Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Place branding and place marketing in Ontario’s upper-tier municipalities

Jose Rodriguez Alvarez / February 27, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: Place branding and place marketing in Ontario’s upper-tier municipalities

It is not strange for anyone to hear that today’s competition among places to attract resources (talent, businesses, visitors) is continuously rising due to globalization and neoliberal economic policies. It is a challenge for practitioners and economic developers to find new and innovative ways to stand out among the rest of the competition. Some places have the advantage of being able to provide a series of incentives (i.e. tax and legal incentives) to attract and retain the resources. Others  are subject to rules that prevent them from providing incentives in order to attract businesses. The latter situation  is why practices such as place branding and place marketing have experienced a boom in recent years. They attract people and businesses not through financial gain but by promoting positive aspects of a place.

Following these ideas, I developed my research to understand how these place branding and place marketing practices are being developed at the municipal level in Ontario. I decided to choose Ontario for its importance to Canada’s economy as the main industrial and immigration center of the country. Multiple studies have been conducted in the last year on this topic. However, these barely address the application and characteristics of these strategies and most of these studies have been developed in the lower-tier and single-tier municipality level of the province. This is why my research focused solely on upper-tier municipalities in order to identify unique elements on how they conduct place branding and marketing. For this purpose all the available marketing and branding plans from upper-tier municipalities were gathered and compared. Most of these plans were from mid-sized municipalities because few were found for municipalities with very small or very large populations (a phenomenon perhaps worth exploring by other researchers).

Setting the context

Before continuing, it is important to understand the complexity of Ontario’s political geography. The 2001 Ontario Municipal Act divided the province into different levels of government which includes upper-tier municipalities, lower-tier municipalities and single-tier municipalities. Each of these municipal levels has its own particular authorities, duties, and responsibilities. Upper-tier municipalities are formed by two or more lower-tier municipalities, and all the major municipal responsibilities such as roads administration and waste management, among others, are controlled by the upper-tier authorities. An example is the Region of Waterloo, which encompasses the Cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and a number of townships.  Single-tier municipalities do not depend on other levels of government for municipal activities. An example is the City of Hamilton. The 2001 Municipal Act not only established this complex division, but also settled limits on what municipalities can do to attract resources. These include assisting any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise, either directly or indirectly, through the granting of incentives.

Target audience

While comparing the strategic marketing plans of the upper-tier municipalities it was evident that the target audiences were mainly tourists and investors. Although these audiences were the main segments addressed, talent was sometimes included as a secondary audience. An example can be found in the Bruce County Business Attraction Strategy 2014 (p. 17) where they state that:

“tourism is a strategy to attract potential businesses and new residents to the community. It is a fact that many business owners first discover new locations for their companies as tourists. They are attracted to the small town atmosphere and to its authentic experiences. This is especially appealing to urban dwellers that want a different pace for themselves and their families. They see opportunities to expand their companies or to set up new enterprises”.


During my research I found that place branding and place marketing are part of a large collaborative system. A number of public, para-public and private organizations are involved in place branding and marketing in Ontario. These organizations include the Regional Tourism Organizations (RTO’s) and Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO’s) which do not duplicate work but collaborate with other local authorities and organizations to be more efficient.

Most of the plans included details about partners and stakeholders and their role in the plan. Typically, these groups served to enhance the ideas and identity and even served as a funding source, along with other regional, provincial and federal sources.


The research also had important findings on how plans are being developed. Unlike what most of us would think, these municipal place branding and marketing plans are not very different from one another. While each plan is tailored to a specific region, the way they build, spread and review results is very similar.

The most common communication channels included, especially for tourism attraction, were of course social media, which includes an important number of audio-visual content developed for marketing purposes (most of them videos). For business attraction, the word-to-mouth and direct contact with potential customers was prevalent, this word-to-mouth activities included trade shows events, business visits and partnerships with foreign direct investment and site selectors professionals.

What I conclude

Competition among different locations,  such as towns/cities, regions, and countries have made it necessary to develop strategic branding and marketing plans to compete and stand out from the rest. This study provided insight into place branding and place marketing in mid-size upper-tier municipalities in Ontario, in response to the lack of research developed for this particular municipal level.

The findings demonstrated that all of the cases analyzed followed a similar structure to develop their strategies. This includes similar audiences, collaborators, and communication channels. Research on this topic is still needed in order to provide a better understanding of the different variables that can affect place branding and place marketing results. For instance, the impact of different communication channels, the actual role of partners and stakeholders in the implementation and construction of the identity, and further branding and marketing efforts.


About the author

Jose David Rodriguez is a student at the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development graduate program. With a bachelor degree in International Relations with emphasis in International Economic, his research has focused on environmental issues, public marketing and diplomacy as effective tools for economic development. Originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, Jose found in University of Waterloo’s graduate program in what in his words he considers “the curriculum of his dreams”, providing theoretical and practical knowledge to real world context.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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