• Transform magazine
  • October 20, 2020

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Nation branding: Limburg, Netherlands

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In the Dutch province of Limburg, place branding requires an international strategy. Samantha North reports from the Netherlands

The easiest way to reach the small Dutch province of Limburg is via Germany’s Dusseldorf Airport. When travelling between the two countries by road, the difference between them is almost imperceptible. It’s impossible to tell where Germany ends and Holland begins.

That’s just how the Limburgians like it.

Limburg is in a unique position. Nestled snugly between Belgium and Germany, for hundreds of years the small province has enjoyed the benefits of having close relations with its neighbours. The cross-border location has brought a distinctive character to Limburg. Many Limburgians speak German and French with ease, and express strong loyalty to their province, often more than to the Hague itself. Some even say that if Germany wanted to incorporate Limburg then they’d happily go along with it.

“The cross-border angle was an obvious choice for Limburg’s brand. In culture, identity and behaviour, Limburgians are much more similar to Belgians and southern Germans than they are to the Dutch,” says Robert Govers, the academic and place-branding advisor who led the initial Limburg rebranding.

He continues, “The Dutch still perceive Limburg as a bit of a backwater, which needs to change. We convinced Limburg to start building its reputation internationally, which makes sense because Brussels, Liège and Aachen are much closer than either the Hague or Amsterdam. Gaining respect from the Dutch will eventually follow.”

Limburg has wasted no time gearing up for the challenges of building itself a new reputation. In 2013, on the advice of Govers and his team, Connect Limburg was created and tasked with developing the Limburg reputation globally.

Conny Moonen, head of Connect Limburg, says, “I always try to explain Limburg by likening it to a shop containing lots of cross-border elements. In Limburg, we see borders not as obstacles but as interfaces.”

To illustrate her point, Moonen mentions the Limburg male choir that wanted to sing during the Second World War Remembrance Day in Germany. “We needed special permission from high-level government and Jewish organisations, but now it’s been given the go-ahead. This event is a perfect symbol of what Limburg is about. It shows that we don’t see borders as an obstacle”, says Moonen.

There are many initiatives in Limburg that leverage its cross-border abilities, such as the Brightlands Campuses, a group of research and development facilities devoted to finding solutions for global problems in health, nutrition and materials. Brightlands brings together researchers, students and entrepreneurs from around the world, attracting talent to Limburg while helping to keep the local economy vibrant.

According to Bert Kip, CEO of the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, “Knowledge crossing borders is something that Brightlands is constantly practicing in many senses – industries, disciplines, countries and so on. We have a specific niche and there are few like us in the world.”

Developing a genuine place identity requires committed long-term vision as well as the support of all stakeholders. In Limburg, they now understand this very well, and that’s why the province is embarking on a 10-year strategy. According to Moonen, the eventual aim is for Limburg to be seen as, “A benchmark for how countries should interact across borders.”

The government of Limburg, a key stakeholder in the project, is highly supportive of the brand initiative, but also aware of the challenges that are likely to arise.

“Having stability and a long-term view is very important for fruitful development. But to stay competitive Limburg will have to reinvent and transform day after day without losing its unique identity,” says Theo Bovens, governor of Limburg.

When asked about the long-term outlook for the Limburg brand, Govers says, “The cross-border strategy is now included in the government’s coalition agreement. So it seems this is becoming part of the usual approach to policy-making in the region and I hope this will continue. Now the challenge remains to keep both the private sector and civil society on board.”

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