Wicked problems: when place branding doesn’t make a splash
20 Sep 2016

Wicked problems: when place branding doesn’t make a splash

20 Sep 2016

This a actually a footnote masquerading as a post. The article in which it’s referenced is on Clare Dewhirst’s very excellent City Nation Place conference web site:


“When place branding doesn’t make a splash: 4 failure factors”


Excerpted from “Place branding: a view at arm’s length” by Jeremy Hildreth in the Journal of Place Branding (2010).


It must be clear to anyone who has studied the field that place branding is easier said than done, and that there are dozens of complicating factors. There is, as has often been pointed out (Anholt, 2007), the exceedingly common error of using the word ‘brand’ to mean multiple distinct things, namely, of confusing the ‘brand’ that is a visual representation of an entity (‘brand identity’) with the ‘brand’ that is the collective perceptions of that entity in people’s minds (‘brand image’). Consultants need to be crystal clear in their usage of this word because too often one senses, from the way clients and others use their words, that they think by ‘working on’ their brand identity they’re necessarily having a direct effect on their brand image. This is, of course, far removed from the truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the nature of the place-branding problem itself. Place branding is what is known in social planning as a ‘wicked problem’. This concept was first named by Horst W.J. Rittel at the University of California, Berkeley in (Rittel et al, 1973), and brought to the author’s attention by Michael Dila, a consultant at Torch Partnership in Toronto.

Some of the attributes of a wicked problem are as follows:

1. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

2. The problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution begins.

3. A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways; the choice of explanation in turn determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

4. Wicked problems are often ‘solved’ (as well as they can be) through group efforts, with members of the group having different frames of reference and different value systems.

5. Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences, and may cause additional problems, all of which the planner will be held responsible for.

6. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but instead better, worse or good enough.

7. Wicked problems require inventive solutions; nothing off the peg or ‘tried and true’ is likely to work.

8. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustive set of potential solutions, and there is no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem (so you never know if you’ve found the best answer).

If one tries to solve a wicked problem in the linear way one would solve a tame problem (for example, a mathematical problem, which has a definite answer) – by defining the problem, articulating a solution and then implementing that solution – it doesn’t work. However, this is how most place-branding tenders and proposals and briefs are written, with project stages matching those activity areas and unfolding in an apparently irreversible sequence.

Indeed, the failure to identify place-branding problems as wicked is one of the chief barriers to development of this field, and perhaps the reason why there have been so few real successes.

To read the entire article – maybe one of my best – ping me an email at jeremy@jeremyhildreth.com and I’ll send you the PDF. If when you write, you kindly identify yourself and your interest in the subject, then I can possibly include comments or additional lagniappes in my reply.

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