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Pakistani cities need serious branding, and social media can help – Dr. Laeeq Khan


Dr. Laeeq Khan |

Brands are all around us. From consumer electronics to clothing, brands serve as the face of products and services. A brand may be viewed as a name, sign, symbol that gives meaning to goods and services, thereby differentiating them from competitors. The same can be true for cities, which too can be branded based on their location and unique traits.

In fact, realizing the value of branding, several cities around the world have already reinvented themselves. Burj Khalifa has raised the profile of Dubai as the city has the tallest building in the world. Even branding of the word ‘Dubai’ is attention-grabbing; having English letters weaved into Arabic letters reading Dubai.

On the human side, city branding is known to enhance the self-esteem of people living there and further energize the communities towards both social and economic development.

“I (Heart) New York” was a campaign created in the 1970s, and till today, the inscription of I love or heart New York is commonly visible on caps and t-shirts. Branding can also be reminiscent of promotional songs for tourism and such as “Malaysia, truly Asia”. Although a location is not fully defined by one logo or a building, yet the human mind attaches more significance to landmarks, images, sounds, and yes brands.

City branding has not only given a new life and meaning to these cities but also brought in tourist dollars and increased investment. On the human side, city branding is known to enhance the self-esteem of people living there and further energize the communities towards both social and economic development. Through branding when cities attract capital and talent, the resulting economic and social activity also has various positive externalities impacting the rural areas surrounding such branded cities.

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The focus of branding ought to be on distinctiveness and allure of the city. It is not about how expensive or tall the buildings are, it is about the unique character and the essence of the city.

Tourists are thirsty for uniqueness. The Guardian newspaper has a survey-based report on the world cities with the most powerful brands. The survey measured a city’s brand on two key aspects (1) its “assets”, which include its transport infrastructure, weather, safety, and prosperity, and (2) its “buzz”, a combination of social media mentions. While New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris are top 4 global cities in terms of asset and Buzz strength, Istanbul and Dubai are challengers not too far behind the top four.

If some cities are behind in terms of infrastructure, there is no reason why they can’t be ahead in terms of social media buzz that portrays them in a healthy manner. Amongst various issues, there are many positive things that all cities have to offer. Most importantly, it is not how the international media defines us, but how we present ourselves to others and to our own selves. City branding could, therefore, serve as the first step in fixing Pakistan’s image.

It will also shift unhealthy overemphasis on Lahore and Karachi only towards a more inclusive Pakistan. One, not two Pakistan is also the slogan of the ruling PTI.

Effective city branding or rebranding requires careful thinking and involvement of the people of that town or city. Involvement of local, provincial and the federal government is also required. Although there are several international benchmarks and examples of success, each city has its own character and local conditions. Just like products, branding cities requires a careful consideration of its logo, the color scheme, and the overall messaging.

All in all, it is about an effective marketing campaign that is communicated strategically. A case in point is that of the small alpine town of Wanaka, New Zealand. The town’s tourism authority back in 2015 started inviting social media influencers to the place to post about their experiences and adventures. This resulted in a major uptick in tourists visiting the town.

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The reasons for city branding have moved beyond simply attracting tourists and foreign investment. There is a renewed realization that competition amongst cities is global, such that cities need to position themselves as centers of knowledge, offering a conducive environment for businesses, and places where local culture and art thrive.

Competition is also not limited to big cities with shiny new buildings, but also smaller and lesser known locations with a unique set of offerings. Differentiation and right strategic visibility are the keys.

Pakistan’s Potential

Around 35 million of the 47.5 million Pakistanis who are online are social media users. Every Pakistani online has a responsibility towards the country and if given the right training and guidance can prove to be a brand ambassador who participates in creating the buzz around their branded cities.

There is no time for dwelling on the negativities, but rather concentrating on the many positives our cities can offer to the world, and to our own people within the country.

City branding can also lead to other unexpected benefits: It can motivate further positive action into cleaning and revamping Pakistani cities. It will also shift unhealthy overemphasis on Lahore and Karachi only towards a more inclusive Pakistan. One, not two Pakistan is also the slogan of the ruling PTI.

This is an area where this could be implemented. It is time to bridge the East-West divide in the country where Western regions of Pakistan (Quetta, Gwadar, Khuzdar, Peshawar, Mianwali, Chitral) have had lesser emphasis than needed. It is time to give equal importance to all cities.

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City branding is already a reality for various cities across the globe. Pakistan has the needed talent, resources, and the diverse cities that need branding for a much better image that they truly deserve. There is no time for dwelling on the negativities, but rather concentrating on the many positives our cities can offer to the world, and to our own people within the country.

Dr. Laeeq Khan is an assistant professor at School of Media Arts and Studies, and director at Social Media Analytics Research Team (SMART) Lab, Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.