collaboration and transparency preferred by stakeholders in branding

By Erik Hans Klijn

In this blog entry, we discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement in place branding drawing from the findings of a study by Klijn and colleagues (2020) ‘Branding as a Public Governance Strategy: A Q Methodological Analysis of How Companies React to Place Branding Strategies’.

For more information, see open access full article here:

Place branding as governance strategy

Place branding has emerged rapidly as an important governance strategy in the public sector all over the world (Eshuis and Klijn, 2012). [i] Place branding refers to the development of brands for geographical locations with the aim to trigger positive associations about this area, and so to distinguish the place from other places.

For example, the city of Amsterdam used the place brand ‘I Amsterdam’ to imbue the city with meanings such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘exciting’. As such, the strategy of place branding influences people’s ideas by forging emotional and psychological associations with a place. Interestingly, the brand perished under its success. Recently the municipality in a policy to diminish the number of tourists cancelled the brand which was very well known and used a lot.

In general, branding as a strategy differs significantly from most other ‘well known’ governance strategies as it relies on visual images and the associations actors have with the brand, and last but not least, on emotions, rather than logical or financial arguments. The aim of branding is therefore to create associations and images in the minds of actors. Hence, branding binds actors to an idea and creates an identity that hopefully results in increased support and legitimacy.

Collaboration in branding

Most place branding campaigns are originally developed top-down (in closed doors, by government officials, with little consultation from the local community). Once a brand idea and its main associations are developed, it is then ‘rolled out’ through various communication channels (TV, newspapers, advertising campaigns) towards various target groups (citizens, companies, tourists, etc.). In recognition of the many challenges such a process delivers (including reluctancy to accept and support the brand by local stakeholders), recent place branding literature, however, increasingly acknowledges that co-production with target groups (such as residents or local businesses) is an important component of successful branding campaigns. This literature advocates that target groups should be included in both the brand construction (or development) process, and the brand implementation (including, for instance, communication and marketing campaigns) as including stakeholders can ensure a well-designed brand that fits the needs of all stakeholders. It can also enhance support for the brand and the chances that stakeholders use the brand in their own communication and advertisement (what is known as word of mouth). And this is crucial, since credibility of the brand increases when stakeholders themselves communicate the brand to the outside world!

Research into perceptions of companies about brand involvement

Case: Rotterdam Makers’ District

The companies researched were involved in a branding campaign that started in 2017. The individual neighborhoods of the Merwe-Vierhavens area and the Rotterdam Droogdokken Maatschappij area were ‘marketing-wise’ merged into the Rotterdam Makers District (RMD). In general, in this old harbor area many start-ups and relatively small companies are based. One of the reasons for this is the availability of accommodation that is relatively cheap compared to other areas in the city. But of course, also the presence of other similar companies is a motivation to come to this area. The RMD area in the view of the marketing campaign would become an area for creative and innovative entrepreneurs, where extra emphasis was put on the ‘makers’ concept. ‘Makers’ are mostly regarded as those involved in the innovative manufacturing industry, which focuses on new technologies, such as additive manufacturing (including 3D printing), robotization and material science. The makers became the target audience of the district, because of their willingness to embrace the New Economy (especially new tech companies, or companies that use new technology a lot in their products and distyribution, or companies which are combining new tech and design, architecture etc.), work and live in raw, urban areas. According to the office administering the program, businesses in the district receive a special treatment, including easy access to innovation networks, knowledge institutions, and shared facilities. In doing so, the Makers District brand attempts to attract start-ups through cost-reducing instruments and facilitates innovation by initiating networking activities, thus presenting a strategic advantage over other business locations.

In our research we focused on one specific group of stakeholders: companies that are active in a certain urban neighborhood. An interesting question that arose is how the brand process should be organized according to companies engaged in a branding campaign. Building on three different theoretical perspectives on branding (branding as selling mechanism, branding as value enhancer, and branding as community builder), we developed various statements and tested them with companies involved in a branding campaign (Rotterdam makers district In Rotterdam) to find out which orientation on branding companies they prefer.[ii] We found four different profiles (groups of respondents that more or less share the same perspective), and they are presented in the table below:

Table: Similarities and differences between the four profiles of company respondents

 Profile 1: Community-creationProfile 2: Equity-builderProfile 3: Place-building dialogueProfile 4: Non-private selling approach
GoalCreate a lively business climate with synergies between existing companies.Create place brand equity for individual companies.Let the whole area profit from a branding effort.Distinguish the area from other business areas as an ideal Makers Living Lab.
Type of processNo explicit ideas.Align campaign’s focus with the economic goals and activities of existing companies.Good market research and an open dialogue between involved companies on the focus and set-up of the branding campaign.Special treatment for new ‘makers’, Align the brand values of the campaign with the wishes of investors present in the area.
Target audienceSpecial treatment for new ‘Makers’. Investment in relationship-building between existing companies.Outward (external) focus to increase the revenues for existing companies in the area.Focus on relevant new companies and new synergies between existing companies.Selling the area to external parties to attract new financial investments/returns.
Profiles of respondents

Collaboration and transparency important

If we look at the table, despite the apparent differences between them, two important aspects stand out in all four profiles: the idea of collaboration and the necessity for attention and transparency on the organization of the branding process. The Community-creation profile has a strong orientation on collaboration and co-operation. The aim is to build a strong community. However, within the Place-building profile respondents demonstrate a strong process-orientation, and they highlight the need for dialogue. And in the Non-private selling profile, respondents emphasize the importance of collaboration by indicating that attracting financial investments by promoting the area to external parties is crucial.

Our research thus shows the need for (local) governments to include stakeholders but also to become more transparent. Most companies we studied emphasize that branding is also about including relevant stakeholders, organizing opportunities for deliberation, and taking the time for structuring a transparent process. This shows the importance of finding ways to allow multiple stakeholders to leave their mark on the branding process, both in its design and implementation.

Learnings for BRANDSUS

Despite the specific set up of our research (urban context), the findings are applicable to the context of regional and rural development since (1) a similar profiling exercise can be developed in the case of the regional areas under study and (2) the research highlights the importance of stakeholder inclusion and transparency in deliberative place branding governance processes.


J. Eshuis, E.H. Klijn (2012), Branding in governance and public management, London: Routledge

[i] A brand is “a symbolic construct that consists of a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of these, created deliberately to identify a phenomenon and differentiate it from a similar phenomenon by adding particular meaning to it” (see Eshuis and Klijn, 2012: 19).

[ii] Using Q methodology, a research strategy where respondents must rank statements and preferences are analyzed and grouped using factor scores   

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