Cittaslow in the Netherlands - Raising Brand AwarenessResearch abstract
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“It is not enough to challenge the old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change only happens when you replace one story with another.”
George Monbiot (2017)
The sense of urgency
More than 250 cities in 30 countries and territorial areas have made a conscious choice, namely, to become an accredited Cittaslow and join the Association Cittaslow-Rete Internazionale delle città del buon vivere, the international network of cities “where living is good” (Association Cittaslow, October 2018). Ten of these Cittaslows are in the Netherlands. They have pledged to establish quality of life for residents and visitors: preserving valuable landscapes and biodiversity; maintaining traditions and protecting the uniqueness of individual cities in times of globalisation and homogenisation; cultivating hospitality and social cohesion; providing inspiration for a healthier lifestyle; innovating to achieve sustainability.
The aim of my research project was not to examine whether and in how far the Cittaslow movement is an effective one in coping with the problems mentioned above. Whilst the jury is out, I assume that, as there is an urgent need to handle this finite planet and its (human and non-human) residents with far more care than is currently the case, any attempt, certainly one at municipality level, is a valuable one. Brand awareness of the Cittaslow movement in the Netherlands, however, is very low, and the ten Cittaslow accredited municipalities in the Netherlands are hardly known as Cittaslows and what they stand for.
Supporters “support the Cittaslow values in their own municipality. In carrying out all their work they actively visualise that they adhere to and apply these values as a matter of course” (Cittaslow Netherlands 2019). The majority of Dutch Cittaslows work with Supporters, of which there are 333 (April 2018).
Working with Supporters – within the Cittaslow movement a unique phenomenon – seems a sensible approach. Only resilient and thriving communities are capable of guarding natural and cultural heritage and of working towards a competitive identity. This in turn requires investment in stakeholder engagement.
Analysis of 300 Supporters’ websites revealed that the majority of the Supporters do not mention their status of Supporter and thus do not assist in creating brand awareness, at least not via their websites. This finding elicited curiosity into the perceived value of the status of Supporter and the collaborative alliance with the municipality. Subsequent questions included: what opportunities are there to leverage the role of the Supporters in raising brand awareness, and what can be learned from this case as to stakeholder engagement and management in general?
My research project evolved into a journey of discovery – figuratively, as it was a highly explorative and iterative process; and literally, with visits to Cittaslows in the Netherlands and abroad.
A wealth of information and impressions was gathered through a multi-method approach, concurrent data collection and analysis, and the use of an exploratory model. Methods included fieldwork observations, website analysis, interviews with mayors and policy advisors of Cittaslow municipalities, interviews with passers-by (residents and visitors of Cittaslow), and questionnaires sent to and conversations held with Supporters.
Supporters express disappointment about aspects of the collaborative alliance; a reason for not communicating about it. This is regrettable, for they also express what in collaboration theory is called ‘linked interests’, that is, they do adhere to Cittaslow values, even have a sense of urgency, and are motivated to support the municipality in establishing quality of life and sustainability.
The Cittaslow movement encourages members and stakeholders to meet and learn from each other, and this is what Dutch municipalities facilitate too. The wish of the Supporters, though, is for visibility and for change-oriented and purposeful collaboration with the municipalities and with other Supporters (provided they have matching value frames), resulting in specific outcomes. These wishes are some of the aspects of what Austin and Seitanidi (2012b) call “partnership compatibility” and “partnership implementation” which make stakeholder engagement and management such a multi-layered phenomenon, and which municipalities need to address.
Design: possible solutions and recommendations
‘How to leverage the role of the Supporters?’
Strategic narratives and storytelling are some of the solutions offered. Incorporating the art and science of storytelling in their strategy and communications will assist Cittaslow municipalities in translating Cittaslow values into meaningful and memorable (service) experiences; aligning Supporters and engaging them in purposeful partnerships aimed at implementing the values; achieving integration, consistency and coherence by turning the Cittaslow story into a shared story. Tools offered include the concept of a story tree, narrative techniques, toolkits aimed at enhancing visibility and communication, and best practice examples.
Abstract of the thesis written for the
Executive International Master of Science in Corporate Communication
Corporate Communication Centre
Rotterdam School of Management
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Anholt, S. (2007) Competitive identity: The new brand management for nations, cities and regions. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Anholt, S. (2010) Places: identity, image and reputation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Austin, J.A. and M.M. Seitanidi (2012a) ‘Collaborative value creation: A review of partnering between nonprofits and business: Part 1. Value creation spectrum and collaboration stages’, Nonprofit and voluntary sector quarterly 41(5): 726-758.
Austin, J.A. and M.M. Seitanidi (2012b) ‘Collaborative value creation: A Review of partnering between nonprofits and business: Part 2. Partnership processes and outcomes’, Nonprofit and voluntary sector quarterly 41(6): 929-968.
Monbiot, G. (2017) ‘How do we get out of this mess?’, The Guardian. Accessed 1 February 2018 on https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess.