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The Power of Place

31 Aug

IMG_0583Spatial memory is a powerful thing. It brings hummingbirds back to Ohio every year from the Caribbean, and it evokes emotional memories for us humans.

What is it that makes places so deeply etched in our minds and hearts? My thought is that it’s because of the sensory experience. Unlike an object, which could be remembered for its static qualities, a place is full of three-dimensional and dynamic sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes.

This is why we return home and feel comfort at the end of a long day. Memory evokes the senses that yearn for the smell of the fireplace in the living room, the velvet upholstery of the favorite armchair, dinner cooking in the kitchen and clean sheets on the bed at night. Places like home, a friend’s house or a spiritual setting like a church, mosque or synagogue elicit emotions that feel good and keep us coming back.

Why do so many visit New York City every year, for the first time?  The reason is place anticipation—spatial memory in reverse. The many attributes of “The City” are known far and wide: opinionated and metropolitan people, high-end boutiques, the best plays and live music, museums, Central Park, street vendors, five-star restaurants. These are the many facets of New York City’s place brand, and everyone knows them. Reading about them or seeing them on television is not enough. The value is in BEING there, experiencing the brand of New York City—close up and in person.

Place branding fuses economic development practice with the strategies and tactics of branding. The goal is to create anticipation for locations that are less well-known—or places that are perceived inaccurately. More cities, states and nations are investing in a place-branding strategy to incentivize capital investment and expansion in their locale. Dubai, Wales and Queensland are prime examples—even my own Ohio. The key in place branding is to focus on the overall economic development strategy and leverage marketing and communications to deliver on their promise.

I am particularly interested in the experiential aspects communicated virtually through place branding. It’s tough to get at all of the senses when separated by distance. Words and pictures can help to tell the story, but two-dimensional impact is not as powerful as being there in person. This interview conducted by CEO Ed Burghard of the Burghard Group with Robert Govers—an expert in place branding, image and tourism—explores the possibilities. In particular, question and answer number 5 address the concept that place branding’s product development is all about managing the experience, in person and online.

As we become more of a global economy and can leverage technology to activate our senses in anticipating place, I wonder how our impressions of places will change as we are exposed to more information about places we thought we knew. Will the so-called “hot-spots” for young talent, families and couples change—both in terms of vacation sites and places to call home? I’m guessing that there are places still off the map in the minds of developers and travelers alike—not because they’re uncharted but because they’ve been overlooked or under-appreciated.