-in and involvement through an open consultative process with specialist firms experienced in branding places.

Do you think place branding is best carried out in house by local government or by agencies? 

The answer to this question will vary according to the nature, role and status of local organizations. Not to mention the local dynamics and politics within the community. One of the leading determiners regarding who will lead the effort comes down to who is funding the project. Place branding frequently involves a single source of funding. Although, funds may have been ‘bundled’ from more than one source.  Even if the city government is involved or leads the project, the funding may have been sourced from a lodging tax.

While a city government may be supportive of the branding project, it may prefer the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), BID or Chamber to lead the project to work around the strict rules, reporting regime and decision-making influence of Councilors. Following this approach may aid the program in the short term, but in the long-term, it may result in weak engagement and ownership of the brand by Councilors and the city government.

Economic development organizations and DMOs are usually the best-situated entities to plan, coordinate, and manage a place branding initiative.  They generally have strong relationships with a broad cross-section of other stakeholders and organizations and are the most committed to promoting the strengths of the city. Their mandate and externally focused constituents already have a robust and direct influence on the overall image of the place. In other cases, the project manager may be the City government, particularly if developing an overarching brand.

Determining the lead organization can involve balancing acts. Who leads the effort may deter some stakeholders from actively participating or supporting the project? Others may feel slighted and left out of the loop. Some may be unenthusiastic if it’s led by local government because they may consider it to be “another talkfest” resulting in a report that “sits on the shelf.” On the other hand, if the DMO or Chamber lead it, it may be limited to tourism and not having the gravitas to engage the citywide support needed. Hence, the calls for DMOs to broaden their roles within communities and bring all parties together.

You can check out Bill Baker’s book, “Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions and Downtowns: The Essentials for Successful Destinations”, here.

Bobby McGill
Bobby McGill
Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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