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Confirmed chauvinist

I was confused between the terms place making and place marketing until I spent a couple of weeks in Brittany this autumn. The French can be frustratingly intransigent: try finding a place for lunch after 14:00. Good luck to you; unless you show up between 12:30 and 13:30, you will be waiting until things re-open at 17:00. Money does not talk. City centre parking is free for workers between 12-2pm and employers receive ‘vouchers’ to encourage their staff to go out for lunch. Making the place and its restaurants and cafes sustainable.

Busy fresh produce markets operate most mornings in towns and villages, and local producers are heavily supported and make a virtue of their origins and authenticity.  In the regional hotels nearly all the staff are local, and the management are almost exclusively French which adds to the customer experience. Apart from the ‘grandes surfaces’ the big national hypermarkets like Carrefour and Leclerc which are always at the outskirts of town, most shops in Brittany are determinedly independent, and you see very few national chains or empty shops. There is a real pride in the ‘centre ville’ usually clustered around the church square. No litter, usually pedestrianised, lovely plantings and flowers, cafes with outdoor seating/terraces, cycling is way of life, parking spaces are multipurpose and double up for weekend markets and festivals and there’s always a plaque or two reminding us of the history of the place. Place making in action.

The legislation which licences the sale of cigarettes (and newspapers and stamps) ensures that the hardy Tabac endures in every village, along with the boulangerie selling fresh bread daily and the Boucherie for fresh meat. I suspect some of these businesses must be subsidised to mitigate population shrinkage and migration to cities. The local traditions and the supporting licensing legislation makes it hard for outsiders to break into the market, while protecting the existing and long standing family businesses. With this comes an implied social responsibility and contract between the businesses and the community. Protecting the place.  And also providing a true sense of identity which resonates with the local community, enhancing liveability and pride which is evident for visitors, enhancing their experience. It’s a win-win.

I asked Laurent Sansoucy the Director of OCO France for his perspective: “In a few words, the insights are correct but quiet specific to Brittany, whose (very) relative prosperity which is not limited to the large cities is mainly due to ONE sector: the food industry, a stable manufacturing sector which provides jobs in rural areas. Brittany which accounts for less than 5% of the French population represents around 15% of the food industry, despite being positioned on relatively low value segments”

As you drive along the national roads you are teased by place signs, the most basic form of place marketing  which tempt you with the history and culture of the villages on either side of you- little medieval city, home of the salt marshes, 15th Century Abbey, centre of gastronomy…..all a bit more inspiring than the B3339. The consistent colour and design of the road signs suggests that this is a national programme of place education and marketing. We have seen shades of this in other European countries and notably the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland creates the promise of travelling for experience, not simply a destination.

Place marketing is the mechanism to communicate what the place is about and has an important role. For many towns and cities, place making needs to happen first and is an ongoing bottom up process, owned and driven by communities with facilitation and support from local and national Government. You may have read about the threatened closure of Bewley’s café in Dublin a national treasure and sanctuary for the great writers and thinkers for over 180 years due to a rent dispute. That simply would not happen in France.  

As we in the British Isles try to re-invent local, and revive local communities though place marketing campaigns there is much we can learn from the Breton approach. Independence, pride and yes a degree of protectionism, or looking after your own.

Chauvin is the French expression and I am a chauvinist.

Mark O'Connell





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