Places are brands and brands are stories – narratives that infuse meaning to otherwise inanimate commodities. Interestingly, such stories are just as real as the tangible products, services or entities they animate. Get the story right, and people flock. Get it wrong and they desert you.
When it comes to places like shops, districts, suburbs, cities, states, nations, continents and even our planet, the same logic still applies. That is, our perception and acceptance of a place is dependent on its tangible value just as much as its intangible narrative or, as I like calling it, its brand.
According to neuroscience, the human brain does not distinguish between reading or hearing a story and experiencing it in real life.
In both cases, the same neurological regions are activated.
Our realities, factual or imagined, are one and the same. And, when dreams are reality, art is science, and emotion is reason.
The stock exchange offers a very similar parallel, where value is a lot more impacted by the stories told about companies than the numbers presented on annual reports.
How can one ever prove that a Semper Augustus tulip bulb, during the heights of Holland’s Tulip mania, was worth the same as 12 acres of land?! It’s the story, stupid!
A brand’s narrative is a business’ most valuable commercial asset.
It increases the chances of customers choosing your product or service over your competitors’ at a lower cost per sale, attracting more customers who are happy to pay a little more, and who will buy it a little more often.
A strong brand narrative will deliver more revenue, profit and growth, more efficiently, year after year, and thus generate more shareholder value.
Reality is in our heads. Objectivity is no longer out there. What we intuitively feel is what feels true. For Susana Bishop, general manager, commercial and public engagement at Federation Square, participation is how a brand can upgrade its narrative from storytelling into storydoing.
“Today’s visitors expect to be part of the narrative of the place through interactivity and engagement. Going to a museum to only watch a piece of art from a distance no longer serves the modern consumer. In re-inventing the square, our focus is on participatory culture, an expectation for most destinations these days.”
If we look at the hospitality market, the consumer is willing to accept pub and bar concepts at two ends of a real-surreal continuum.
Consumers either want an experience steeped in heritage, authenticity and artisanal quality, or to be invited into a unique world that expresses the singular vision of the brand owner.
Surreal executions have proved successful because they are not trying to fool us but entertain with an alternative reality that is then shared between brand and audiences.
The Ace Hotels, for example, seek to amplify the authentic character of their locations by utilising local artists and reinvigorating distressed iconic buildings.
Conversely, the fantastic narrative of The Standard Hotels seduces you to believe that you are within reach of the André Balazs world of celebrity notoriety.
The consumer is familiarised and satisfied with traditional pubs boasting open fires and velvet upholstering and sees these as offering something real and authentic.
At the other extreme, many consumers are equally happy with bars that are minimalist and modern, which feel designed in a single-minded way. They use chrome and light woods instead of dark woods and carpets. These venues do not attempt to deliver authenticity, but what they achieve for the consumer is a sense of integrity. They are not judged on the real or authentic criteria. They are judged in terms of whether they have achieved a certain vision.
Myriam Conrié, director of sales and marketing at Sofitel Sydney, believes that the ability engage guests on narratives emerging from every piece of furniture, every dish or every drop of wine.
“A few months ago, for instance, we started to introduce ‘sabrage’ in our Champagne Bar – the ancient French tradition of slicing open a bottle of Champagne with a cavalry saber. Our guests have been loving it: corks fly, crowd cheers and glasses clink – it’s great drama.
“But what they’ve been enjoying the most is hearing some of the stories behind sabrage: how it first started after the French Revolution, when Napoléon Bonaparte’s cavalry, whose weapon of choice was the saber, used the trick for celebratory bubbles on the go; and how it was encouraged by Madame Clicquot.
“She used to entertain Napoleon’s officers in her vineyard near Reims, and as they rode off in the early morning with their complimentary bottle of champagne, they would open it with their saber to impress the rich young widow.”
Conversely, plastic cities are now creating pockets of emptiness in different parts of the world.
Place brands that are stuck in the middle of these two dimensions (a.k.a. plastic places) are the ones that suffer the most. They are often rejected as trying to be something that they are not, and perceived to be artificially designed.
They are judged for not being able to distinguish between faking reality or realising a vision, and so have got stuck (and empty) in the middle.
Want to know where not to go?
Below are my top three un-destinations:
- Sanzhi Pod City, Taiwan
This UFO pod village named Sanzhi Pod City, is currently not inhabited by aliens or humans. The colourful UFO-shaped houses were planned as a seaside destination for holidaying American military staff posted in Asia.
However, the project was never completed due to investment losses and several car accident deaths and suicides during construction, which is said to have been caused by the inauspicious act of bisecting the Chinese dragon sculpture located near the resort gates for widening the road to the buildings. Other stories indicated that the site was the former burial ground for Dutch soldiers.
- Beihai, China
Locals call it “The City of the Dead” – a ghostly urban landscape with no residents to fill it. The city of Beihai has more than 100 empty, luxury villas built to cater to a new rising class of wealthy people whom, it was hoped, would invest in real estate and snap up the properties.
Beihai, however, is too far from important economic centres, like most amusement parks – yet, with little to amuse possible residents. Context creates cities and when designing cities from a vacuum it is of utmost importance to insert them into a context that makes relevant and appealing to the target audiences considering places like those.
- Naypyidaw, Myanmar
Myanmar’s new capital city may also be called the world’s emptiest capital. This artificially created city, designed as a tribute to the glory of the military junta (who have ruled the country formerly nown as Burma since WWII).
Than Shwe, then despotic ruler of Burma, believed himself to be a reincarnation of an old Burmese king (King Kyansittha of the 11th century), which explains a lot about his rule over the country. It also explains why the capital is named Naypyidaw, which can be translated into “Abode of Kings”.
Neither an open-air museum nor a real city with some references to the nation’s past, but an urban Frankenstein, tye real horror, however, is that instead of tackling its chronic poverty, the Myanmar government continues to pour money into their stillborn capital.
Getting the vision of a place right, is no easy task but some are doing it exceptionally well.
Local placemaking agency Hoyne has developed Place Visioning
According to Dan Johnson, partner at Hoyne Design, “Creating successful new places and destinations starts by asking, “What’s missing?”. Most locations have some kind of deficit. It could be a lack of retail, entertainment or affordable housing,” he says.
“In some instances, it could be a lack of something as abstract as character and soul. Crowbarring development into locations without addressing what residents, workers and other stakeholders really need is generally destined for failure.
“That’s why the most brilliant new places are a fusion of vision and empathy. Our work in Place Visioning is as much about listening, and observation as it about innovation,” he continues.
“In this quest for depicting surreal yet integral or real and authentic place brands, compelling without confusing is a challenge we must overcome to captivate hearts, minds and pockets.”