International Place Branding Conference in Utrecht January 19-20 2012


One of Holland’s oldest cities – Utrecht – was host to the special session International Place Branding Conference on January 19-20, 2012 which is supported by the Institute of Place Management, based in Manchester, United Kingdom.

This was the first place-dedicated conference I have attended, and on top of it Marius Sylvestersen and I had written a paper to present. In this blog, I’m sharing some initial and overall impressions with you.

The participants were an enthusiastic and colorful mix from a number of academic and geographical backgrounds. As for occupation and education, the majority of conference delegates were students and university-employees with two substantial minority groups being consultants and a mixed bag of private sector practitioners.

As expressed in the final panel discussion, the private sector ought to be better represented in order to shed light on relevant place branding case stories. Hence, in my interpretation, there is a wish to understand how the place competence residing at universities can benefits more places and even be commercialized.

Geographically, the Nordic countries were well represented as were the UK, Greece (both with strong research traditions), Holland (possibly the birthplace of urban studies) and the US (where much academic funding resides). Sadly, a three-man team from Iran didn’t make it. It could no doubt have been interesting to have some non-Western views, just as the participants from Kenya and Nigeria added great value and perspective.

The outsider would call quite a few of the discussions ‘academic’ since much effort and air time was dedicated to questions such as the difference between ‘place identity’ and ‘place brand’. Not at all trivial, but the practitioner would have been glad to receive a short summary of the winning side’s conclusion. Whether this is too ‘dry’ or not for some, there was a very open atmosphere of dialogue and different branches of academia and private enterprise mutually inspiring each other.

If one assumes that many successful management book concepts are first shared at such conferences, there were some interesting insights and questions launched. For instance, is a place’s development of its place brand a provocation that will release a branding-arms race? Hence, do place brands develop in clusters playing on the same parameters? And these clusters do not need to be in geographical proximity, look at Spain and the Maldives’ near-identical brand logos.

Most presentations centered on place branding in one shape or form and this focused the participants’ energy. It seems as if place excellence – as defined in the recent book on Place Management by Christer Asplund and I – is shed away from as being perhaps too broad or all-encompassing. True or not, the two days in Utrecht were barely enough time to cover the latest thinking on place branding.

The article submitted was well-received and a constructive discussion ensued. The article discusses how meaningful the most popular place rankings (such as Monocle’s or The Economist’s) are and what future rankings can do better and where they should take their data from. If you are interested, then please write and I will send you a copy.

Was it worth going? Certainly! The two days were a good way to bring me up to date with cutting edge research, meet some dedicated and open-minded people and through discussions see links and connections between fields and places it would take you a long time to discover by yourself. Hopes and enthusiasm are high for next January’s conference in Manchester.

The paper we had submitted is available here:

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