Photo courtesy of Go Vilnius

By Darius Udrys

Vilnius is a charming, not-so-small European capital (population: c. 680,000) with a burgeoning tech economy and a UNESCO-listed Old Town nestled among the green fields and woodlands of Lithuania. As I sometimes like to joke when returning from points west through Poland, where the road to the Lithuanian border takes one through dense primeval forests: “Trust me, there is a country back here.”

Not that many people know this. For decades, Lithuania was literally not on the map. Though the U.S. policy of not recognizing the annexation of the Baltic countries by the USSR was significant in policy circles, the country rarely showed up on conventional maps—until 1990, that is, when Lithuania’s independence was reestablished. Growing up as a Lithuanian-American in the United States, I remember having to work pretty hard to convince classmates that there is, in fact, such a country: “Trust me, it’s just not on the map.”

Even today, simple name recognition remains a challenge for Lithuania as well as its capital, Vilnius. And, in addition to all the ordinary issues that make place branding a challenge, the city and the country both have an additional disadvantage to overcome. Various stereotypes associated with East European-ness (not many of them flattering) are still the first thing many people think of even if they know the place names “Vilnius” and “Lithuania.” Thankfully, most of these old stereotypes do not apply, as anyone who has visited will attest.

And yet, our own feelings about our recent past and associated stereotypes, and our desire to shape an appealing contemporary identity of which we can be proud still too often lead us to glom onto nationalist tropes more suited to self-affirmation than communication with a broader, global audience. Tourists and businesspeople may find it interesting that Lithuania was the largest state in Europe five centuries ago, but this isn’t likely to inspire them in the way it inspires many of us. Yet this factoid still features prominently in presentations to foreign audiences, often at the cost of things that might be more relevant and appealing. As we know, one of the most important tasks when it comes to successful branding and marketing is to make sure you are communicating with your target audience about things that matter to them.

Fleeing “Eastern-European-ness” in its own way, Lithuania’s Baltic counterpart, Estonia, tries to brand itself as something of a cousin to our Nordic neighbors across the Baltic Sea. For Estonians, who share cultural and linguistic similarities with the Finns, this is perhaps not as much of a stretch as it is when some Lithuanian nation-branders suggest we hop on the bandwagon and rebrand Lithuania as “Nordic” too. This is understandable as a “quick fix” to a marketing problem (“Made in Lithuania,” alas, is not yet a major selling point, so some of our exports are successfully repackaged as “Made in Norway”). But, while Nordic values and culture certainly have much to recommend them and Nordic cooperation has been a boon for us, it is simply not plausible to pitch Lithuania as “Nordic” in any real or meaningful sense of the term. Nor is place branding primarily about labeling. It’s much deeper than a label or logo. It is about our core values and how we communicate them.

So what are the values of Vilnius?

It took the informal volunteer advisory group “Brand for Vilnius,” a group I was asked by Mayor Remigijus Šimašius to lead, about a year to develop, define, and refine the answer. We invited our city’s top marketing specialists as well as expatriates who have made a home for themselves here to a series of deliberations on these questions. This diverse group included Vilnians with communications experience and expertise; government, business, and civil society leaders; tourism and business development experts; and other interested parties. Bringing relevant stakeholders and interested parties into the process from the outset proved key to the necessary insights and buy-in for the direction we would take. Luckily, we already had a detailed analysis in hand that was commissioned by the previous mayor, Artūras Zuokas (of viral car-crushing video fame1), and identified many of the characteristics of Vilnius that both residents and visitors value. Luckily, both mayors understood the importance of place branding to the success of the city, and so, importantly, work on developing the city’s brand is continuing in a consistent and coherent way.

Those Vilnius Values, reduced to five, were defined as follows:

fast and open (especially when it comes to starting and doing business, FinTech licensing, getting online and connected, and navigating what is an extremely compact capital city where travel takes minutes, not hours; openness also encompasses our traditions of tolerance and multicultural heritage that we aim to cultivate),

green and clean (nearly half of the city is green space, with clean air and water, and you’re never more than a few steps from nature),

livable and lovable (a cozy, safe, and affordable city that is ninth in the world for work-life balance, according to Business Insider), where:

old is new (our Old Town is alive and buzzing with locals and visitors alike), and:

a little bit quirky (that’s shorthand for our particular, not to say peculiar, artistic sensibility and general outlook on things that makes our city so captivating and charming).

After additional study, we now know that among those who have heard of Vilnius, our artistic and cultural offerings are major attractions, and not just for tourists. Talent and business also want to be in a city that is more than just an economy. As Aristotle once wrote, “The city comes into existence for the sake of life, but it continues to exist for the sake of the good life.”

So what is that “good life?” It is more than economics and is highly dependent on culture—much like the “added value” we expect our businesses to increasingly create. A recent KPMG report on magnet cities indicates that the key demographic a city must attract to be viable—so-called “young value creators”—expect the city to reflect their concerns about sustainability and the environment, offer diverse opportunities for physical fitness and outdoor pursuits, and artisanal food, drinks, and cocktails, as well as strong neighborhood and civic networks. We also know they use multiple electronic devices simultaneously, so a fast and resilient IT infrastructure is important. Luckily, we can honestly say Vilnius scores well on almost all of these measures, with civic and neighborhood networks needing the most work.

Experiences and the good emotions they generate are key to our strategy as we move forward with branding Vilnius and promoting business, tourism, and talent attraction. It’s not just tourists who are looking for good emotions and memorable experiences. Business leaders whose companies are locating and expanding offices in Vilnius tell us that, while a competitive business and regulatory environment is important, it is hardly sufficient to attract the kind of business and talent they want. Business and talent need to feel welcome and taken care of. Who doesn’t want to feel they belong? And, at the end of the day, like anyone else, they are looking for a place with a vibrant cultural scene where an evening out is a pleasant experience.

Experiences are key. We want people not only to come see Vilnius (and then cross it off their list), but to really experience and feel it, to fall in love with it in a way that will keep them coming back. And love is usually not about facts or arguments. Facts are dry, technical things, and it’s rarely the case that someone can be persuaded by argument to fall in love. As a result, we use facts and arguments secondarily, sparingly, and only to support our values and the emotions we hope Vilnius inspires. Values come first. Because values are what really communicate who we are and what makes us attractive. Now, this does not mean embellishment or exaggeration, neither of which is a winning long-term strategy. Of course, we highlight the best our city has to offer, but the rule at Go Vilnius—the agency I lead—is that no one, having seen and acted on an invitation from us, should feel misled after arriving here.

Marketing hyperbole is old hat anyway, and not even very effective any more. We are down-to-earth, realistic, and sincere in our communication about our values and what they mean to those of us already here or who have already had a taste of them. With rare exceptions, almost no place is the “greatest” anything (okay, our public Wi-Fi really is the fastest in the world) and it’s not our goal to persuade others that Vilnius will make all their dreams come true.No place is everything to everybody, and no place is without flaws. Especially in today’s media-saturated world, the people we want to attract are too sophisticated for exaggerated claims and hyperbole. We focus on identifying and reaching those who already like or will probably like what we are or are fast becoming. And we warmly invite them to come experience the Vilnius we know and love. As the famous quip goes: “For those who love this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will love.”

And love it we do. According to a recent Eurostat survey, 98 percent of Vilnians are satisfied with life in Vilnius. This in itself is good advertising for the city. We maintain that frame as we promote Vilnius, talking about what it is that makes it so livable and lovable in our own eyes. In short: a “pull” rather than a “push” strategy. From what we hear, visitors are not disappointed and interest in Vilnius is growing.

Of course, we must do our best to deliver on our promise of hospitality. While Vilnians are generally friendly people who are growing more open and cosmopolitan as Vilnius booms and the past recedes, we are somewhat slow in shaking off our stoicism when it comes to public displays of emotion (conditioned, no doubt, by our turbulent history). This can sometimes appear to visitors as unfriendliness. Go Vilnius is working closely with our city’s tourism department as well as our national tourism agency to raise awareness of this as well as standards of hospitality and friendliness among service staff, in particular. Go Vilnius is directly responsible for our city’s Tourism Information Centers as well as the Vilnius Convention Bureau. Both are first points of contact for many visitors and businesses, so having them under the Go Vilnius umbrella makes it simpler to promote friendly service.

Obviously, the major challenge when it comes to place branding and marketing is that the agency or institution responsible for it hardly ever really controls the “product.” Most of the influence we have over its development, as well as the legal and political framework within which it takes place, is indirect. Changes in legislation, a dip in the economy, bureaucratic obstacles, and myriad other factors can easily outweigh the impact of our efforts and even undermine our messaging if reality doesn’t live up to the values we communicate.

Making a difference requires both political and social savvy to exert the necessary “soft” influence when it comes to working effectively with the municipality as well as the large group of stakeholders and ordinary citizens whose behavior will, to a large extent, determine how others experience our city. We do not currently have the resources for a large-scale domestic campaign along the lines of India’s “The Guest is God” campaign. It was launched domestically with the goal of improving hospitality in tandem with the well-known and highly successful external marketing campaign “Incredible !ndia.” We do, however, participate and promote various initiatives that partners like Friendly Vilnius (an organization that emphasizes LGBT-friendliness, disabled access, and other aspects of hospitality), Hospitable Vilnius (which provides training as well as awards that recognize our most hospitable establishments), and others conduct annually. We have a team of trained volunteer greeters who are out and about in the city during the summer helping visitors and being good ambassadors for our city in general. Similar volunteer ambassadors help us with outreach to the meetings industry, and a board of volunteer advisors helps us understand the needs of businesses and talent. The volunteer group “Brand for Vilnius” continues to serve as a focus group for our branding and marketing ideas and efforts. It’s important to establish multiple channels that engage the public and provide valuable and necessary feedback that keeps us attuned to realities.

We work intensively with politicians at both the municipal and national level as well as business leaders and business and civic associations to push for improvements so that Vilnius lives up to its brand promise. Go Vilnius is responsible not only for city branding and marketing, but for working directly with businesses and talent choosing to locate in Vilnius—to make them feel at home here, and to help them with any issues they may have. This can be particularly challenging when it comes to navigating bureaucratic procedures (especially with agencies that do not answer to the municipality, such as migration). Go Vilnius has dedicated professionals who can help. While we cannot solve every problem, the knowledge that there is an agency to turn to for assistance and guidance is important in and of itself.

Our task—not only putting Vilnius “on the map” but also making it a world-class magnet for business, talent, and tourism—is by no means an easy one. Our goals are ambitious and our budget modest. Defining our values, getting our strategy right, and staying focused on targeted communication with our three key audiences is paramount. As Vilnius Mayor Šimašius likes to say, most people when they come to Vilnius for the first time are pleasantly surprised. Our job is to make it less of a surprise and more of an expectation that good things are happening in Vilnius.

(Endnotes)

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-fWN0FmcIU

Darius Udrys, Ph.D., was the founding director of Go Vilnius – an agency chartered by the city of Vilnius to develop the Lithuanian capital’s brand and attract business, talent, and tourism. He served as its director until 2017. Dr. Udrys is also a founding partner at Neue Unica branding agency. His experience includes work with corporate clients and in broadcast journalism (Radio Free Europe and Lithuanian State Radio), as well as development and communications work with NGOs and higher education institutions. Dr. Udrys holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate University and teaches at Vilnius University.