What if City Branding isn't about branding at all? Hint: it isn't! Skip to main content

Can we sell a city the same way we sell a product with marketing and branding techniques known and available to us?

Or are a product and a city profoundly different and do we need a different approach?


There is a fierce competition between cities.

Cities all want to attract visitors, investment, businesses and residents.To stay relevant and obtain these scarce resources cities need to effectively differentiate from other cities.

When competing for tourists for example differentiation is extremely important. The Tourism market is the fastest growing economic market. While travel is still not accessible to everyone, more people than ever before are travelling today — with 1.24 billion international arrivals in 2016, compared to 25 million in the 1950s.

The World Tourism Organization estimates that by the end of 2020, the volume of the tourist activity will be reaching 1.56 billion international arrivals. And with over 70% of international tourists visiting the top 10 countries, competition is extremely fierce – especially between those outside of that top 10 fighting for the remainder.

A crucial element in effective differentiation is “perception”. Perception is the image of the place in the mind of those targeted visitors, investors, businesses and residents.

Destination Marketing and Branding

From the 1980’s onwards Destination marketing as a concept enabled cities to successfully differentiate and promote their cities and create a destination image that positively influences consumers’ destination choice.

Within this concept City branding (or Destination branding) holds the key:

City Branding must determine how culture, history, economic growth, social development, infrastructure, architecture, landscape and environment, among other components, can be combined in an identity later to be “sold

Li Zhang and Simon Xiaobin Zhao - City branding and the Olympic effect.

But how do you define the city’s identity and values in a way that is widely accepted and easily marketed for all those target groups? How to create a common identity from values that are not always tangible and that represent the interests of different social and economic groups?

Evolution of City Branding

Marta Almeyda – author of “The Evolution of Destination Branding” – might have the answer. According to Almeyda Destination branding is a ‘growing concept’. It has evolved from the idea of destination image during the last decade and a half, and it now includes concepts such as social identity, community, and sustainability.

Many destinations have come to realize that destination branding goes beyond the creation of a brand name, logo or graphic to identify it.

Because marketers and researchers have found that destination branding has some unique traits that traditional product branding does not have. Some of these unique traits are: destinations are multidimensional, destinations are a combination of buildings, facilities, and venues, which include private and public organizations; destinations are not sold in the marketplace.

This means destination marketers have less control over the brand experience. So the risk involved in designing and managing a destination brand is greater. Almeyda states recent findings show that destinations should focus their differentiation in elements such as the natural environment, culture, art, friendliness of local people, among other so-called ‘soft factors’.

The implication of these findings is that the community must be involved in the development of the destination branding.

Marta Almeyda - Interviewed by the Place Brand Observer on The Evolution of Destination Branding

So City Branding is about…

Ah! So it seems there are some unique traits when selling a city (or a destination) acknowledged by destination marketing professionals that urge them to focus on more soft selling factors. And if we want to create a common identity from values that are not always tangible and that represent the interests of different social and economic groups, we need to involve those groups.

Now that makes perfect sense to us! City branding should be focused on connecting!

We designed Map Your City to help you to connect, engage, and tell your stories at all the places that matter to your community.

What if City Branding… – Is a blog series that explores and (re)defines the definition of City Branding. Hungry for more? Subscribe to our newsletter and Map Your City updates you on the latest news & location marketing trends, valuable resources, places we love and new platform features.

Next up in this series and destined for your mailbox: What if City Branding…is Placemaking?”

Frank Meester – new European and urbanite, skilled marketer and Map Your City Team’s community master, huge fan of Ajax Amsterdam – walking Ajax Wiki – ask him anything.”

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