PhD graduate helping cities create a positive identity

PhD graduate helping cities create a positive identity

Research explores how a place branding can influence residents’ quality of life

When we think of the concept of brand, we think of corporate companies and products: clothes and cars, food and football teams.

But University of Wollongong PhD graduate Jessica Oliver says it’s time we start considering brand in the context of a place.

Jessica, who celebrated her graduation during this morning’s (Wednesday 14 December) ceremonies, has spent the past four years exploring how we perceive cities and towns, and how that perception in turn shapes the quality of life of that location’s residents.

It’s a fascinating subject, one that Jessica said grew out of her desire to channel her love of marketing into a force for social change.

“It’s a way of using marketing for good, not evil,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s about making people’s lives better and looking at ways we can do that through the place where they live, whether that‘s improving the local economy, providing better services, or changing their perceptions.”

In a corporate environment, a marketing team is responsible for overseeing the brand and is able to change its reputation in the marketplace using strategic campaigns and advertising.

However, a place is subject to the concerns, challenges, quibbles and experiences – for better or worse – of its residents, which impacts how it is viewed and, essentially, marketed to both those who live there and visitors.

“Consider the perceptions we have of London, Sydney, or Tokyo,” said Jessica, who was based in UOW’s School of Management, Operations and Marketing under PhD supervisors Associate Professor Rodney J Clarke and Dr Greg Kerr.

“The identity and essence of a place is created, shared and contested by its residents, not a marketing manager. They are the most important stakeholders.”

As part of her PhD, Jessica, who also completed a Masters at UOW on place branding in 2012, developed a methodology to uncover place identities, or how people view their hometown.

She worked with Wollongong residents to explore how they perceived their lives in the steel city.

It was an interesting experience for Jessica, who was surprised by the ways in which factors such as word of mouth and the media influenced residents’ experiences of Wollongong.

“As one part of my PhD I looked at the inconsistency between memory and reality by filming residents as they walked through Wollongong. Some people would say, ‘Oh this area is dangerous, I’ve heard you shouldn’t go down this street or neighbourhood’, but then filming their real-time experiences, often they found it was safe and their perception didn’t match the reality.”

Jessica is passionate about this area of research; she loves to hear residents’ stories and unravel their connection to their home.

“People are so interesting,” she said. “I love hearing about where they’ve grown up, why they love their city, their experiences within the city. I found that a lot of residents had a very strong affinity to Wollongong, even though they were happy to point to its drawbacks and faults.

“My research gave a voice to residents so they were able to emphasise the positive elements of their city, which can be communicated and developed, but the negative elements can also be identified and addressed to improve their quality of life.”

Jessica said her PhD could be used by cities throughout the world to create brand strategies that resonate with residents, and will therefore be championed by them, to create a sense of town pride and draw tourists, investors and business to the area.

In particular, she would love to work with rural towns in Australia, many of which are coping with an exodus of young workers who have left in search of better opportunities.

“A lot of these regional and rural towns have problems with industries closing down or a young workforce leaving to find jobs. But there is so much in these towns. There are grey nomads travelling around Australia, and other tourist groups, who would be happy to go out of their way to visit these towns if they knew about them or they had more to offer.

“I want to help these towns move towards a new future and identity, and show that they have a lot to offer.”

Photo: PhD graduate Jessica Oliver. Credit: Matt Estherby