For the love of Place

For the second episode of the Adapt Inc. Places Podcast I managed to speak to Martin Boisen from For the Love of Place. Martin is a Danish geographer with a MSc. degree (cum laude) from Utrecht University He lives and works from the heart of the beautiful city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Martin is a leading advisor, a respected academic and a passionate speaker. Marting is also the vice chairman of The International Place Branding Association who put on an annual conference where key issues in the field get discussed.

Conceptual clarity Our discussion with Martin centred around a key paper he co-authored that has helped the discipline move away to a stage where we can distinguish between:

  • Place promotion

  • Place Marketing

  • Place Branding

The paper titled Reframing place promotion, place marketing, and place branding - moving beyond conceptual confusion handles key issues that we discuss with Marting at length. After spending two hours in conversation I had to edit our conversation into two parts. In the first part we talk about Martin’s approach to distinguishing between the concepts before the practical discussion in Part 2 about how this conceptual clarity affects practice. Some of the key discussions in this first part include the status quo of perceived challenge of inter-urban competition: “...There are lot of basic assumptions that cities are competing for citizens and so forth. I always ask what information, those assumptions are grounded or founded on. And a lot of times, those are untested assumptions. So that does not mean that those assumptions are wrong per se. It just means that we have no idea to what extent there is actual competition. This can lead to envisioning grand strategies and spending a lot of taxpayers money.”

Part 2 will be released soon and will cover how the conceptual distinction between place promotion, place marketing and place branding can help us think about what is (non)essential practical activity. Given the unprecedented opportunity we have had with the global pandemic to see which human activity may be deemed essential we have a unique opportunity to have a realistic discussion about which place related activities are essential and which ones may not be a good way of spending (often) public money. 

Thanks to the for organising the interview with Martin.

About the Adapt Inc. Places Podcast

The Adapt Inc. Places podcast helps me reach out to others interested in my area of PhD research. I am interested in understanding how people make place related decisions. I am also a digital user experience (UX) researcher in my day job. Merging the worlds of digital UX with the physical of place sounds like an exciting area to explore. Given how much online presence places have – I am quite interested in championing the UX of places and reaching those that want to go on a digital transformation journey.

In this first episode of the Adapt Inc. Places Podcast Gunter Soydanbay a brand strategist with a keen interest in place branding talks about some simple tools that you can apply in order to communicate clearly during times of crisis. My passion for simple tools (or heuristics) meant that I was listening intently and already applied some of his insights in my work. Günter is an insight-filled brand strategist with significant experience in working with big brands, complex stakeholder organizations, and places. You can get in touch with him by visiting

Place Branding

We discussed Gunter’s experience in place branding and got to clarify some of our definitions before delving into his prescription of how to communicate as a place brand in a time of crisis:

"One might say that business to business branding is similar, and I would concur with that. And what makes it particularly different with places is that when you're working with any type of traditional brands you have to work outside in. So you look out in the market, you identify your target, you identify the needs the ones, you look at the competition, and you create your own niche based on what you observe out there. With places you cannot do that, because the place already exists, you have minimal control over the place. There are only the perceptions about the place. So you have to work inside out.”

Complexity and Lack of Control

I asked Gunter about his understanding of complexity and what this means for place brand management. How can we manage a place brand given the complexity and now the crisis situation imposed by Covid-19:

“Well, at the granular level, we can say that the metaphor [of a flock of birds] represents the key stakeholders. When you're working with a, with a place you have to deal with so many stakeholders, everybody has a different vision for the city for the region for the country. So in that sense... none of them is completely in charge, they just hold a piece of the power, and they all have to fly together in order not to crash into each other. And at the more macro level, it is actually the place itself, you know, with its inhabitants, hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people, because at the end of the day, the perceptions that we have of place is partial”

Psychological Concepts to be Aware of when Communicating in a Time of Crisis

Our discussions about place and complexity helped set up the discussion but they did not make it into the final edit of the podcast. I wanted to keep the podcast action oriented - focusing on how to communicate in a time of crisis. Here is a brief overview

Gunter talked about how change can’t always be managed in the traditional ways – sometimes we deal with crisis situations. Crisis situations require that place managers are aware of 4 concepts from psychology: 

_mental noise - When we are stressed, anxious, panicked or afraid, our ability to process information goes down significantly.

_risk perception - Crisis communications have to deal with a paradox: the risks that kill or harm people and the dangers that alarm and upset people are often very different. The real threat and the perceived risk are virtually unrelated.

_Trustworthiness - In the absence of trust, no communication objective can be achieved. Determination of trust takes place in the unconscious mind.

_Systematic error (bias) - we are all have a deviation away from traditionally understood rationality that under stress may be even more pronounced

I was curious to learn from Gunter’s background in psychology as I am a marketer by training and only in my PhD am delving deeper into evolutionary psychology and some of it’s applications in behavioural economics and decision-making. As I have been reflecting on heuristics as adaptive strategies rather than fallible replacement for full rationality I wanted to probe how Gunter sees their relationship with cognitive biases. After all the point of our discussion was for him to give us rules of thumb or heuristics to help communicate in a time of crisis but at the same time he acknowledged the fundamental nature of our minds always having some inbuilt systematic errors (or bias):

“I guess the deep fundamental thing about the idea of nudging is it doesn't work on everybody, right? It just makes marginal improvements. on on certain things. Let's say that you can reduce like late payments by 12% If nudging can help you with that, then by all means use it but it doesn't make the problem disappear. That itself tells you that there is no one knowledge that solves everything, there is no one cognitive bias, which you can identify that can solve the entire problem.”

The Crisis Communication Tools:

The psychological concepts discussed earlier in the conversation led us to discuss 4 communications tools that work in time of crisis:

_Average Grade Level Minus 4 - Due to mental noise, messages should be greatly simplified. A good guide recommends aiming at the average grade level of the intended audience, minus four.

_3 Positives for Each Negative - positive here was discussed as meaning constructive rather than positive in clearly uneasy times

_Rule of 3 Messages - Again, due to mental noise, in high-stress situations, we can process fewer messages than we usually could. Consequently, you should limit yourself to having three key messages.

_9 Words in 3 Seconds - Finally, messages should be concise and precise. It is recommended that each of the three key messages should be organized into sound bites containing a maximum of 9 words that can be spoken in three seconds.

Here is a website recommended by Gunter with some of the academics he follows recommending how to communicate in a time of crisis:

I am ever more disheartened by the narrow path that formal logic and its digital reincarnation – algorithms are enforcing on our otherwise wonderfully complex and uncertain reality.

The latest moves by organisations who wield power in the digital “domain” are trying to shift their product to offline places. Are there Algorithms we can live by? Algorithms can be used as an analogy to look back at our world through the lens of the digital. However, by doing so we put algorithms in the place of reality’s original – heuristics. While an algorithm often implies an optimal solution that can be achieved they are often only suitable to small worlds, like the ones of digital websites. On the other hand heuristics are simple rules of thumb that do not guarantee optimal outcomes but are good enough. Heuristics have got themselves a bad reputation as research has often focused on the bias that can occur when we rely on them. I will argue that formal logic and algorithms are biased from the get go - they assume reality is better perceived if reduced rather than conceptually abstracted. These are two different approaches that I only recently started pondering about. Conceptual abstraction means that there is some reduction, necessary for us to make a decision but reductionism goes that one step further to ignore that the abstraction removed some detail in the first place.

Techno utopians are great at formal logic, but formal logic is reductionist and does not account fro the many other ways people can engage with the world we inhabit. Let us not forget that when the next wave of algorithms that will solve our urban crises start being sold to the decision-makers who want to be hip and give up the torment of uncertainty for the comfort of pretend certainty.

Some references:

Gigerenzer, G. & Brighton, H. (2009), "Homo heuristicus: why biased minds make better inferences", Topics in cognitive science, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 107-143.

Gigerenzer, G., & Todd, P. M. (1999). Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press, USA.

Simon, H. (1987), "Models of Bounded Rationality: Empirically Grounded Economic Reason", Journal of Macroeconomics, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 425.