City and Country Branding - How Cities Compete in the 21st Century

03/13/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

It's March and people are starting to plan their travel for next summer. Some people are planning next winter break. Others are thinking about investing money or starting offices. Which city or country will you choose? In the past, the great cities of the world attracted virtually all the attention. But these days, more and more cities are branding themselves and countries too, because consumers and investors are actively seeking out new destinations. As the world becomes a bigger place, and as the Internet of things opens our world, putting new cities and new experiences on a pedestal, we have many choices.

The speed of globalization has lead to a situation where the main competition for your city is no longer the city across the bay, but anywhere and everywhere around the world. And this global competition is not limited to big cities; it now directly affects all cities. A city brand can make a step change in fortunes.

Whereas in the past the great capitals of the world captured the rump of attention and money, now there is a big opportunity for virtually any city to capitalize on the increase in global travel, curiosity and investment. City and country branding is helping challenger destinations to break through and attract talent, investors and visitors and consumers for their products and services, and to attract international attention.

Image is everything when it comes to competing. Image gives people permission to believe and moreover it helps people recommend a destination, which is by far the most important result of a city or country branding campaign. There are global standards of quality that all cities and countries can achieve through distilling their local elements into a powerful branding strategy and communications program.

"The Guardian Newspaper wrote that the Sydney Opera House has wings. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world. Shanghai's Pudong boasts a 21st century skyline of bubbles, crowns and globes. These buildings are designed to be instantly recognizable, a signature brand for both their city and their architect. But if every city has them - and they all hire the same elite group of architects to design them - how unique can cities' images be?"

Uniqueness however is the goal of city or nation branding, which during the past few years has grown into a global industry connected to tourism and the media-sports-and-entertainment complex. Originally a promotional scheme connected to cities vying for World Expo or the Olympic games such as these examples for Stockholm and Rio, now it is about making countries and cities "destinations". As always with branding, image is everything.

The most famous campaign was created in the 1970s "I (Heart) New York" with the goal of attracting families to visit New York state and NYC. The Guardian goes on to say that by "the 1990s, every city wanted to be like New York: to be seen, in other words, as clean, safe and "open for business". The worldwide tourism industry was rapidly growing, and the concept of top-dog, "global" cities was gaining ground, fed by academic researchers on the one hand, and widely read "best city" lists on the other. From Las Vegas to Seoul, city governments reshaped their convention and visitors' bureaus into more professional, market-savvy organizations, revved up their advertising budgets."

There is a survey for the world cities with the most powerful brands - get the data here. "There are many surprises and the resulting "brand barometer" is eye opening: did anyone expect LA to beat London? Or Tokyo and Venice to fall so flat? The report measures two aspects of a city's brand: its "assets" - attractions, climate, infrastructure (particularly transport), safety and economic prosperity - and its "buzz", a combination of social media (Facebook likes and Twitter sentiment analysis) and media mentions. Assets and buzz were each graded out of 10; the numbers were added to produce a total score. (Scroll down for an interactive bar chart of the final ranking.) The Guardian says the use of social media sites popular among western countries must be taken into account when digesting the list. In China, Renren and Weibo are used rather than Facebook and Twitter, which may go some way to explaining the poor showing of Shanghai, for example. Tokyo scores a buzz of just 2, again due partly to Japan using its own social media engines - yet Seoul does remarkably well on the same criteria. In this survey, Mumbai and Mecca are two more examples of up-and-comers in the brand stakes, while European cities - with the exception of London and Paris - struggle. Venice isn't the only loser, just the most surprising," the Guardian reports.

On the whole, the results do show a clear correlation between asset strength and brand reputation. Cities hoping to buy themselves a bit of buzz should take this to heart. So as you contemplate your next destination, think about the images circling in your head about far off destinations or some familiar ones calling you. Innovative and successful cases for city and nation branding can be found on YouTube, such as Amsterdam, Dubai, Chengdu and, ahead of St. Patrick's Day, Ireland.