Geographic Branding: Translating Location into Affect

Our current world changes the habits and expectations of certain social sectors. In comparison to the nineteenth century (for instance, the presence of English porcelain in Buenos Aires in the ´1600; Viking bronze in Newfoundland in the twelfth century, or of Chinese jeweler in Byzantium in 1400, shows us that global exchange and social mobility have always existed), for example, there is now a wider audience of people looking to interact with distant places. They are tourists, investors or buyers of mere objects and stories, eager to taste the particularities of others. They are those who will cherish testimony depicting their role in foreign places. Within this group of people, individuals and businesses are seeking a permanent and proper sense of being.

 However, we can also argue that we all originate someplace and that everything comes and goes from one place to another. This reinforces the classification of things by their place of origin, the same parameters that objectify people and things by their place of extraction. We hear about the existence of Swedish furniture, Hindu meditation, German policy or Brazilian joy—and we accept it. It is this desire for interaction, for belonging and distinction, that design must provide. We all necessitate a place, but the key is how we represent it.

What are and what happens to those places?

A place is in fact something that can only be interpreted. It has no life, but rather depends on an analyzed or imagined existence; it is an entity with no inherent meaning. Furthermore, a place only becomes socially significant if the interests of various groups are woven there. In this case, it is national states that have come to represent and structure physical places during the last centuries. There are only a few places, including the North and South Poles, which have not yet been legally awarded to a particular nation.

But under the predominant economics of modern time, places are limited in their autonomy and ability to structure integral development policies. Because of this, regions or cities are forced to take the initiative in pursuit of attracting capital if they wish to function. Such initiatives include the stimulation of tourism, increase of direct investments or strengthening of management frameworks. Thus, cities like Melbourne, Hong Kong, Bilbao and Amsterdam do not wait for others to define their future, but rather take actions regarding their images and communication in order to achieve successful positioning.

At the same time, producers are clustered and manage their products’ origin determinations under the premise of differentiation and new market acquisition. So the situation ends up analogous to one typical of the Middle Ages, during which cities, producers and local merchant leagues allied in an attempt to compete effectively and employed their brands as badges of their origins and figureheads.

With this, local entrepreneurs are beginning to understand that the association of their products with the positive attributes of places supports their identification, decoding and valuation abroad. My work was dominated in recent years by this issue, since the expression of the variable of origin became strategic for most businesses: Irish companies needed to show traits of their culture while seeking product acceptance in Scandinavia or England, while products from Iceland had to reflect the country’s amazing nature as it fought to increase sales in the United States. Companies from Turkey and Russia set their location to attract customers who appreciate the interaction between Europe and Asia, while businesses from the United Arab Emirates are eager to be associated with the Muslim Diaspora. Indeed, even airports are required to justify their status and strategic location as articulators of worlds. Therefore, I found that images which refer to the cultural or natural attributes of my clients’ countries are essential to my work as a brand designer.

But that’s not all on this issue. The present and future inhabitants of these areas also need these marks. Why?, Because brands do not just unveil institutional policy strategies or communicate to occupy niche markets; they will also be interpreted as resources symbolizing the social bonds that unite places’ members.

What is design’s contribution?

I believe that designers are storytellers—our brands are images that project a story to those who are meant to understand it. A story will speak to the others that a viewer has witnessed about a particular place, affecting his/her ultimate interpretation of the location. Thus, the focus of our contribution is to find, interpret and embody a story that has to be treated by its audience as symbolic of the place’s essence.

This leads us to create brands which appeal to their intended receivers, helping to anchor a set of characteristics that are as attractive for foreigners as they are for our own people—the “Cosa Nostra” (Zizek, Slavoj. El acoso de las fantasías, México D. F, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1999) that others want. Moreover, since there is no identity without an image, brand designers have to realize that we are actually the bearers of this translation. We rest at the centre of this issue because the action of materializing what is formless is, in fact, our task. No other discipline, but ours, is responsible. Thus, whether using an event’s design (such as the Olympics, a fair, a fiesta, etc.) or directly creating brand presentations as the core of our work, we as designers must assume our roles as political actors. Actors that will affect the way brands look and are being looked at by their audiences.

How should the brand be built?

When speaking on behalf of a place you have several options. First of all, you can cast it as a stage without actors, choosing to be the one who only cleans the theatre and turns off the lights. Another option would be to cast the brand as analogous to a music box repeating the same dance (Tango, Waltz, etc.), which would anchor the place in a single story or joke. Lastly, you can also associate the place with a company, which links the place with a single business’s future. In this case, I recommend keeping the following in mind:

1. The brand of the place must be the consequence of an agreed strategy, one that offers to all social segments a clear point of reference while simultaneously transmitting inclusive values (both to the internal and external context).
2. It is important to create a politically correct brand and avoid unnecessary injuries.
3. The brand must be conceptually understandable and convey a defined insight. A mark that can work alone or with a supportive slogan, but that is always saying clearly what the place claims to be.
4. It has to be a symbol that manages to reach the soul of its audience, pushing people to reflect about the meaning of the place and thereby sculpting their prejudices.


We can perceive the brand of a place as not only having to do with businesses or others, but also with ways of envisioning the place, open or closed projects of life, local culture, ideals of global citizenship and the assessments we make of ourselves. Overall, it has to do with making something visible and the shaping of collective identities. Lastly, it has to do with the dreams of people.

Photo credit: Sebastian Guerrini

  • SteveL

    What is your thoughts on “place branding” for locations/regions/neighborhoods within a city (ie. NYC Times Square)? I would conclude that as with macro-analysis of place branding, a segmentation of it becomes local. As such, that is impact on commercial, residential, industrial, retail impact on that region/location/neighborhood of the city?