22 May 2014

The winner takes it all: City brand rankings

Posted by  on May 20, 2014 in City Brand | 11 comments

Despite my academic research on the links between place branding and spatial planning, I’m also an attentive observer of everyday events. Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed the release of a cacophony of city and country brand rankings, brand barometers and nonsensical top 10 lists of something spatially localised.
In my view, it seems that some place promotional campaigns are still selling geographies, instead of communicating ideas of a territory. The latter is substantially different from selling a product or a service ‘ranked’ on Don Jones or Euronext Stock Exchange. The practice of place branding continues this ‘ranking fetish’. People seem to set great stock in rankings or lists such as ‘best of’ or ‘top 10′. But in reality these rankings don’t have as much power as people think. They simply divert focus, resources and effort from what is truly important in place branding.

I must confess that I get mildly stressed whenever I read a business report introducing a country brand index including words such as  (…) “and countries, like companies, are beginning to use branding to help them market themselves for investment, tourism and exports” (…). Places, as countries or cities, are intricate phenomena, involving geographic, economic, social, and cultural components. Places are much more complex than products. Treating a city, a region, or a country as it were a product does not seem logical. The discourse attempting to define “place”has been substantially transformed in the last few decades. This transformation has encompassed both the production and the meaning of place, which have both been largely influenced by commodification, devaluation and the impact of globalisation upon places.

The aim of this post is not to discuss each ranking exhaustively, but instead give a summary and critique of some. These measurement instruments have been created by several consultancies, and are measured on the basis of a well-defined target, such as investors, talents, visitors, and specific objectives including FDI, GDP, and presence on social media. Examples include the following four:

1. FutureBrand Country Brand Index - ranks over 100 countries.
2. Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index - assesses the strengths and weaknesses of 50 cities around the world.
3. Bloom Consulting Country Brand Ranking for Trade (Investment) and Tourism - analyses the performance of 187 countries and territories worldwide. Recently Bloom Consulting also published thePortugal City Brand Ranking 2014 which ranks the 308 Portuguese municipalities.
4. Saffron European City Brand Barometer by Saffron Brand Consultants – measures how successfully 72 European cities project their assets for their future success.

Newspapers such as The GuardianThe Huffington PosttravelogsLonely PlanetTripAdvisor andBusiness Insider offer questionable ‘The best place to…’,  among other uncountable lists with the best places to swim, to drink red wine, to see the sunset, to be an artist, a dancer or a poet. Even the ability to write a novel or poetry have been correlated with the position of a place in certain rankings.
All these rankings use different methodologies and algorithms. Often the places ranked, either a country or a city, differ from one to another. These rankings work more as a ‘shouting platform’ for screening the place image in order to further design a brand strategy. However, I wonder if that actually happens in practice?