Hjortur Smarason:


Hjortur Smarason:

“Reputation of the city is essential”

Hjörtur Smárason, place branding expert, storytelling and communications strategist from Iceland based in Denmark, was invited to Armenia, to discover and offer insights for Gyumri specifically, within Branding Gyumri project initiated and implemented by Deem Communications, which is a contribution to the city’s development. Mr.  Smárason offered 3-day workshops in Gyumri to CSO’s, tourist agencies, media, businesses and students. The meetings were aimed to show how local businesses and organisations can use city branding as a tool for development. The training sessions were organized in cooperation with Gyumri Technological Center with the support of “Support to SME Development in Armenia” (SMEDA) project co-funded by the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and implemented by GIZ.


Interview: Karine Ghazaryan


Place branding is gaining more and more popularity worldwide. Why do you think cities need to be branded?

- It is quite simple: if you want to attract investments and new people, the reputation of the city is essential. For most of the history cities did not manage their reputation, it just  happened by itself. With the tools that city branding provides it is possible to deliberately built and direct a reputation. Once a city figures out how it wants to grow, it should communicate this vision in a way that attracts the right target groups, to inspire people by the idea. Therefore, people will be interested to invest in the city and to help it grow and develop.

The work to build a recognizable image of Gyumri has just begun. How do you think an ordinary local business person can utilize the brand, understand what benefits she or he can have or contribute?

-  I think very often the word “branding” confuses people. The term is relevant in advertising and marketing, but it’s important to understand that when it comes to place branding it’s not as much about external communication as it is about internal communication. People share a vision, they share an identity of who they are as a city or as a community, and where they’re heading to. It’s really not that complicated for a small business owner to think about how he wants his community to grow, and he is most certainly ready to support in one way or the other.

What do you think of Gyumri branding project?

- You usually need a strong logo and slogan to serve as icons for the communications. In this project, I’m very happy with the outcome. I see it’s quite well done. Still personally I don’t think logo is the most important component of place branding. Building a reputation is much more about communications, about PR campaign, which requires joint efforts of both marketing agencies and local governments. You need to make sure that the reputation and the expectations you build up match the experience of the city, and then promote and strengthen this image.  

On what basis should this image be created?

- There are no limitations here. Cities very often create their brand using a sign, like Paris with Eiffel Tower, or iconic architecture like Bilbao with Guggenheim Museum. Sometimes the brand is a concept, like in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. The latter promote themselves as environmentally friendly communities, and do that by using bicycles! Everyone these days knows that Amsterdam is a city of bikes. At the same time in Copenhagen, where I live, they took it to extreme: there are tilted trash cans across the city, so one can throw trash while passing by on a bike, without stopping. When you see such details, you understand that the goal is taken seriously, that they really mean it by saying “we are a bicycle city.” And place branding can actually be done through small nuances like that.

So it’s kind of an ongoing process?

- Absolutely. And unfortunately most place branding projects all over the world fail in the first years of existence, because advertising agencies create a brand without participation of the citizens. When foreigners come, their experience differs from what was promised in the ads. So I believe, advertising is not the best way to promote a brand, as no one owns or controls these brands. Places are communities; every part of a community is independent, and can do what they like – use the brand, or do not use the brand. That’s what makes place branding so much more complex. Therefore I think it’s obvious that a shared vision, a shared identity are crucial for the success of a city brand.

I know it’s your first time in Armenia. When you decided to come, what were your expectations?  

- I don’t really know Gyumri as a city, but interestingly I have been curious about Armenia for a very long time. It started when I was about 6 years old. I used to listen to strange German music, to a singer Nina Hagen. My favorite song “Born in Xixax” started with words “This is Radio Yerevan…” I wondered what is this Yerevan City like? I wanted to see the Armenian capital as well as the fascinating ancient culture. You have the world’s oldest church here, and that’s hugely interesting! I think this rich culture and the Diaspora are your strongest assets. A lot of people in different countries have touchpoints with the Armenian culture through the minorities. I’m not an exception: I once saw gravestones in a cemetery in Paris with strange alien signs engraved on them. They interested me, and I actually found out what it was: turned out to be Armenian alphabet.