People with a soft spot for pandas will probably be familiar with the Chinese city of Chengdu. Last year, its local government launched a high-profile campaign to attract more tourists, based on Chengdu’s unofficial status as the ‘panda capital of the world’.

The ‘Pambassadors’ campaign was a well-received tourism blitz that resulted in increased visitor numbers, but those of you less enamoured with cuddly bears may struggle to place Chengdu on a map. It is one of a plethora of Chinese “tier two” cities that are engaged in an increasingly competitive struggle for international tourism and investment dollars.

Chengdu’s leadership is well aware of this challenge, which is why it assembled 15 senior executives from its PR firm Ogilvy to a two-day meeting last month, to discuss how it can build a much stronger global brand. “There’s a lot at stake for all these cities,” says Ogilvy global public affairs MD Jamie Moeller. “Their growth is increasingly tied to FDI and inward investment, and they need to make sure they are relevant to the people making those kinds of decisions.”

Those decision-makers, adds Wolf Group CEO David Wolf, are “often located far from the region”. Couple that with the steady erosion of the financial incentives for investing in China, and it becomes easier to understand why less prominent cities are so keen to sell themselves to a global audience.

“Now, the cities have to sell themselves to executives overseas based on ‘soft’ factors like environment, lifestyle, and a friendly and receptive municipal government,” adds Wolf. “The need is even greater with tourism, and the timing is ideal. Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, and the coastal cities capture a disproportionate share of foreign tourists, yet we are now at the stage where travelers with some China experience are looking to get off the beaten path.”

Competitive pressure

Chengdu is hardly alone in its quest for global dollars. Coastal city Suzhou recently launched a big-budget one-minute ad in New York’s Times Square, touting the city’s tourism and business credentials amid the various consumer brands that dominate billboards in the area. And Chongqing, assisted by H+K Strategies, has made a substantial effort to court the US media in recent years. Others such as Wuhan, Shenyang and Nanjing are also making their own play for the branding bandwagon, as they seek to promote their charms versus the big three of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Neither should the domestic importance of these efforts be overlooked. Weber Shandwick China MD Darren Burns points out that it its “politically important” to demonstrate sustainable growth, given Beijing’s stated goal of “inclusive growth”, focusing on less developed regions in the West and South. And a cooling property market and export sector makes revenue diversification even more important.

“This means attracting new sources of investment in key sectors, stimulating local demand and boosting revenue from domestic tourism,” says Burns.

Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing are the three mainland Chinese cities that make the top ten of fDi’s ‘Asia-Pacific Cities of the Future’ ranking, which examines cities on a number of criteria related to their business potential. Seven Chinese cities (including Guangzhou, Kunshan and Suzhou) dominate the economic potential ranking, but Chengdu is not one of them. The city is, however, one of only two from mainland China to make the top ten for ‘FDI strategy’, suggesting that it has a better-developed sense of the importance of global promotion than most of its rivals.

That might be because some of the communication from Chinese cities, says Burns, consists of “atrociously produced TV spots on [global Chinese news network] CCTV9.”

“These actually turn people off the destination,” asserts Burns. “In addition poorly produced OOH posters with photo-shopped images, and unintentional spoof-like TV shorts and infomercials do themselves a great disservice.”

A "conceptual leap"

Wolf describes the fundamental challenge as a “conceptual leap”, for marketers that are more comfortable with domestic audiences, or the orientation required of “politically correct” international messages.

“Neither sensibility will create a successful location marketing campaign, either for executives or tourists,” explains Wolf. “These cities need to see themselves through foreign eyes, understand what they have that would capture the imagination of foreigner, and build campaigns on that basis.”

To do, he adds, “they will need help.” Which is where, presumably, Ogilvy PR’s work for Chengdu comes in. Chengdu press office director Xiong Yan points out that the December meeting with Ogilvy PR’s leadership team “helped to broaden our view and understanding of global communications.” That will prove important as it attempts to differentiate its assets against those of rival cities, to an audience that may be less than aware of the exact distinction between Shenyang and Shenzhen.

Accordingly, the first stage - says Ogilvy PR China CEO Scott Kronick - lies in avoiding the trap of trying to target too many people. “People come to us with briefs where they want to cover off the whole world - but they really need to do some due diligence as to who they are targeting.”

Chengdu has instead identified 10 key regions that it wants to influence, including the US, UK, EU, France and several Asian markets. “The competition for mindshare is pretty fierce,” admits Moeller. “It’s about identifying the differentiating attributes of that city.”

In Chengdu’s case, that means playing up its technological prowess while also pushing softer factors such as its cuisine and, you guessed it, those pandas again. Is this enough, though, to sway an audience that will be hearing similarly styled messages from Chengdu’s competitors, and which will also have its own preconceptions about China in general?

“They will all trumpet the business environment,” says Moeller. “Particularly in the US, it’s always a challenge, because the US market tends to be much more insular. The story everybody thinks of China in the US is cheap labour, and that’s not the story of Chengdu.”

The Chengdu campaign

Moeller believes that the campaign must combine public relations with social media and advertising, and consist of ideas that are localised for the target market in question. In the US, for example, this will consist of educating people of Chengdu’s specific benefits, and building on the existing image of China as a rising economic and global power. Ambassadors are also likely to be deployed, which will help the effort to portray the city through foreign eyes.

“The strategy I would use would be built around testimonials and recommendations by other foreigners who live in the city or who have visited and had a great time, who explain in their own words what they found appealing in the city and why they would go back,” says Wolf.

The political side of the equation should also not be forgotten. The spectre of a rising China, admits Moeller, can play positively and negatively in the “highly-charged” US environment, particularly in an election year. Hence Chengdu’s decision to assemble some of Ogilvy’s government relations specialists, including DC veteran Moeller himself, at last month’s powwow.

“Any of these decisions have a policy and political component,” he says. “And frankly all of the work we do between China and the US and Europe is public affairs-oriented.”

It should come as little surprise that agencies both inside and outside China are viewing these efforts with plenty of interest. A Times Square ad does not come cheap, neither does a multi-market PR campaign, suggesting that the budgets in play are substantial, even if a more pressing challenge remains.

“Government agencies in lower-tier cities still have a limited understanding of what PR offers, the many different facets surrounding communication, as well as how the industry operates as a business,” points out H+K Strategies regional offices GM Sam Xiang.

It will take plenty of work for Chengdu to achieve the FDI appeal of Hong Kong or Singapore, and more than pandas to compete for tourism dollars with Bangkok and Shanghai. But if it is serious about deploying the best advice it can get, it would take a brave person to write the Chinese city off.