Place Branding Australia 2024: hits and highlights

Over June 12-13 in Sydney, more than 100 place-based economic and social practitioners gathered to gain insights and hear frontline stories from a wide range of place branding experts.

Keynote speaker Alison Page: drawing on the library of the Dreaming

On the opening morning, renowned Indigenous artist and intellectual Alison Page ignited imaginations by speaking to the power of ancient storylines and how to incorporate the “library of the Dreaming” into place.

Thursday’s keynote speaker, CEO of Placemaking NSW Anita Mitchell spoke to the power of data and research to make informed decisions, illustrating the impact doing so has had on key precincts including The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

Mitchell also spoke about the opening of the decommissioned White Bay Power Station as an arts and cultural venue, providing illustrations of the efforts that have been taken to ensure some of the site’s key historical fittings such as control panels and gauges were retained to help deepen the venue’s sense of place.

Increasing awareness and understanding of place branding as a practice

Conference curator Stu Speirs reminded the audience that, in contemporary terms, place branding as a practice is only just over 20 years old. The father of place branding, Red Wassenich of Austin Texas, started the movement in the year 2000 when he donated to a local radio station to help “Keep Austin weird”. Twenty years later, local government and businesses ask themselves “Will this help keep Austin weird?” when looking to contribute to Austin’s sense of place.

Anita Mitchell delivers her keynote address on June 13, 2024

Given it’s relative infancy as a practice, Speirs prompted the audience to ask themselves about how they defined place branding. Borrowing from Brand Tasmania’s work, he suggested that “A unifying cultural expression” can be a useful definition for places to use. Over the course of the event, a number of speakers made some insightful commentary around what place branding is and isn’t.

CEO of Brand Tasmania, Todd Babiak stated that “(it’s crucial) to avoid rhyming, cute off the shelf phrases. Be careful about them” Babiak urged. “Asking an ad agency to come up with a beautiful new logo is redundant.  They don’t want to spend time on research to find out what makes a place special. If you are prepared to listen, even to the problems, and are honest, you will get something that feels distinctly of your place….importantly….the language that we use at Brand Tasmania is the language we’ve heard from Tasmanians.”

I think we need to look at place branding like a movement…. we have to talk about it as being more than just a logo. It’s about what unifies us, what can carry opportunities. It is a service. It is the oil that can move through all parts of our community and achieve different things for different people.

Jane Laverty

Jane Laverty the Regional Director of Business NSW Northern Rivers stated that “We see brand as a service…..I think we need to look at place branding like a movement…. we have to talk about it as being more than just a logo. It’s about what unifies us, what can carry opportunities. It is a service. It is the oil that can move through all parts of our community and achieve different things for different people.”

Andy Hoyne ruminated “This is not about brands as we know them. For me it’s about what I can do to engage people. How can I take people on a journey and how do I help people build or grow a sense of pride in a place when maybe it doesn’t already exist yet. Forget about place “brands”. Think of place experiences that we can use as a lever to pull people together and help connect them.”

And whilst agreeing that Place Branding was not about the brand per se, Jess Hamilton reflected on the importance of getting the logo and brand right if one was part of a broader strategy. “I know it’s not about the logo, but believe me when I say it’s important that you get the logo right, because if you don’t….from the top end of Australia to the southern point of Tasmania, the figure of a kangaroo is common and unites us.”

Attendees were treated to a two-day place branding thinkfest.

The power of consultation

The importance and power of the consultation process, in delivering the good and the bad, was highlighted by a number of speakers. Some of the key insights and quotes included:

Carrying on from his ruminations around what place branding is and isn’t, Babiak warned that the typical process of engaging an ad agency to come up with a classic “branding strategy” was a risky proposition. “That’s where we waste money, we fail to make cynical decisions. It’s (place branding) not the rhyming phrase, it’s not the cute thing, it is truly who we are and what can only happen here. It’s not just making a new organisation, it’s not making the new logo, it’s not making that phrase about 2040. It is about genuinely listening and stating honestly who are we.”

Carrying on from that, Laverty reflected that “Sometimes we’re better with less money. You make more with what you have rather than the big dollars that go to the agencies.”

In a presentation about a project that focused on young people in Tasmania, Jess Radford and Linda Karlsson highlighted the impact the consultation process itself had on those that participated. It built networks and friendship groups that endure and provide the community with a group that are able to represent the wants and wishes of an often-overlooked cohort.

Amy Knightley of NZ Story spoke to attendees about the power of good consultation that is reflected in a project’s outputs. She quoted a Maori elder stating “The process is more important that the output. If the process is “pono” (defined by the Maori Dictionary as “adj. be true, valid, honest, genuine, sincere) then the output is good.”

One of a number of panel sessions that canvassed the challenges and opportunities of place branding.

The consultation process at the heart of good practice opens projects up to criticism. The hesitancy and fear of that criticism is something that was seen as not only worthy of embracing, but often highlighted an opportunity.

When engaging with indigenous cohorts, Brent Hill of Tourism Fiji asked attendees to… “Be Brave – If you’re intent is good and your reasoning is clear, trust that your process and initiative will prevail.”

Alex Wisser, the Festival Director from Cementa in Kandos in Regional NSW reflected that in the early years of the festival, there were some amongst the town’s “elders” that were genuinely aggrieved because of mistakes they’d made as event organisers. That opened up the opportunity to apologise and better connect with locals, and “it gave the town’s folk the opportunity to come and claim the event as if it was their own”. Wisser went on to reflect as Hill had, that if the intent behind an initiative was good, then the unification of a community will come eventually, but not necessarily immediately.

John Walters from the Cobargo Community Development Corporation stated that in reality, 2% of a community will get on and do the work, 3% will be naysayers, whilst the other 95% will, in time say thank you to the 2% who got it done. By repeating the message and bringing the 3% along for the ride, the impact of place-led activity can be much greater and unite many more in a community than might otherwise be the case.

Alex Wisser delivered attendees one of the most memorable quotes from the two days stating that he sees artists as “cultural decomposers”. By ensuring any art and culture is reflective of place, it allows a place to evolve organically and regeneratively, ensuring that the legacy of previous generations lives on in one form or another.

Events as a driver of place and identity

Geoff Parmenter reflected on an event’s capacity to create lasting partnerships and relationships within a community – a benefit of hosting events that is often overlooked, yet can be one of the most enduring and powerful outcomes.

In encouraging attendees to attract and create events for place, Parmenter provided attendees with his top tips on an approach to doing so:

  1. Start with a strategy
  2. Understand the relationship between the host and the event
  3. Understand the audience
  4. Build a coalition of the willing
  5. Be clear about space and sector
  6. Treat the event like an advertsing campaign
  7. Don’t retrofit: get finance and governance in place first
  8. Commit to an at least three year strategy.

Place branding is a constant work in progress

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the idea that place branding doesn’t have a defined end-point. Unlike classic branding projects where a final set of deliverables can feel like an end-point, speakers across the two days told stories of projects that continued to evolve, grow and reshape themselves to adjust to the needs as they changed. That highlighted the need for places to ensure that their desire to undertake place branding projects must be grounded in the unique circumstances, needs and wants of the community. By extension, measuring the success of any place branding exercise needed to be tied back to the originally stated objectives of undertaking place branding activity in the first place.

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One thought on “Place Branding Australia 2024: hits and highlights

  1. This is a great summation! Thanks for sharing, Stu. We look forward to attending the next event 🙂

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