City Branding Trends and Sustainability Priorities: Q&A with Florian Kaefer, The Place Brand Observer

Florian Kaefer from The Place Brand Observer answered our questions on city branding trends and sustainability priorities.


What are the links between city branding and urban sustainability?

Strategically well-thought-out place branding always contributes to the sustainable development of a location, for example by increasing or ensuring its actual and perceived attractiveness, thereby attracting skilled workers and investors (economic sustainability). This in turn provides tax revenues and enables new investments in infrastructure and community services (feeding into social and environmental sustainability).

Climate resilience and proper environmental management are – or should be – part of smart place branding anyway because they guarantee the future competitiveness of a city or region. Especially since many regions and cities are (or want to be) tourist destinations, from which travellers rightly expect to be clean, safe and “soft” regarding tourism impact, that is, oriented in such a way that locals benefit from tourism and do not suffer from tourist activities.

In short, city branding done well guarantees the long-term reputation of the city as business location and destination. This reputation comes from the visitors’ experience in the destination. If the destination does not take care of sustainability, for instance ensuring that nature is protected, cultural diversity celebrated and businesses run well, then it will not be able to maintain a positive reputation or strong market position.


What trends to watch out for?

In terms of key priorities and trends to watch this year, the TPBO panel of place experts recently made some interesting suggestions. How to navigate the post-pandemic world is naturally on top of the priority list in 2022 for cities and regions. But there are also a few other topics to focus on:

Crisis communication & Re-establishing trust

First off, governments are still trying to monitor and contain the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. Digital media has been a great platform to disseminate health advisories, as well as a battlefield to tackle misinformation.

In this regard, Sebastian Zenker of Copenhagen Business School feels improving the trust in government is crucial to sail through critical times like these. It is important for citizens to have faith in the government and the latter should make efforts to improve its image among its people. This applies as much to national governments as it does to urban authorities.

Fostering a feeling of community and togetherness among those for and against vaccination, for instance, is part of this and will be essential for generating this feeling of being welcome, on which attractive locations thrive.

Redefining mobility

Cecilia Cassinger of Lund University in Sweden feels that there is renewed attention to local surroundings and alternative modes of transportation. In the past two years, we have been brutally reminded of the vulnerability of human life and nature, which has led to a rediscovery and revaluing of the natural environment, also by those who have not previously been concerned about these issues.

Since tourism and transportation are carbon-intensive by nature, we can expect a more flexible approach to mobility and tourism, something city developers and managers need to be aware of and adjust to. As city marketers and brand managers we should support this development and encourage sustainable behaviour, and perhaps try and attract visitors, businesses and skilled workers from within the region or country, rather than from far and away.

Public spaces

Also linked to social and environmental sustainability is the re-emergence of public spaces. Living in confined spaces for long periods of time and physical distancing measures have brought the topic of public spaces into prominence.

As Hila Oren of the Tel Aviv Foundation mentioned on the panel, “Every city around the world is redefining what its public spaces provide to the community.”

Public spaces are the current buzzword. They are now becoming an extension of our schools, living rooms, and offices.

Cities shift their attention to the quality of our shared spaces, and so does the branding. A city with well-developed, inviting public spaces is going to appear more attractive to travellers who are finally visiting a place after months of isolation, and skilled talent looking for a new home in a different corner of the planet.

Linked to the above point, this new mood has also given rise to a renewed sense of bonding among people (social sustainability), and this has to be recognized.

Demonstrating sustainability leadership

More and more people are aware of their ecological footprint. This has led to an increase in demand for more eco-friendly travel, for instance. Cecilia Cassinger predicts that place branding in a post-pandemic world will have to demonstrate leadership and relevance for tackling challenges of sustainable tourism and local community life in relation to global health, safety, and climate change.

Indeed, the sustainable development of tourism is a win-win for everybody involved. Owners of small travel establishments like hotels, restaurants, and travel services who suffered losses can benefit after the long pandemic-induced pause in travel. And this will be a defining element for places that are looking for tourism revenue in the post-pandemic travel future.

Natasha Grand of the Institute for Identity INSTID in the U.K. on the panel also pointed out how the conversation increasingly revolves around sustainability. She further adds that it’s merely a new (though important) agenda on the ‘we are good and acceptable’ place credentials list.

Places need to bank on this sentiment to gain positive attention from prospective travellers. The time is ripe to invest and gradually transform into a sustainable tourism industry.

Catering to remote workers

Another trend that saw a rise was countries offering both long-term and short-term visas to digital nomads to boost spending in local businesses, to spur the economy. Small(er) places trying to attract office employees working from home would be an interesting trend to watch out for. Motivating remote employees to step out of the confines of their homes and work from a scenic location would not only boost the visitor economy but also their enthusiasm to work.


What pitfalls to avoid?

There are indeed many pitfalls to avoid along the city branding journey. Success rates can certainly be improved by being aware of – and preparing for – the most common obstacles, which tend to be similar no matter the size of location. Reflecting on their own experience and observations, the TPBO panel highlighted the following root causes for failure: challenges which might prevent place branding from succeeding in the mid- to long-term:

  • Lack of understanding and knowledge about place branding
  • Political instability and lack of governance
  • Lack of long-term strategy and appropriate governance
  • Lack of adequate funding
  • Lack of stakeholder engagement
  • Non-representativeness of city brand


ECM members and followers will find a more in-depth discussion of those challenges, as well as the keys to place branding success, in the professional handbook An Insider’s Guide to Place Branding – Shaping the Identity and Reputation of Cities, Regions and Countries.

The book was published last summer by Springer International and includes around sixty interviews with place brand makers and shapers around the world, as well as an introduction to place branding.

And of course offers hundreds of free access insights, how-to guides and good practice examples from around the world.


Florian Kaefer, PhD founded and manages The Place Brand Observer (, an online magazine and consultancy focused on city brand development, management and brand storytelling.

Over the past eight years, Florian and his team have interviewed over 260 place brand makers and shapers, many of whom are now part of the TPBO panel that meets every few months to discuss current issues and trends. Collected insights are available on

Florian is a podcast host (Place Brand Leaders) and the author of An Insider’s Guide to Place Branding: Shaping the Identity and Reputation of Cities, Regions and Countries. Published by Springer in 2021, the book is part of the publisher’s Management for Professionals series.

Dr. Kaefer earned his doctorate in management communication from Waikato University Management School in New Zealand. He holds a master’s degree in sustainable development (Exeter University, UK) and a bachelor’s degree in tourism management (Brighton University, UK).

Florian grew up in southwestern Germany and currently lives near Zurich, Switzerland.