Place branding, or how can the attraction of a place be enhanced? The case of South Limburg

Katja Sillen: “I am convinced that place branding is a completely different marketing field from product or service branding.”

“South Limburg still has the image of being a remote region in the Netherlands and I strongly disagree with that viewpoint,” says Katja Sillen. “I really want to contribute to improve that image.”

Sillen, 27, speaks openly about her attachment to her region. Born in Maastricht and living in the nearby town of Meerssen, the young PhD candidate at SBE has never really left South Limburg. “For my study abroad I went to Antwerp so as you can see I never went very far,” she says laughing.

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing at Maastricht University, Sillen is now conducting her PhD research in the field of relationship marketing applied to place branding. She decided to use the region of South Limburg as a case study.

“If I think that something is great, I really like showing it to other people,” she explains, “and that applies to South Limburg.”

“This is what I want to bring forward with my research study on place branding.”

Sillen points out that the concept of place branding is a relatively new and under-researched topic in the Netherlands. She decided to take it up after becoming convinced that it is a completely different marketing field from product or service branding.

“In the beginning I worked on relationship marketing and looked at the relationship people have with a particular brand or product. Then I extended my research to place branding. So instead of looking at the relationship people have with a brand, I started looking at the relationship people have with a specific place.”

“Now I really believe that besides product and service branding, there is also place branding,” Sillen says.

What is place marketing and how is it different from product and service marketing?

In place branding, the product to be analyzed is basically the entire geographical area under research, where many factors can influence the image.

Unlike in service branding where employees can be asked to follow certain rules to improve the image of a company, in place branding the employees are the very inhabitants of the area under research, who cannot be controlled. The only possible approach is to  try to influence them in a positive way so that they too contribute to giving a positive image of the region.

Promotional campaign for South Limburg in Dutch magazines: “Innovation is our second nature.”

Identification processes

Sillen carried out her first research project in the field of place branding in the south eastern town of Heerlen in 2010. This was done at the request of the Maastricht Region Branding Foundation, who supported her PhD.

In 2010, the town authorities noticed a positive balance of 12 people in the number of its inhabitants. This result meant that 12 more people had migrated into Heerlen than people had left and came as a surprise, because as Sillen explains, “the usual image people have of Heerlen is that everybody leaves the place.” The interesting question to ask at that point was: “Why this positive balance?”

In this first research project, Sillen looked more closely at the cases of people who had left Heerlen as well as the people who decided to move there.

From a marketing perspective, this process is called the post-dissolution phase and focuses on the way people still identify with a brand or place after breaking up with it and which factors come into play when they talk about it.

“It is interesting to uncover the underlying processes behind people’s actions and motivations, in order to find out how they can perhaps be influenced,” says Sillen.

Promotional campaign for South Limburg on Dutch national television

Adaptation strategies

Sillen has now started working on her second project in the framework of her PhD research, this time with the municipality of Maastricht. She has been asked to investigate how people experience their move to a new place, and more specifically how Dutch people from other regions experience their move to the city of Maastricht.

“I’m looking at various aspects such as identification with the previous city of residence, identification with the new city, what strategies newcomers adopt to feel at home in their new city and what consequences these strategies have in the way they talk about their new city in their former city,” Sillen explains.

“I ultimately want to find out how people can be motivated to feel enthusiastic about their new surroundings,” she adds.

An interesting aspect of Sillen’s research deals with the way Dutch newcomers experience the widespread use of dialect among the inhabitants of Maastricht and whether the dialect factor affects their integration.

“The strong use of dialect in Maastricht is the most noticeable difference at first sight between this area and other regions of the Netherlands and there are indications that sometimes newcomers feel left out or treated differently,” explains Sillens.

How to influence behaviours

“A lot of things are being said about South Limburg and some of them sound very valid while others seem to be based on nothing. The goal of my research try to uncover the underlying processes behind people’s perceptions and behaviour in order to at least try to explain them,” says Sillen.

Place branding is a complex field of study. “I get questions like: ‘Can you how many people have moved to South Limburg as a result of Maastricht Region Branding’s advertising campaign?’ but that’s simply impossible. I can make calculations, assumptions, but I cannot pinpoint to specific factors.”

“I don’t know what works,” she continues.”We do know however that people move to an area because it has a certain attraction. The question of interest to us from a marketing point of view is: how do we enhance this attraction?”

Maastricht Region Branding

Part of Sillen’s work in the framework of her PhD research consisted in measuring the performance of the various advertising campaigns carried out by the Maastricht Region Branding Foundation to improve the image of South Limburg in the rest of the country.

“I measured the data over and over again and observed a steady increase in the past four years in the Foundation’s four core categories: jobs, technology, housing and education,” says Sillen. “So it looks like something did happen in the past four years.”

Wadia Khabthani, Marketing Manager at Mosa Tiles in Maastricht, says he found a new work-life balance in South Limburg. His video portrait is part of the Maastricht Region Branding Foundation’s campaign to promote the high quality of life in South Limburg.

“In place branding,” she continues, “the best we can do is to provide people with “kapstokjes” as we say in Dutch, or “coathangers”. We try to create little drawers in people’s minds, so that whenever they are exposed to a piece of information about a specific place, in this case South Limburg, they have a little drawer to put it in.”

This approach is based on the observation that people are selective in the way they handle new information and tend to better absorb information they are familiar with.

“Our aim is not to make people highly enthusiastic about South Limburg but simply to help them associate the region with certain positive images,” Sillen explains.

In 2008, when asked to freely associate South Limburg with certain images, people only came up with two main words: cows and hills. Four years later, their answers are much more detailed and varied.

Does place branding work?

Sillen says she noticed the change in perception of South Limburg and the effect of place branding in her own environment too. “When I was studying most of my friends wanted to leave the region, to the Randstad or abroad, and I very often had to defend myself for choosing to stay here. Now my friends say they would like to stay but think they can’t, so there has already been a change.”

“In the end, I hope that my friends will see that they too can stay,” she smiles confidently.

By Sueli Brodin

Katja Sillen studied International Business at Maastricht University with a focus on Strategic Marketing. In October 2008 she started working for the marketing department at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE), first as a junior lecturer and since September 2009 as a PhD candidate.

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