The Malian desert city of Timbuktu is definitely real, but its legendary place image has developed in such a way that many people still doubt the city’s existence. In fact, the name itself has become synonymous with isolation, mystery, and unimaginable distance.
Timbuktu has intrigued Westerners for centuries, ever since the city first became known to the European world via the stories of Spanish traveller Leo Africanus, who visited Timbuktu in the 16th century. His vivid descriptions of imperious kings in lavish golden palaces, flanked by scholars writing mysterious manuscripts in vast libraries comparable to the greatest of the Western world. Indeed, the Guardian recently suggested that Timbuktu’s intellectual and cultural heritage could be the African equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge.
The combination of this array of exotic images with the sheer inaccessibility and distance of Timbuktu from Europe sowed the seeds for a legendary place brand. Timbuktu had developed a strong set of appealing characteristics: centre of trade & commerce, seat of Islamic learning, and home of open-minded citizens. It was a true melting pot bringing together Arabs, Berbers, Africans and nomadic Tuaregs, plus the occasional European adventurer. And so Timbuktu’s reputation grew and crystallised over many years to become the captivating city brand that we know today.
But Timbuktu never had any flashy logos or slogans at its disposal. Indeed, not a single PR consultant helped the city create its unique brand. Timbuktu’s branding happened organically, thanks to storytelling based on real place characteristics with a considerable dash of intrigue thrown in for good measure. When a place has a strong, interesting (and genuine) story, it becomes that much easier to captivate hearts and minds and create a powerful place image.
What can Timbuktu remind us about in terms of good place branding practice?
1. Place brands must be based on reality. Anything less is doomed to failure.
2. Telling stories is the most effective way to capture hearts and minds.
3. Allow your place brand to grow organically by inspiring others to tell your story for you. That way, people are more likely to believe in the story.
4. Strong and long-lasting place brands take time to develop. There are no instant solutions.
5. Logos and slogans aren’t always necessary, and are certainly not the answer in themselves.
Sadly, times have changed. Since last year Mali has been facing a serious threat. Hardline Islamists who oppose the religious views of the native Sufi Muslims have been wreaking havoc and destruction, smashing up historical relics and harming innocent people in their misguided quest to impose shari’a law on Mali. In particular, the armed group Ansar Dine have been busy destroying ancient tombs in Timbuktu, because they’re convinced ‘Allah doesn’t like it’ (the tombs). Their delusions would be laughable if the results were not so tragic.
Mali was once a model of democracy in Africa. Poor in natural resources yet rich in history, the country relies on intrepid tourists for much of its income – indeed, tourism is Mali’s third largest revenue generator. Of course Timbuktu is one of the main attractions for visitors. But ever since a spate of Al-Qaeda linked kidnappings hit the international headlines in late 2011, Mali’s overall image has been tarnished and it has become known as a haven for violent Islamist groups. As 2013 dawns, it is now clear that Mali’s tourism sector has suffered severe damage, and that Mali’s immediate future is uncertain.
As this article is published, the good news is Malian troops have now wrested Timbuktu from the rebels’ grip, fortunately saving many of the city’s prized artefacts. These include such gems as precious historic manuscripts dating from 1204, detailing the region’s medieval history in Arabic as well as in various African languages. In a last gasp attempt to destroy more history, the rebels torched the Ahmed Baba library as they left Timbuktu. Fortunately, experts say many of the manuscripts were saved before the rebels started their pillaging.
Timbuktu has survived invasions in the past, most notably the Moroccans in the 16th century. They destroyed many of the city’s precious manuscripts, but intrepid and quick-thinking locals hid ancient letters and books safely away in their homes. Timbuktu’s residents understand that much of their livelihoods depend on tourists, and they know that their rich and unique heritage is one of the main tourist attractions.
We can only hope that Timbuktu remains under Malian control and retains its image as the ultimate destination for the adventurous traveller. Mali needs to bring in tourist revenue to recover from the damage caused by the rebels, but many tourists will stay away, understandably so, if they still consider the place dangerous. It’s now the job of the Malian authorities not only to make the place safe and secure, but to ensure the outside world perceives it in the same way.