Who really creates the place brand?

Easter in Corfu

by Dr. Heather Skinner

Skinner, H. (2018) ‘Who really creates the place brand? Considering the role of user generated content in creating and communicating a place identity’

Communication & Society, 31(4), pp. 9-24.

Some definitions the key concepts of Place Marketing and Place Branding are still unclear, and these concepts are still conceptualised variously in the extant literature as shown below:

1:         Place Marketing and Place Branding as separate and distinct constructs

2:         Place Marketing is part of Place Branding

3:         Place Branding is part of Place Marketing

4:         Place Marketing and Place Branding are separate constructs but can overlap

5:         Place Marketing = Place Branding

Towards reconciliation, I favour the conceptualisation as follows:

  • Place marketing is concerned with a place’s overall market-getting strategies.
  • Place branding is the marketing-related practice by which a positive place identity is created and communicated to various target segments that differentiates one place competitively from other places, and which can alter perceptions about a place.
    • Place brand identity is formed from the inside-out and is communicated in ways that tend to rely heavily on the visual rather than other senses.
    • Place brand image is an outside-in construct that applies to the target markets’ perceptions of the place.

This conceptualisation implies that place branding is an activity undertaken by those charged with the marketing of a place. It is often also implemented as a top-down exercise where the place brand is identified, communicated and managed by professionals, often as part of a place’s Destination Management / Marketing Organisation (DMO).

Building on these ideas, that I had originally presented at the 1st International Place Branding Association Conference held in London, 7-9 December, 2016, I became very interested in the way places were being represented across social media by both DMOs and by place users.  The above article therefore explored both online and social media users’ contributions to place identity creation, challenging the role and importance of various actors in the place brand identity and place brand image formation process. As outlined in the paper, through the increase of User Generated Content (UGC) available across a wide variety of media, including many digital and social media platforms it is becoming increasingly evident that place marketers themselves retain little control over destination images. This challenges many existing destination marketing practices, and leads to questions concerning the effect of social media and the role of content-generating tourist contributors in the way destination brand identities are formed.

Tourists are keen to share their experiences with others – from the very earliest travel writings, through to holidaymakers eagerly awaiting the return of their printed photographs to show their friends and family images from their trips. The growth in smartphone usage by tourists has simply facilitated easier, quicker, and wider sharing of photographs. This recognises that tourists do indeed play a part, through their social media activities, in co-creating at least to some extent the destination products they will be consuming. But it is not only tourists who upload and share content representing a place identity that can lead to place image formation. Those who live and work in a place also upload various images of these places to social media. It is for this reason my research focused on the wider term User Generated Content (UGC) than solely on Tourist Generated Content (TGC). UGC is also often available in tandem, and even on the same online and social media sites as the DMO-projected place identity, yet the place identity projected by a DMO is often perceived by target audiences as being less credible than that projected by less formal organic sources. Indeed many visitors perceive some sources of organic information to portray a more ‘real’ identity of a destination than others, and do not always distinguish between whether the source of this information is formally charged with inducing such an image (e.g. a DMO) or whether that source is another tourist uploading UGC to a social media platform. The potential also remains for the DMO-projected place identity not to match up with the place identity portrayed by organic sources.

For this study, data were collected from mostly secondary sources, photographs taken on Holy Saturday April 15th 2017 when a unique event takes place on the Greek island of Corfu as part of the Orthodox Easter festival and uploaded to various publicly accessible digital and social media. A photograph was included in the study only if the post was publicly accessible online and if that post included a photograph taken on and pertaining to some aspect of Holy Saturday (15th April) in Corfu in 2017. Only still photographs, not videos, and only original photographs not those shared from other posts. The initial data set drawn from these online sources comprised 166 still photographic images, upon initial analysis, 17 duplicate items were removed leaving a total data set for analysis of 149 images. However, when categorising the photographs by data source, it became increasingly obvious that the boundaries were indeed very blurred between what was tourist generated content and what was content uploaded by other types of social media user. Boundaries were also blurred when considering the type of online presence that hosted the source data and the user who generated the content. For example, images originally taken by commercial photographers were being shared by other commercial organisations on their websites, or had been shared by individuals onto e.g. Facebook groups. It was therefore decided not to limit the analysis to only those photographs taken by tourists, as this was in some cases impossible to identify, although tracing source images back made it possible to categorise the user generating the content as either a private individual (whether tourist or resident), or a commercial poster, whether that be a sole trader (particularly in the case of commercial photographers) or a larger commercial organisation. Analysis of this data set was compared with 84 photographs taken by the researcher, and the 7 photographs specifically relevant to Holy Saturday reproduced in the Corfu Municipality’s promotional brochure Easter on Corfu.

Analysis of findings showed that similar common images were shared by all users across social media. There were no differences in the type of image or its content regardless of whether the image emanated from tourists, residents, commercial organisations, or the Municipality. However Corfu had not at the time of writing established a DMO, the Greek government’s recent research on its place brand image did not include any analysis of social media, despite having recently scrutinised the nation’s image by analysing 400,000 reports with direct references to Greece in 1,000 international media of 28 countries. There is no meaningful interaction between the Municipality and those uploading UGC. These content generators are themselves creating an identity for the place through what they choose to post in online and social media, and that identity appears to be consistent whether the content is generated on a Facebook Page, Facebook Group, on a Webpage, or via photo sharing platforms such as Instagram. There also appears to be little difference in content generated by individuals (whether tourists or residents) and that generated by those with a commercial interest in sharing their photographs of this event on this island. In this case, where no DMO exists to specifically promote Corfu, and when there is little to no promotion of the island’s individual resort destinations at Municipality level let alone at Prefecture or National level, the identity of these places is what the tourists, residents, and local business concerns create. Moreover, the identity that is created is overwhelmingly positive of the place, and without any strategic management, these content generators are all themselves choosing which images become iconic of a destination, with much similarity in evidence of what is promoted.

These findings have implications for places that have little or no branding or promotional budget or co-ordination. Such places could indeed leverage the images that are already being shared by other place users, even simply by encouraging the use of hashtags that could help curate the images for those who wish to consume them. Competitions could be run by place managers to encourage image sharing, or an image sharing site could be established relatively easily and for little expense.

In conclusion, while some, particularly smaller destinations, could benefit from the activities of a DMO, many do not have any such organisation helping their marketing and branding. Because a place brand is not ‘owned’ in the same way a commercial brand is owned, then especially if there is no DMO actually doing branding, we see that the place brand, unlike other commercial product or service brands is actually created by multiple actors. Perhaps therefore it may be time for place branders to not only voluntarily give up their perceptions of control over at least part of the identity formation process and encourage contributions from wider stakeholders, and to no longer perceive them as mere consumers of the brand, but also as its co-creators, and sometimes indeed its’ creators. However, this new conceptualisation and practical application will require another shift in both practitioner and academic understanding of place brand identity and place brand image.

This special issue on Place Branding of the journal Communication and Society comprises a range of articles from presentations delivered at the 2nd International Place Branding Association Conference held in Swansea, UK, 5-7 December 2017. All articles in the special issue can be accessed here.