Back to everyday life after almost a week in Manchester, I will try to write down my thoughts on the conference while they’re still fresh. One reasoon I enoyed it immensely was that it was organized almost entirely by Prof. Cathy Parker from the Manchester Met, so that I could relax and be part of it. 100 delegates from several continents spent two intensive days (not to mention the nights) together talking, discussing, presenting and arguing over place management, place marketing and branding. Here are some of the things I got from it:
First, it is worth evaluating the main idea of the conference, i.e. bringing together Place Management and Place Marketing. What kept coming to my mind was David Harvey’s 1990 text “From the managerial to the entrepreneurial city”. It seems that we were talking precisely about that, obviously from a less radically critical position. As Cathy Parker put it: “We need to be pragmatic – if people do it, at least make sure they do a decent job”. In a sense both place management and place branding transfer business principles to places, though how exactly this transfer takes place is more complex than it sounds (I’ll come back to that further below). The ultimate goal of both is – or should be – to make people’s lives better, through a process of improving the quality of place. We of course know that in practice there are many variations to this theme and unfortunately sometimes we forget that it’s ultimately always about people. This is how I usually define terms: Place branding is the strategic approach to enhance distinctive positive associations with a place’s name, thus creating or maintaining a positive reputation. Place Marketing is is the strategic approach to position a place in the international market-place. The Institute of Place Management defines Place Management as the process of making places better.I think that the three are profoundly interlinked.
Secondly, and this is directly linked to the above, one needs to think about the inevitable question: “Making places better for whom“? In other words we need to think about politics. Societies are heterogeneous and access to resources is unequal; there are conflicting uses in places, contrasting interpretations and struggling group identites. Place is not made of sameness, but of difference. It is in itself made up of politics, but is also inserted in much broader political systems (cities, countries etc.). We need to ask all these questions all the time, if we want to pretend to be doing “a decent job”. A keynote lecture on Singapore made this very clear during the conference: the speakers presented their work on place management and their growing discomfort with the political situation in the country. How do you “make a place better” if you don’t question the functioning of democracy or the issue of human rights? There is a political responsiblitily in what we do, there are direct and indirect consequences we need to thing about. Also, the pragmatic approach to things – i.e. that if something is done, then at least do it well – should not stop us from questioning whether places should be competing in the first place.
Thirdly, I found that there was a huge progress in adapting branding and marketing concepts to places. With very rare exceptions there were considerations of place and space that payed tribute to their complexity. I used to joke, saying that you cannot talk about marketing and branding places as you would a shampoo, but that was at a time where most of the literature in the subjects did just that. What we heard this time was much more sophisticated and with few exceptions proved that there is real progress in the field. It seems that branding experts have taken geography seriously. The other suprise was how a growing number of speakers seemed to be bridging the divide between practitioners and academics. The following example illustrates this very well: There was a presentation by the two owners of a company who have started an initiative to promote local products and tourism. It was the call to the conference that encouraged them to undertake some research, looking for the conceptual approaches and methodological tools that would help them structure their work, using mostly their “gut feeling”. The result was a down-to-earth presentation of high value both to the speakers and the audience.
One of the best things about conferences is that they bring people together and over time manage to create a community. After meeting in many places round the world, there is now a group of researchers around Place Management, Marketing and Branding who respect each other even when we disagree – and we sometimes disagree profoundly. This produces a relaxed atmosphere in our conferences where people are not afraid to air their thoughts or discomfort, while staying friendly and respectful. If I am proud of something in this conference series, it is this one last achievement.