Keywords: Rural branding; Vital Rural Area; Motivations; Power relations
Rural branding has much in common with place branding. Place branding is used as an umbrella concept which focuses not only on regions, but can include whole nations, cross-border regions, cities, rural areas and so on. Rural branding, as the term already implies, addresses specific rural places and therefore focuses on less populated areas with specific demographic, social and economic developments. While place branding of cities and regions has been commonplace for several decades, the branding of rural areas and communities is a much more recent phenomenon.
The purpose of this article is to explore the objectives of rural branding and to investigate the methods and measures used. It is assumed that rural branding has distinctive particularities and features, and that rural branding can be considered a special case of place branding. Furthermore, the article examines the organizational and collaborative contexts of rural branding. In this respect, it is proposed that small rural areas with denser social relationships are obliged to plan, manage and perform branding differently than more urban areas in order to be successful and to be accepted by local rural people and stakeholders.
Based on the literature, the article first provides a short review of place branding and demonstrates the strong relationship between place branding and place identity. Furthermore, the article identifies and discusses a number of crucial aspects and dimensions of rural branding. The empirical study is based on evidence from “Vital Rural Area”, a collaborative network of European rural areas that participate in the EU-supported North Sea INTERREG program. The study examines what can be achieved with the branding of rural areas, and the challenges that rural areas are faced with. In addition, evidence of Vital Rural Area is used to show the importance of commitment and power relations of local authorities and other promoters of place brands, such as local entrepreneurs.
Rural branding in literature
Local governments and community representatives find it necessary to mimic the communication and promotion campaigns of larger places in order to raise positive attention, both internally in the community and externally to the outside. Rural actors often see branding as a means to counteract negative social demographic and economic developments. Branding is, along with other measures, considered an integrated means to keep rural areas vital and alive. An aging population and an out-migration of mainly younger and better educated people are major problems for many communities (Stockdale, 2006). These off-putting images, related to the demographic trends, mask the positive elements of country living, such as a free lifestyle close to nature. Circumstances for rural branding are not always the best, often due to the economic situation in rural areas causing job loss, high unemployment rates and a decrease in rural services and facilities. As noted by the OECD (2010), the service sector ensures quality of life for rural citizens which is necessary for the development of the rural economy. However, it is a fact that in many rural communities, public and private services are under significant pressure.
Many rural communities experience a lack of media attention and a comparably much higher media exposure of urban or suburban life conditions. Likewise, rural populations often find the narratives in the media unrealistic, over-romantic and not contemporary, and they fear that new settlers will become disappointed (Van Dam et al., 2002; Johansen & Nielsen, 2012). On the other hand, the media can be the cause of a self-enhancing spin with negative stories, such as the story about the Danish “Rotten Banana” – related to other fruit branding metaphors such as the “Big Apple” (Winther & Svendsen, 2012). Inaugurated in 2009, the Rotten Banana has often been used as another term for the peripheral and rural areas in Denmark. Local rural people have only gradually been able to fire back and replace the negative narratives with a more heterogeneous and possibly more truthful and balanced discourse.
Accordingly, rural areas have good reason to choose branding as one of their instruments to turn around some of the developments described earlier. Generally, the purpose of branding is to improve the overall perception and to increase professional exposure of the qualities and opportunities in rural areas. Hospers (2006) suggests that place branding serves as a common denominator between separate pillars, for example economy, infrastructure, education and culture, and arenas (citizens, entrepreneurs, authorities) that make up an area. Thus, branding comprises and attempts to bring together different sectors and perspectives to align their goals (Kau, 2006); branding is quickly becoming the tool of choice for innovators of regional identity in the global economy (Pedersen, 2004).
There is significant literature on the emergence of place brands. Branding connects with the idea that places matter more than ever in the negotiation of global forces, as local forces confront globalization and translate it into unique place-specific forms (Knox & Marston, 2001). Obtaining an effective brand will put the area on the map, and many nations, regions and cities have either already established their place brand, or are working on it, or have at least given it some thought (Govers & Go, 2009). Some place brands are directed at one specific sector, for instance tourism, while others cover several sectors and try to influence a variety of place consumers, such as tourists, the business community, investors, potential new residents and the locals themselves (Cai, 2002; Therkelsen & Halkier, 2008).
Place branding strives to strengthen the identity and imaging of a location. As such, it is about marketing (Pedersen, 2004). However, the two terms place marketingand place branding can be seen as two very different approaches. Place marketing is defined by territorial marketing strategies to emphasize the difference between corporate and product marketing (Nilsson et al., 2010). The starting point is the needs and demands of the customers, and the place should then adjust itself according to these (Pedersen, 2004). It can be viewed as an umbrella strategy across different sectors, such as tourism promotion boards or destination marketing organizations, export, trade and investment agencies, financial institutions, chambers of commerce and so on (Cai, 2002; Govers & Go, 2009). Place marketing attempts to unify all strategies aimed at tourists and visitors, the business sector and potential new residents.
Place branding takes its point of departure in the identity of places and in the local norms, values and practices, and constructs of these places. Nilsson et al. (2010) state, for example, that the specific qualities and characteristics of a place are sold as “unique selling points”. Place branding is thus a more sustained and ambitious effort, aimed at selling a geographical area for its specific resources. In other words, place branding is about strengthening a place’s identity, or as Govers and Go (2009: 17) say: “place branding is about representing a place by building a positive internal (with those who deliver the experience) and external (with visitors) image which leads to a brand satisfaction and loyalty, name awareness, perceived quality, and other favorable associations”. From this point of view, place branding also develops new ways for a local society to identify itself (Pedersen, 2004).
It seems that a transition has occurred from place marketing to place branding. Johansson and Cornebise (2010) note that the marketing of places has appeared in geographic literature since the early 1990s (see Kearns & Philo, 1993; Gold & Ward, 1994). This literature has explored marketing strategies, advertising messages, slogans and images. Consumers have become more critical in assessing promotional material, and an awareness of authenticity and “personality” of place has developed. Thus, brand producers, such as corporations, municipalities, cities and other geographic entities, have moved away from simple advertisements towards more comprehensive strategies. In that sense, the concept of place branding has become more complex and less superficial for the areas and their inhabitants (Anholt, 2002; Kavaratzis & Ashworth, 2005). The concept of branding has been popularized and used as a central element in place promotion, both internally and externally (Johansson & Cornebise, 2010).
As discussed, place branding takes its point of departure in the identity of regions and constructs of these regions. From a similar perspective, Kavaratazis and Ashworth (2005) suggest that a place needs to be differentiated through a unique brand if it wants, first, to be recognized as existing, second, perceived in the minds of consumers as possessing superior qualities to other competing places, and third, consumed in a way equal to the objectives of the place. Moreover, they argue that a place can only be accepted as a brand if the intrinsic and distinctive characteristics are understood and developed (see also Pike, 2002; Vasudevan, 2008). Taking this into account, place branding becomes a useful tool for innovators of regional identity in a global economy. Pedersen (2004) even states that a place brand involves a new way of representing reality. In addition, he argues that the technology of branding broadly conceptualizes places as real in a dual sense: “on the one hand, a place is manifest as a series of organizational, geographical, and infrastructural “givens”, and, on the other, a place is a concept that branding consultants are trying to create by changing the perception and ideas people already hold about it” (pp.79-80).
Who is responsible for place branding? This is a crucial question, and much literature on the issue tends to lead to the recommendation that some parties should take a lead in the branding process and ensure a joint agreement on the identity and direction (Pike, 2002). These parties can be seen as the investors and producers of the brand construct. According to Kavaratazis and Ashworth (2005), the boundaries of the brand construct are, on the one side, the activities of the so-called producers and, on the other side, the perceptions of the consumers. Thus, there are two important sides within the branding process: the producers and the consumers. This also suggests that differences of power relations exist. Accordingly, the process of place branding is often a battlefield of opinions and approaches (Gibson & Davidson, 2004).
Similar fields and experiences can be viewed in rural branding. Rural branding may be hampered by the fact that the areas are small, the resources are limited and the capacities are insufficient to perform a full branding strategy and implementation. However, such a process may be substantial if performed according to the recommendations of branding experts (Therkelsen & Halkier, 2008). The question about initiative, power and control is crucial. In a rural context, it makes particular sense to distinguish three different approaches: top-down, bottom-up or a combination of both, described as a horizontal leadership approach.
The top-down approachis not new in place branding processes, and such approaches are found all over the world, particularly in connection with tourism marketing. A well described and broader example is the branding of the Øresund Region, which includes the regions of Sjælland (Denmark) and Skåne (Sweden). Although the Øresund Region is often highlighted as a European model for cross-border cooperation, both Pedersen (2004) and Hospers (2006) argue for a more nuanced view. The consistent and place-based branding strategy of the region as a Nordic and amenable place with visible objects, such as the Øresund-bridge and a regional logo, suggests that the region has a strong identity of which the inhabitants are proud. This identity, however, is artificially created by a group of professionals and does not reflect the feelings of the majority of the inhabitants; most still feel primarily Danish or Swedish rather than residents of the Øresund Region(Jerneck, 2000; Hamers, 2005; Hospers, 2006). Thus, brandinghas been driven by a political ambition to change the way people in the area live and reflect on their identity (Pedersen, 2004; Rofe, 2013). Or in other words, a top-down approach was used to forge a new regional identity among the local population. Therkelsen & Halkier (2008) argue that access to resources is crucial to be able to function. Resources such as authority, finance, organization and information are intimately linked to the capacity of the organization to influence other actors.
The bottom-up approachnecessitates the support of the actual inhabitants in the entire place branding process. It is not only important how a branding organization wants the brand to be understood, but also how the brand is perceived in reality by the locals. Valuable is what people believe about a brand – their thoughts, feelings and expectations based on experiences, impressions and perceptions of the functional, emotional and symbolic benefits of the brand (Kaplan et al., 2010). It is crucial that people communicate as ambassadors of their own rural area. In this perspective, the locals “live the brand”. In other words, if residents do not feel positively connected with a brand, do not recognize their place of living within the brand or do not identify themselves with the brand, the brand will not last long. An example of a homegrown identity is the Norwegian village Fjærland (300 inhabitants), which is cultivating its image as a book mecca (Vik & Villa, 2010).
The previous paragraphs illustrate that rural areas in general struggle to increase awareness for the life qualities and the opportunities that they represent. Yet, the individual area or village is under permanent resource pressure and hardly able to create a permanent change of identity without including the majority of the inhabitants and enterprises as well as external stakeholders. In this line, a third approach to rural branding can be recognized: the horizontal approach, which is characterized by cross-sector coordination as well as cross-geographical logic. Pedersen (2004) argues that it is important to ensure the support of people who are at the beginning of the branding process and already influential members of the cultural or political life. Potentially, this means that a broad range of actors from political, administrative, commercial, and cultural fields should be included in the branding process. Therefore, rural branding should not only include political representatives from local governments, but also representatives from the cultural, tourism and trade fields next to other local and regional bodies. In other words, branding calls for a specific understanding of all layers of civil and business life. Place branding works as an umbrella for a wide range of functional activities taking place in inter-organizationalrelations between promotional bodies in different sectors (Therkelsen & Halkier, 2008). In turn, this also means that place branding can be seen as a mechanism of horizontal participation.
This literature review illustrates that there is increasing research with an emphasis on place branding, but that rural areas and villages per se are included on a very marginal basis. Rural areas are seen as attached to larger regions, where their specific identities and the contributions of the population to the branding process are largely neglected. There is a significant need for more comprehensive attention to the motivations, measures and methodologies of rural branding. The empirical work in this article represents one step in this direction.
This article is part of a research contribution in connection with Vital Rural Area (VRA), a collaborative network of European rural areas that participate in the EU-supported Interreg North Sea program. Thirteen partners from six North Sea countries (Norway, UK, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany) work together to find transnational strategies to fortify rural areas. Vital Rural Area has been in operation since 2009, and the project is to be finalized by the end of 2013. Three central developments form the center of Vital Rural Area: a lack of economic development and innovations, downsizing in the level of services and amenities, and negative or insufficient exposure of regions. The latter forms the work package “branding the qualities of a region towards professional exposure to improve the overall perception of the region,” which is the center of this paper.
Five of the eight project partners that participate in the work package 'regional branding' form the case study areas of this paper. The partners are in different stages of regional branding; some are in the starting phase while others had launched their brand even before the beginning of Vital Rural Area. The researchers have participated in the projects during the implementation of Vital Rural Area, including a range of workshops held in specific rural locations. A complex set of resources has been available for the research project. Semi-structured face-to-face interviews have been undertaken with all representatives of the regional branding partners. The interviews were performed during 2012. The VRA partners have also supplied additional written material, which was analyzed as part of the project. The interviews have been transcribed into a matrix format, and have been the foundation of the description and analysis provided in this paper.
The case areas
The five case areas that form the center of the study are shortly introduced below.
Meetjesland is a region in the Northwest region of the province of East Flanders, Belgium. It can be characterized as a rural region between the cities of Ghent and Bruges. Around 162,000 people live in the 13 municipalities belonging to Meetjesland. In 2005, the Meetjesland brand was launched with the slogan “Meetjesland, experience it!”. The main goal is to give the region a positive charm and a good reputation as an attractive region for people to live, work and visit. Furthermore, Meetjesland would like to be seen as a region that easily adapts to new developments.
West-Flanders is a province in the Flemish part of Belgium. The 64 cities and municipalities of West Flanders have 1,170,000 inhabitants. West Flanders is one of the most rural provinces of Flanders. In 2003, the province of West Flanders started a regional branding project. The campaign developed the slogan “Driven by people”, with three points of attention: West Flanders as a top region for recreation (Enjoyment. It’s us”; as an enterprising region (For Enterprises. It’s us); and as a quality region (Quality. It’s us).
Zealand Flanders is the most southern part of the province of Zealand in the Netherlands. In total, around 106,800people live in the three municipalities of Hulst, Terneuzen and Sluis. In 2008, the municipalities decided along with some entrepreneurs and institutions to work on economic activities and regional promotion. In 2009, the task force “Your New Future” started with the main mission to build a consistent and positive picture of Zealand Flanders.
Langenhagen is a municipality in the German state of Lower Saxony, and is part of the district of Hannover Region. Langenhagen has 52,600 inhabitants. With the project “Pferdestärken Langenhagen”,branding started in 2009. In addition to its nature, the local cuisine and the prime location for horse breeding offer good tourism conditions, and the combined resources are considered important for the successful establishment of businesses and for the attractiveness of settlement. Pferdestärken Langenhagen will therefore promote and strengthen the tourist appeal as well as quality of life.
Finnøy Kommune is a small Norwegian municipality with sixteen rural islands. Around 2800 people live in Finnøy, but this number doubles during the summer season due to tourism. In 2009, Finnøy joined Vital Rural Area and started branding the island group. The main goals are to increase po
The five case regions, along with the whole program of Vital Rural Area, are references for this study. However, that scope of the paper is broader as it addresses, reflects and develops the issue of regional branding in rural areas into a guiding framework for brand producers and policy makers.
Achievements of rural branding in VRA
As indicated earlier, there are several motivations for rural branding. When analyzing the case areas, it is observed that that the main prospected achievements are concerned with (1) strengthening the comprehensive identity, (2) informing the residents and creating higher social cohesion, (3) encouraging population growth, (4) promoting entrepreneurship and business activities, and (5) enhancing tourism and leisure life qualities.
Strengthening the comprehensive rural identity.As a counter-movement to globalization and homogenization, people feel an inclination to embed themselves in a secure and stable environment, which enhances the awareness of regional characteristics and regional identities (Simon et al., 2010). There is a plea for differentiation and sensitivity to the nature of a place. Specific features of the area, such as landscape and heritage, seem to hold more significance than before, and the responsiveness to the small and subtle differences and variations between regions moves up the branding agenda. This movement exists not only because places generally tend to become more alike, but also because unique places are desired by both tourists and locals residents (Johansson & Cornebise, 2010). By branding the qualities of rural areas, the overall place perception may be improved, which may eventually strengthen the local identity. Thus, within rural branding initiatives, regional identity has also been identified as an important element that serves as a basis to promote the region (Giles et al, 2013; Paasi, 2009; 2012). The Zealand-Flanders case has attempted to create an accurate understanding of its identity with a so-called DNA profile.
Box 1: Discovering the DNA profile of Zealand-Flanders
As we know, DNA is the cell material that is unique for every human being. However, regions, or cities and villages in a region, can also be considered as having a unique DNA profile. It is the blueprint of a region that shows how people live and work, what their life attitudes and preferences are, and it highlights the main qualities and characteristics of the region. Together with residents, entrepreneurs and local governments, the task force 'Your new future' created the DNA profile of Zealand-Flanders. An important factor appeared to be the location close to Belgium. Zealand-Flanders people feel more or less Flemish, Burgundian and adventurous. Thus, Zealand-Flanders as a border region became crucial in the branding process. It was a main characteristic that distinguishes this particular area from other areas in the province of Zealand. A book was published about the Zealand-Flanders DNA, and postcards were distributed in order to consolidate the identity among the local inhabitants and enterprises. The main aim was to create more awareness of possibilities to use the qualities of Zealand-Flanders in promoting the region. Some companies have embedded these qualities in their own brochures, most prominently, and not surprisingly, the tourist information office.
Informing residents and creating higher social cohesion.Within the local society itself, rural branding initiatives are a way of creating higher social cohesion (Lee et al., 2005). Social cohesion can be defined as the commitment and solidarity among people, groups and communities (Schnabel et al., 2008). Thus, commitment and belonging are central focus points in the concept of social cohesion, in relation to behavior, valuation and social interaction. Ray (1998) suggests that within place branding, a stronger sense of shared identity is emerging. Trust and cooperation are then likely to lead to further developmental benefits in a positive spiral. Thus, informing the local inhabitants through branding may stimulate the level of involvement, commitment and participation in their rural life. A solid, well-considered brand encourages people to invest in their own region. There are examples of how VRA rural areas worked with the encouragement of the residents.
Box 2: Astronger sense of belonging
The small Norwegian island municipality Finnøy started branding with a distinct internal element. As many inhabitants had not visited other islands than the one they live on, the branding initiatives focused, as a first step, on encouraging residents to visit and enjoy the other islands. More activities were initiated, such as the development of hiking routes and a local food chain. Next to informing, the regional branding initiatives increased commitment and created a more intense feeling of belonging. The impression is that the population talks about their own place of living with one another and with friends and relatives from other places.
Box 3: Meetjeslander of the year
For eight years, Streekplatform+ Meetjesland has organized the yearly competition ‘Meetjeslander of the year’. The winner is selected and chosen by local residents and local stakeholders. The nominees are people who have contributed to one or more of the nine strategic goals described in the future plan ‘Meetjesland 2020’:
- invest in the qualities of the landscape
- invest in the attractive and lively village centers
- give future to its economy
- a well-organized mobility
- cooperation outside its boundaries
- invest in innovation
- effective and efficient regional cooperation
- propagate a strong brand
- sustainability (economic, social and ecological sustainability)
Encouraging population growth. Stimulating population growth and stimulating in-migration is essential in many branding efforts. As demonstrated by Niedomysl (2007), attracting new residents through campaigning is very difficult. One reason is that people do not easily move, and if they do, it is mostly over short distances. Hospers (2011) therefore suggests that it is more useful for local governments to focus on retaining the population rather than attracting new inhabitants. However, a rising population can be interpreted as the result of a well-functioning local community that adequately serves the needs of the population (Kau, 2006). Since demographic issues are of growing importance, local stakeholders are looking for ways to attract new residents. Place branding campaigns are still seen by local governments as a measure to boost interest and to limit the internal mental state in ‘depressed’ regions and create a starting point for a more positive development (Niedomysl, 2007).
Box 4: Participating in Emigration Fair
Every year, the International Emigration Fair at Houten Exhibition Centre in the Netherlands opens its doors toemigrants, expats, job seekers, entrepreneurs and anyone else wanting to live abroad. Since 2008, Zealand-Flanders has been participating as the first Dutch region with an exhibit promoting the qualities of the region and presenting the possibilities to live and work in Zealand-Flanders. Motivations for migration are mainly quietness, spacious houses, and a better way of living and the representatives of Zealand-Flanders claim these qualities to be plentifully available in their region.
So, under the slogan 'Your New Future', Zealand-Flanders presents attractions and prospects of the area. For example, a Michelin star restaurant located there is a symbol of the advanced level found in the area. Furthermore, a campaign in national papers and radio stations supports the presence of Zealand-Flanders at the Emigration exhibition. Of the 10,000 visitors, around 2000 people visit the booth yearly, of which 300 people are seriously interested. Between 2008 and 2011, nearly 60 new households were the direct effect of the promotion at the Emigration fair.
Promoting entrepreneurship and business activities. Rural branding is also about attracting new businesses and stimulating entrepreneurship. McGranahanet al. (2011) claim, like a range of other studies, that amenity values are essential for knowledge workers and that many local areas have unutilized capacities to attract high earners who run low-impact companies. It is argued that places with strong and dynamic brands are more successful in attracting businesses and talent within the knowledge economy (Clifton, 2011). Others contest this statement and say that there are limits in attracting new firms to rural areas through place branding due to the fact that firm migration over longer distances is exceptional and that it is better to invest in retaining local firms (Hospers, 2011). In addition, a focus will be placed on the local products and services, for example on food items or other products with a specific “terroir”, thus creating an added value for the area (Hegger, 2007).
Vital Rural Area shows that both effects may happen through rural branding. For example, the municipality of Finnøy strivesto become Norway’s most important center of knowledge for small industry and food-business. Investments in regional branding already result in a higher number of jobs and entrepreneurs in agriculture, construction, local food processing, traveling and tourist companies. Other partners in the Vital Rural Network try mainly to stimulate their own regional economy and cooperation between regional entrepreneurs who are already located in the area.Box 5: Importance of partnerships
In Zealand-Flanders, a business network was established which involves entrepreneurs and institutions in the region. The purpose was to strengthen cooperation among business people and to integrate the networks in a more intensified promotion of Zealand-Flanders. More than 200 professionals are committed to the task, and they cooperate and promote the area. The idea is that all partners use their own professional network to create more awareness and invent new actions that attract attention and news value for the region. They also exchange ideas about how to enhance the place related storytelling for the benefit of their own business as well as for colleagues in the area.
Box 6: Entrepreneurs as ambassadors of place branding
Within the branding of West-Flanders, 50 local entrepreneurs have been selected as ambassadors. The 50 companies were asked to promote entrepreneurship opportunities in West-Flanders, for example in both internal and external communication. This method seemed to work well, as it unified the needs of the enterprises with the needs of the area. For example, one of the entrepreneurs is a media organization that now advertises about activities in connection with the branding in general. The company also uses the brand logo in its products and newspaper. In this way, the brand is brought outside the area more efficiently. The basis of cooperation between the province and entrepreneurs was developed through the ambassadorship.
Box 7: A brand handbook for a stronger and better commitment
Within the branding process of Meetjesland, it was experienced that it is useful to ensure certain commitments with entrepreneurs. At the launch of the brand Meetjesland, the regional platform received significant positive feedback from private and semi-private associations and organizations. At the beginning, the branding organization was pleased to see any organization that wanted to use the Meetjesland brand in its communication activities. However, after some time it was recognized that the Meetjesland branding organization had become too flexible. An example comes from a company that was so enthusiastic in using the Meetjesland logo that it financed a billboard. However, they use a different color for the name and logo.
In order to avoid 'wrong' usage, a brand handbook was launched in April 2012. In the brand handbook, the regional platform takes precautions for proper usage of the brand. It categorizes three categories of brand users:
Category 1: The structural partners, such as the 13 municipalities and key organizations and clusters. They only need to conform to the brand format.
Category 2: The individual member organizations of the clusters. If these organizations want, for example, a flag with the Meetjesland logo, they have to register at the platform's website. They receive a code with which they can download the logos from the website. The organizations are obliged to send proofs in order to verify the color, name and logo.
Category 3: All other brand users, such as walking clubs and youth clubs. In addition to registering and providing proofs, these organizations must sign a commitment statement where they accept the conditions for using the brand (in regards to content, design and procedure).
Enhancing tourism and leisure life qualities. Attracting tourism is a very common and important goal in most place branding initiatives. Tourism is essentially place-based, and organizations at all geographical levels are actively engaged in presenting and promoting places and place identity in order to attract tourists and increase market share (Dredge and Jenkins, 2003). When a rural area becomes well-known and provides incentives for people to spend their free time there, not only does the tourist sector benefit, but this also provides economical potential for the public sector(Kau, 2006). Often, a positive tourism development rests on the creation and maintenance of a positive place identity (Niedomysl, 2007), but the opposite is also true in that a positive place identity supplies ingredients for better tourist attraction through word of mouth. In other words, intensifying region and place branding initiatives have added a positive dimension to tourist attraction in rural regions.
In the Vital Rural Area network, attracting tourists is an important item which is shown in the accessibility of websites, development of information brochures and newspapers for tourists etc. Some other events set out to attract and inform tourists.
Box 8: Meetjesland Tour
Together with Tourism Meetjesland and 20 local event organizations, Streekplatform+ Meetjesland developed the Meetjesland Tour. The main purpose was a clustering of events to achieve a better and more precise image of the area and to promote all events organized in Meetjesland, both to residents as well as to visitors. Streekplatform+ Meetjesland and the tourism organization find that they benefited highly from the project due to intensified branding promotion with a higher emphasis on the intrinsic qualities. Also, the event organizations benefited as their product gained more familiarity. For the purpose of the project, Tourism Meetjesland developed two brochures with a description of all the organized events, and Streekplatform+ Meetjesland developed a mobile exhibition to promote tourism, regional heritage, regional products and of course all the events.
Weaknesses of rural branding in VRA
Next to the more positive side of regional branding, there are also more controversial perspectives, and some of these were also experienced during the Vital Rural Area project. The major risk connected to rural branding lies in the adverse marketing and lack of long term sustainability.
Adverse effects.Most places are characterized by a way of diversity and complexity and are therefore not easy to represent as a brand. According to Johansson and Cornebise (2010), this is especially a problem if any stakeholders are affected by branding in a non-desirable way. The researchers illustrate their statement with an example: “The meaning and value of an urban neighborhood differs between stakeholders, and thus establishing consensus on brand strategies is difficult. A successful strategy that encourages more visitors may be good for some merchants, but other stake-holders may only experience negative effects, such as more traffic or parking problems. Over time this could lead to lower residential property values or a decrease in quality-of life” (p 190). From a Scottish case study, Lee et al. (2005: 275) show tensions between groups of professionals within the same rural area. The desire to find a neutral way of marketing the area emphasizednatural and landscape aspects and the brand was constructed as an untouched, unspoiled and unchanging natural environment. However, the effects of human living and labor were hidden or even ignored, and this was in contrast with the way local crofters view the landscape and their relationship to the land. Apparently, branding can favor particular development strategies; however, it may be at the expense of others.
Unsustainable. Places are known to suffer from brand decay when the novelty of a particular strategy wears off, or if more and more places pursue similar, competing strategies (Johansson and Cornebise, 2010). From studies in Norway and Ireland, Meistad (2004) argued that newly-cultivated regional identities are ‘clothes’ that can be worn for outsiders, and do not necessarily affect the way of thinking within the region. Place branding may not be a long-term, sustainable development strategy for financial reasons and due to the lack of consistent commitment from stakeholders to maintain the identity and image.
Box 9: No uniformity in the usage of a brand
At the launch of the Meetjesland brand in 2005, all structural partners were asked to use the brand in their communication activities. This was achieved on a voluntary basis and therefore no uniformity was reached. The tourism board immediately started using the Meetjesland logo. However, at the same time, other organizations kept their own logo and promotional activities. For example, one organization left everything in its own color instead of using the green Meetjesland color. Another organization used its own logo, while the logo of Meetjesland was published in a 'far away' corner. So, the goal of the network is to centralize communication and a more ambiguous external presentation. They try to achieve that through managing instead of rigid controlling.
Box 10: New developers and new users
People always want to profile themselves in different ways over longer periods of time. That is also the case for brand producers, such as politicians. Launching a new brand may become a tool for newly-elected politicians to set their name on a region’s identity, which may lead to a replacement of the existing brand. As the regional government is a main initiator of the West Flanders brand, it is important to inform newly elected politicians about the brand and brand strategies. As such, it is essential that key stakeholders remain loyal to the brand.
In addition, the West Flanders brand shows that it is important to stay alert for new developments.Within the province, a discussion took place about whether the house style should be renewed after 10 years of place-branding. A main question is whether the three images of Enjoyment, Entrepreneurship and Quality are still in line with the future plans of the government. By evaluating the brand, it seemed important to modernize the brand without affecting the stories that have been told in the last years and the identities and images that have been spread. The stakeholders found it important to update within existing frameworks and principal ideas.
Box 11: How to guarantee continuity
Several partners, for example West-Flanders and Zealand-Flanders, suggest that it is important to guarantee the continuity of a brand in order to keep local actors enthusiastic. In that sense, it appeared to be crucial to commit a professional brand manager. This professional manager should constantly motivate stakeholders to go one step further in the joint branding program, otherwise they might start to refocus on their own businesses. In the case of Breskens (Zealand-Flanders), the task force ‘Your New Future’ acted as the 'booster' of the campaign. However, there was not enough time for exploitation, and according to this experience, it is important to reserve money for a professional follow-up for a continuation of the branding process.
Discussion: Top-down, bottom-up or horizontal approaches
Vital Rural Area shows distinct examples of all three approaches to rural branding: top-down, bottom-up and a combination of both, described as a horizontal approach. In this section, the cases will be discussed and analyzed in this framework in an attempt to identify and discuss particular challenges in connection with rural branding.
The top-down approachis identified in two rural areas in this study: West Flanders and Langenhagen. In West Flanders, the provincial government was the main initiator and investor of the brand West-Flanders, not only as the primary financier but also as the brand producer. The brand was developed and promoted by the provincial government. The intention was that the brand, through massive emphasis, should become a part of all other organizations, associations and residents in the province. Residents did have the opportunity to discuss and contribute, although they were first informed afterward. Due to the fact that the province introduced and promoted the brand, it was immediately seen as 'the' house style of the provincial authority. Despite the strong efforts of the province to promote a brand for the benefit and the free use of the whole region, the image remained to some extent 'public', and the brand is not used spontaneously by other organizations to any particular degree. The lack of local commitment may be related to the scale of the province: with such a large region, the particular rural and local identity diminishes under more general denominators.
The branding of the German region Langenhagen also started as a top-down initiative. Funds for the project were acquired through the municipality and Vital Rural Area INTERREG. However, the local authorities ceased to give their support to the project during implementation. Politicians ended up not opposing the project with the argument that they did want to become deeply involved. To continue branding, the active branding manager decided to change the strategy and asked for bottom-up support from residents. This turnaround was successful in the sense that the branding organization was able to organize a promotional bicycle tour through the region, an event that became very popular with the participation of 600 people in 2011. Also, the local press became enthusiastic about this event and dedicated more and more time and articles to the branding project of Langenhagen. Therefore, even though access to resources was controversial and highly restricted, a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down investment in the branding of Langenhagen led to positive reactions from the press and residents. These reactions also reached local politicians. The branding manager could demonstrate in a practical way that branding Langenhagen is important in promoting the area. Since the event, politicians have reacted more positively and are even willing to invest in further branding projects.
Bottom-up approaches. Several case study areas integrate residents into their projects. For example, residents of Zealand-Flanders (Netherlands) were responsible for the ideas for the specific activities of the brand 'Your New Future'. Kick-off workshops were organized with residents to discuss their view of the future of their village. Announcements and invitations for discussions and contributions were published in local newspapers. In each case, 15-20 people joined these meetings. In all villages of the municipality, similar kick-off workshops were organized, and the results were compiled into village reports, visualizing the qualities and future prospects of the villages. According to the key person interviewed, it is crucial to raise the issues of implementation with the locals, and they should be given responsibility and freedom of interpretation. Only then is it possible to strengthen the basic qualities of each village. Within the branding of Zealand-Flanders, the direct support to inhabitants has been essential because branding is about the basic qualities of a village or region. These qualities are “lived values” and cannot be promoted without the support of the residents.
Similar to Zealand-Flanders, the goal of the branding of Finnøy (Norway) was to engage inhabitants, and the processes were largely similar. Specific characteristics of the islands of Finnøy and branding values were identified during a range of well-visited seminars. The enthusiasm and participation in the project shows the enormous value of the project. Quoting the key person interviewed: “People have been very happy for being involved, and they are so interested in the values”. While residents were involved in discussing the values of Finnøy, they will not directly be part of the further branding process, which has been undertaken by a professional organization. Finnøy stakeholders are aware of the need to provide information about activities through the local press, but the residents will not play an active role in the further development of the brand Finnøy.
The examples from VRA show that residents were mainly involved at the start of the branding process and not in the further process, which was taken over by professionals. It is too early to conclude whether this will compromise the involvement of residents and limit their contribution as ambassadors. As Pedersen (2004) shows in the case of the Øresund Region, it is important to involve residents in such a way that they feel that they are taken seriously. As long as the case studies continue to convey this feeling to residents, for example by informing them and continuing to ask them questions, it will stimulate the publicity of the brand through encouragement of the residents. It is likely that, through humble feedback and communication with the residents, the brand has greater chances of surviving and becoming a permanent entity that holds some truth in terms of the local identity.
A horizontal approachcan been found in the Meetjesland (Belgium) case. The regional platform 'Streekplatform+ Meetjesland' was founded in 1995, and in 2005 the plus “+” was introduced to make the ambitions and strategic vision stronger. The ambition of the branding platform is to facilitate and coordinate communication across policy making in the region. In Meetjesland, many different organizations work on different themes, such as agriculture, living space, culture, etc. The idea is to establish a strong network structure between these otherwise fragmented organizations. The 13 municipalities are structural partners. A core group of 14 regional organizations focusing on culture, health prevalence, landscape, welfare, youth, housing, tourism and social services are also included in 'Streekplatform+ Meetjesland'. The network is a horizontal structure in which the regional platform Meetjesland works as the network catalyst.
At this moment, one of the largest problems in the area is the high extent of separate communication strategies. Not surprising, all organizations have their own website, separate newsletters etc., and some of this is considered overlapping and non-feasible. The purpose of the regional network is to come up with an integral structure to create a powerful and transparent network with unambiguous communication. Moreover, the financial and human capital will be bundled to achieve better output and quality.
The question is what a networked joint communication structure can do for the brand Meetjesland. Clearly the structure has one strong advantage, because there is a feeling of identity among the organizations involved. The branding manager of Streekplatform+ Meetjesland is always negotiating, talking and discussing - sometimes with considerable loss of time. Organizations involved are motivated to promote the brand in a correct way and stimulate others to use the brand as well. Conversely, a disadvantage is that the horizontal approach is a time consuming process for the branding manager.
This paper has identified a number of significant issues regarding rural branding in the INTERREG project Vital Rural Area. While place branding has received considerable scientific and practical attention during the past few decades, rural branding is not a well-developed discipline. The study of the practice in five different rural areas illustrates some of the potentials and barriers of rural branding.
The motivations for rural branding are many,and the cases show that success may be achieved. Rural branding is a way to strengthen the comprehensive identity of a place, and the local residents are ready and capable to contribute with significant inputs to the values of any community. There is evidence that residents integrate and participate through the process, which creates a more collaborative atmosphere. Informing the residents and creating higher social cohesion is also a significant motivation for rural branding processes. Due to demographic and economic decline in many rural communities, there is often an objective of turning the negative trend to a positive one. Rural branding intends to encourage the retaining of residents and the emigration of new inhabitants. Furthermore, another purpose of rural branding is to promote entrepreneurship and business activities, for example with the argument of the importance of amenity values. Finally, rural branding exposes the area to tourism and other visitors. The study also touches upon the negative sides of rural branding, particularly connected to the fact that local stakeholders have different perspectives and attitudes on the same issues.
Rural branding tends to follow place branding processes, as it is generally recommended that they involve the local residents, followed by strategies and actions plans. The specific measures vary: there is emphasis on more or less traditional promotional campaigns with logos, slogans, brochures, and other uniform representations. Some areas promote themselves at emigration fairs. The use of the local businesses and residents as ambassadors in conjunction with public relations and the media seem to be a way to ensure the combined effects of internal and external promotion.
The study reveals the many difficulties connected to rural branding. It becomes clear that rural branding is not always a long-term, sustainable development strategy, in the sense that not all stakeholders are willing to use the brand in a similar and correct way. A professional branding manager and a centralization of communication processes may prevent insufficient usage. As seen in the case of West-Flanders in Belgium, existing brands and branding approaches have to be re-engineered once in a while to remain vital and to account for new political agendas.
A second purpose was the identification of who is responsible for rural branding and who effectuates the power in the process. Three types of approaches were identified, namely top-down, bottom-up and horizontal participation. The top-down approach may be comprehensive and well-financed, but may also lack the keen commitment of the local residents and businesses. Bottom-up processes may be creative and committing; arural brand will not survive without the actual inhabitants and their desires and ideas. If residents do not feel convinced of the benefits of the brand and if they do not feel involved, the brand will not last long. However, rural branding on such a small scale is also risky and needs financial capacity to ensure a long-term and persistent branding process. The horizontal approach ensures a continuous dialogue, but can be time and resource consuming. Still, the results show that successful (cross-sector) relationships create more motivations that attract people to work, live, and spend free time in a region. At best, rural branding is a self-intensifying process, where the preparatory and promotional activities result in the benefits associated with attractiveness. In turn, this will lead to a stronger rural brand (Kau, 2006; Niedomysl, 2007; Johansson & Cornebise, 2010; Hospers, 2011; Giles et al, 2013). These benefits motivate municipalities, companies and other regional and local organizations to invest in a rural branding process.
Nevertheless, as illustrated in the study, the theory and practice of rural branding need further elaboration. It is suggested that rural branding is different from regional branding in larger geographical units. Further research is needed to determine the innovativeness of rural areas in the field of branding. None of the case areas in this study, for example, took significant advantage of the Internet and social media. We also have a limited insight into the types of rural marketing and place branding that takes places as a result of exchange in voluntary and business associations. With limited resources and with the challenges related to long-term sustainability of slogans and marketing gimmicks, rural areas may have to invent entirely new concepts of branding, yet to be seen.
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