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Croatia nation branding and identity – interview with expert Mila Marina Burger from Filburg

Mila Marina Burger Filburg branding, design and communications

Mila Marina Burger

Croatia was again put on the world stage thanks to the success of the national football team at the recent World Cup in Qatar, and topics like promotion, nation branding and identity were again omnipresent in media and in everyday conversations. 

We have decided to start a series of interviews with professionals in the field and first up we chatted with Mila Marina Burger from Zagreb-based creative studio Filburg, which specializes in branding, design and communications. Mila has a strong background in creative industries and is a PhD candidate on the topic of the role of media in national identity construction from the Faculty of Political Science. Mila was a speaker at the annual International Place Branding Association conferences in Greece and Barcelona.

Filburg’s work includes integrated design for The Routes of the Frankopans — a cultural route comprised of 20 old castles and churches that used to belong to the famous Croatian Frankopan family (client: Primorje-Gorski Kotar County and Muses Ltd.), visual identity of Lazareti, Creative Hub of Dubrovnik (client: City of Dubrovnik), among many others (see the complete list below). 

Your work as an agency spans over many interconnected fields, from creating visual identities and communication to design, signalization and user experience. Two of your projects – The Routes of the Frankopans and Lazareti communicate rich history and heritage to contemporary visitors. How well do you think Croatia as a country fulfills its potential in terms of communicating its heritage and natural beauties? 

Feeling as citizens of the world, we of course have great appreciation and respect for cultural and natural heritage in its many forms. In Croatia, there are many cultural and heritage wonders so it is logical to try and communicate it. Once the European Union decided to fund the opening of the hybrids of tourist centres and light museum content in the form of visitor centers, we have seen an explosion of visitor center projects in various cultural and natural sites.

Mila Marina Burger Filburg branding, design and communications

The Routes of the Frankopans

This has certainly contributed to the communication of particular heritage and natural beauties, on the local level, to its own citizens and this is great. What I would like to see more of is contemporary, inspiring interpretations of today and now. Filburg was recently awarded 2nd place on the new visual identity contest for the University of Split. 

We were the only participating studio that offered a comprehensive brand strategy that unifies all the individual institutions under one umbrella evoking a vision of a modern, Mediterranean university moving beyond the existing historical, cultural or geographical symbols in order to create a strong narrative, at the same time universal and specific. This type of branding could bring a completely new audience to Split and a layer of fine modernity.  

Mila Marina Burger Filburg branding, design and communications

University of Split – visual identity

Mila Marina Burger Filburg branding, design and communications

University of Split – visual identity

Your work for Routes of the Frankopans included designing a complex signalization system. How important is signalization and how do we stand in terms of that type of branding? Can you name positive examples?

In the last 15 years, visual communications in Croatia have developed enormously. We are seeing many professionally crafted brand identities arising with a high level of applications, signage being one of them. I mean look at Hotel Amarin, whoever stayed there must have enjoyed the creativity of the space, the smart design decisions in rooms, the playful copywriting on signage. In a more traditional sense, I think Dubrovnik Old Town is a good example of combining the strict rules on how to treat heritage sites and the functionality that signage brings. However, spaces that could benefit from signage the most, where there are complex orientation problems to solve, like hospitals, kindergartens, schools, faculties and other public buildings, are left untouched.    

The Routes of the Frankopans

The Routes of the Frankopans

What is destination branding and how important is it?

Destination branding is about strengthening an image of a certain region, city or area through using marketing know-how and tools for the purpose of developing tourism. Sometimes it happens strategically, in a planned way, sometimes it just happens, as in the case of Garden Festival for example that started the perception of the Croatian Adriatic as a party destination by a team of British entrepreneurs; without a strategic decision from the Croatian governing bodies.

Mila Marina Burger Filburg branding, design and communications

Tattoo of the Garden Festival design

If there’s a clear strategy with set out short-term and long-term goals created by an interdisciplinary team then the most important thing is the implementation of the strategy that needs to be overseen by several organizational bodies that take full responsibility for its results, good and bad. When articulated and translated to visual communications, a strategy like this can assist in developing products, events, services, souvenirs, adding to the consistency of the destination experience as a whole. From arriving to an airport to choosing what to eat. 

Can you name some of the positive examples of destination branding in Croatia?

Overall, Croatia as a tourist destination is progressing and, when compared to other Mediterranean countries, has seen a huge growth in numbers as well as international perception. We can be very happy about that. If you look at individual initiatives, there are many of them. Take, for example, Advent in Zagreb as an ambitious effort to brand the city as a Christmas destination. 

You must notice a certain level of coordination on the institutional level that we haven’t seen before in the city. It’s also positive that the visual communications work in this case is done by professionals, conceptually and technically skilled. However, this is in no way true branding I explained in the previous question; it’s replicating the idea of the Advent seen elsewhere.  

How important is a “spirit” of a place in destination branding, the lived life, culture and lifestyle (the most known example would be last century Split, whose lively characters and way of living was well documented in TV and literature).

It is very important as it distinguishes a destination from many other on the same market. The challenge is to articulate it in marketing terms so that it doesn’t sound awkward to foreigners and is accepted by the folks actually living in the city. This is why internal branding is as much important as external branding and more and more branding professionals realize that citizen-centric approach to destination branding is the way to go. 

Marketing values and messages should feel natural to people who live there and are their grandest ambassadors (from the taxi driver to the lady that sells souvenirs). It seems this was successfully conveyed in the recent branding of the city of Porto through a participative branding process that took a while to carry out and yet brought branding that was deducted from the destination spirit, not artificially glued to it.

Destination branding positively affects local communities, by boosting economic growth and entrepreneurship and decreasing the level of seasonality of tourism. There is a flip side to that, especially in the big cities, where we see city centers becoming sleeping hubs for tourists. Do you think that can be prevented? 

These questions should probably be addressed on a case to case basis on a more strategic level. There are downsides to every decision-making and they need to be anticipated when the strategy is being formulated and put to life. If a destination is communicating slow tourism then eventually this will have an effect on the length of stay of travelers but also on the income from plane tickets, parking and road tolls. 

If a destination is investing in the MICE industry it’s perfectly normal that travellers move on after the event is finished. In this type of planning, there’s always a question of economic viability versus social responsibility versus eco-sustainability and so on. 

How good is Croatia in your opinion in branding itself as a country and its destinations in comparison with other countries?

Well, there’s a very concrete way to measure the external perception of a country and I presume someone in the Croatian government is following the results of Ipsos Nation Brands Index, Good Country Index and other tools of this kind. I think it is much more useful to rely on data then personal impressions in this case as biased opinions lead to wrong alleys. 

The internal perception meaning how country’s citizens see the country is something else and it’s also part of the nation brand. Internal branding influences the external and vice versa and this is actually what I feel should be addressed much more elaborately in Croatia especially on the level of mainstream media. In this sense, entering the eurozone might have a positive effect but it’s too early to say. 

Mila Marina Burger

Lazareti – visual identity

Promotion is a word we heard a lot in the end of 2022. Football certainly placed Croatia on the radar of many potential visitors. Do you think that success and other sport successes could be used to strengthen Croatia’s position as a destination, or shape its brand in a more unified strategic way? 

We need to make a distinction in terminology here. Destination branding is about strengthening an image of a certain region, city or area through using marketing know-how and tools for the purpose of developing tourism. Nation branding is building the reputation of a country through various fields like investment, culture, people, governance, while tourism being just one of those fields. So, nation branding is a much broader term then destination branding and much more complex to achieve because it involves soft power and politics.

For example, the fact that the French government recently prohibited short haul flights to promote travelling by trains to contribute to the country’s 2021 Climate Law very much brands it as a forward thinking country working for the planet and I’m sure many young people will think this is very cool and put France on their personal map where they want to study or get a job. 

In the Croatian case, football is definitely contributing to the visibility of the country worldwide and people might develop a notion that Croatians are good and passionate sportsmen. It might even enrich their bucket list so that they want to visit Croatia. But, does it make them consider investing in the country or study and look for a job in Croatia, that’s a whole other story and this is what nation branding is about. 

Filburg‘s long list of clients includes European institutions like EUREKA, Eurostars, ESPON; startups like Croatian Repsly and Australian Spare Workspace, most recently German Health Innovation Hub & Holding, Morpharos Architects, ZDL; The Garden Group, Fine stvari, Filburg’s work has been awarded by The Art Directors Club New York, UK Sign Design Society, Hiiibrand, Awwwards, and many others. 

Filburg’s work is available here.

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