On corporate tribes: the identity of an organisation (2)

In this article I will try to take you through the theoretical framework that we used to understand the Click Supply organisation.

1.Structure and power: On centralisation,  decentralisation, the nation state and the organisation

When moving from an individual to a group/organizational existence, structure and power naturally appear as a way to organize the manner in which people come together.  Structure and power both influence and shape each other as they aim to reflect the identity of the group that they are applied within. I will give below 2 organizational examples on how this mutual dynamic works.

In a centralised organisation power is concentrated at the top with the owners of the company. They define the structure and impose the roles on the people that will be hired to fill in the decided structure with the ultimate objective to increase the productivity and profitability of the organisation. There are rules and procedures set in place to protect the structure, the power dynamics and the expected positive financial results. There is an implied positive link in these types of organizations between power being held in rigid structures and productivity.

In a decentralised organisation power is also decentralised. The owners do not decide the structure but the structure emerges from below coming from the necessities of the business expressed through the specialised employees. In this situation power is concentrated with the specialised role. So employees have power to create structure based on the knowledge that they have of the necessities of the business. In these systems the role of the owners is to both formalise and guard the emerging structure as well as stimulate initiatives from below.

Of course these are 2 extremes and they have both been critiqued and challenged in the effectiveness to bring about productivity and quality of life for the group they are manifested within. A completely centralised organisation in the search for standardisation becomes disconnected from the reality of the “ground” and too rigid to adapt to changes. A complete decentralised organisation is chaotic and does not use synergies to move forward and make productive decisions. To understand the implications of both extreme approaches and theoretise a middle ground I would like to compare and contrast a business organisation to a higher organisation which is the state.

In “Seeing like a State” James Scott explores how the centralised state has failed to represent the common interests of its own people. He argues that high modernist Nation- state elites have used the increased powers of states to reshape society so that it functions as an enterprise whose goal is to maximise production. They have done so in the faith that they can thereby improve human lives. He identifies the central problem of statecraft and of government as one of legibility; the state must make its citizens and their activities readable before it can appropriate revenue and orchestrate any plan for the general welfare. The problem comes when this necessary evil is tied to (for example) an ideology of high modernism, an authoritarian central government, and a highly unresponsive civil society.  High modernism is a belief in a technocratic and scientific rationality; that there is one correct answer for every situation. But there is no such thing as a universal generalisation, every village, field, and person is a unique individual. The state’s attempts at improvement rapidly become an effort to standardise society, and make every unit of interest behave identically. This process of reducing reality to schematic agents and cadastral maps by force is one of violence, discarding generations of carefully accumulated local knowledge >metis in favour of the interests of the centre. Local people are inevitably coerced into conforming with the modern grid, since it is easier to make people fit the categories than categories fit the situation. Yet wherever these principles have been attempted the high modernist project has led to poverty, and sometimes it has produced human tragedy on a grand scale. (Scott gives the example of Nazi Germany as well as Russia and China to fundament this). Of course the centralised structure argued against by Scott came as a reaction to (post) industrialisation and the desire to improve the productivity of the feudalistic systems that existed before. He also argues that in our current society capitalism and globalisation take the centralised role of the state while the state takes on a more social role and acts as the safeguard of the civil society. Scott puts forward an idea that the centralised state needs to go back to acknowledging the local knowledge/metis of the people that it’s serving and to go through a process of partial decentralisation in order to maintain productivity.

Coming back to the original point I wanted to make with centralised and decentralised organisations the solution of a workable system could be neither in one or the other but in a combination of the two, meaning a structure that emerges from the negotiation between the power exerted – in mutual agreement -between the top (the owners) and the field/bottom (the knowledge/metis holders).

For this to happen the organisation needs:

  1. the official structure to recognize the necessity for the local knowledge >metis and
  2. the holders of the local knowledge > metis to come forward and make themselves visible to the structure

2. Understanding the official structure, the local knowledge & how they interact

To understand the official structure of the organisation we researched, we first looked into the previous experiences with management of the 2 owners of the company. Each individual in his/hers role as manager (especially the first time) carries and replicates both the lessons (good or bad) of his/hers past managers as well as their imaginarium of how they would want to behave as managers. We called this the “phantom” structure = the parent of the current official structure developed by the 2 owners. This “phantom” structure is at its strongest in influence in the  first years of the organisation. (which was the case of our research as the company was only 5 years old). Secondly we looked into how the official structure reflected & aligned to the purpose – as seen & defined by the 2 owners – of the organisation and to their personal management styles.

To understand the holders of the local knowledge we looked into each employee of the organisation. We tried to understand their skills and how they made use of them in the official role given by the structure. We also tried to understand what un-official roles they had and what un-official structure was created.

Afterwards we looked into the intersections between the official structure and the un-official one (when they worked together and when they clashed). In these intersections and the web of social relationships came forward the identity of the organisation. Once this was uncovered we also made recommendations on how the relationship of the 2 structures can be optimised in order for them to work together to advance the company on the path of achieving its objectives.


On corporate tribes: the identity of an organisation (1)

I have spent the last month in Amsterdam together with a research partner, understanding the identity of an organisation called Click Supply. I would like to share part of this project in this space in 2 separate posts.

In this post I would like to:

a) Give an overview of the project as it is explained by the 2 business owners of Click Supply – Joeroen Helder and Daan van Luipen. You can watch them below:

b) “Show”a 3 part documentary (called Office Hours) on the back office of our work as researchers.  You can watch it below:

Part 1 – Week 0
Anthropology meets business. Setting the scene for the field investigation

Part 2 – Week 3
Being in the field. Methods used to interpret data

Part 3 – Week 4
Analysis and report buildup

In the next post I will go in depth into the theoretical framework that we used to understand the organisation.




On (brand) community: Theory & Practice at Impact Hub Amsterdam (2)

This is the second post from my 2 post series on (brand) community. This article is not a study case on the Impact Hub Amsterdam but aims to take you through the theoretical frame I used to understand the concept of (brand) community.  For an overview of how I applied it in the Impact Hub Amsterdam see my first post.

One of the questions I am most asked when coaching companies (this being especially true for tech startups) is “How do I build a (brand) community?” More often than not, behind the question lies the assumption that the answer is a set of marketing tools that applied within their budget will bring them a targeted number of consumers that will stay, engage and perpetuate their brand further.  Nevertheless, the “how” of the question implies that they already have the answer to the questions that come before, meaning “what is community?” and “why do you need a brand community?”. I think an anthropologist is specialized in searching for the “why” and the “what” and can guide a company on this reflection while a marketer is specialized in the “how” and can, on the base of the previous reflection choose the most appropriate marketing tools to use. In this article I will take you through my investigation into the what and the why of building (brand) community.

The what – defining community

Community is one of those “big” words (like culture or identity) that are not easy to define as they go to the core of our humanity trying to convey some essential characteristic that defines us as species. For community is our ability/desire to live our lives in fellowship or “communal” = as part of a bigger group, in one capacity or the other. There is an impressive body of work surrounding this concept but for the purpose of this paper I will focus on its European/North-American meaning and contrast it to the African/South American one.

In the European/North American meaning the concept of community is applied to the individual first (We are because I am = community exists because a group of individuals come together based on their individual needs and wants).  In the African/South American concept community comes first, before the individual (I am because we are = community just is (as an ecosystem around us including also the environment and all other living beings) and we exist as part of it, interconnected inside it, subordinating our individuality to the purpose of the whole.  A more practical difference between the 2 can be made when thinking about the concept of “trust”. In the European/North American meaning you are “trusted” and welcomed as part of a community once you prove your role in it. Whereas in the African/South American meaning you are automatically given trust from the beginning as there is an inherent assumption that we are all part & interconnected to the same bigger whole so there is no need to prove a role.

What makes the 2 approaches different is the relationship between the individual and community and which one is subordinated to the other. What makes the 2 approaches similar is that independent of who is subordinated to whom the concept of community has 2 dimensions that it relies on:  rationality of purpose=mutual obligation and exchange, and emotional bonds=sense of belonging. I will use etymology to explain both.

In the European/North American meaning (Bender, 1978) community is “a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds.”   The etymology of the English word “community” derives from Latin munus which has a range of meanings, including service, duty, gift or sacrifice.  According to McGinnis, House and Jordan “the word community is a metaphor. At its root is the idea of an exchange of services. A community then is the assemblage of individuals to whom one is bound by this kind of relationship – one defined by mutual obligation and exchange.” The correspondent German word for community are actually 2  words: Gesellschaft – which is similar in meaning to munus meaning community as a transactional exchange between its members – and  Gemeinschaft which adds other dimensions –a sense of belonging together which translates to both a feeling of solidarity and an understanding of shared identity.  Both meanings describe community coming from the individual first with the Latin one putting a strong emphasis on rationality of purpose while the German adds to it the sense of belonging.

In the South African meaning, community is best described through the word “ubuntu” which subordinates the individual to the common. Thus, if we compare it to the Latin meaning, the South African one puts sense of belonging first, before transactional exchange. It goes even further than this and detaches the sense of belonging from the individual and associates it to the higher common of the group.  According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ““ubuntu”” can best be summarized as follows: “A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.

In the South American meaning, I want to draw attention to the concept of  Mink’a or minka which is a type of traditional communal work in the Andes in favor of the whole community (ayllu). Participants are traditionally paid in kind. Mink’a is still practiced in indigenous communities in PeruEcuadorBolivia, and Chile, especially among the Quechua and the Aymara. The concept of Mink’a is very similar in purpose to the African “ubuntu”.

So we have established that a community is formed on the basis of exchange and emotional bonds and there are different manners of subordination between the individual and the community depending on the cultural context. Before going into the core elements of a community I would like to cover shortly the development of the concept within the moving context in which we live with others.

The concept of community navigates rural / urban / digital

The history of how we understand and apply community runs in parallel to the history of how we live with others and the environment we do that in. “Communal” living has gone through substantial transformations in the European/North American regions as we move from rural – to urban – to digital ways of living together.

In rural communities social relationships were primarily determined based on kinship (family ties) and likeness and secondary based on specialized functional roles. The personal relationships and their intensity defined the functional roles within which exchange occurred. Within rural communities we find closer proximity in meaning of the European/North American approaches and the South African/South American ones. The development of urbanization – and later on digitalization – gave rise to a higher visibility to the functional role as the social lives of individuals became more specialized, not just in their labor but also in all the social relationships. They engage with different people for different and limited purposes. Their lives are led on a variety of levels and in different locations as well (and in the case of digital the geographical boundaries are completely removed). They are known to others primarily in terms of what they bring to the interaction with them – as student, film-maker, baker, blogger etc. and secondary through kinship (personal ties) and likeness.  In this context is where the individual becomes more important that the whole and we see as more striking the differences between the European/North American meanings and the South American/African ones.

Nevertheless, the shift from rural to urban to digital is not a linear one and there isn’t a clear opposition between them. What has clearly changed as mentioned before is boundary removal and access.  As of today, individuals live within potential infinite networks of communities available and they have to negotiate the type of foundation they build with each one. In this negotiation the rural is a symbol for  the type of community we are part of where our role is defined  based primarily on personal/close relationship while the urban/digital is a symbol of the wider networks we are part of based on a more functional relationship. This means that an individual can develop a rural type of community within a digital setting as well as a digital, more functional type of community within an urban setting. This can also be applied transversally within the same community with sub-communities.

One of the things that make it possible to simultaneously be part of some many different types of community and still feel close is the concept of “imagined communities”. Anderson (1983) suggests that all communities maintain themselves by notions of imagined, understood others that cannot be seen but their presence is made visible through the act of imagining. The concept is nevertheless not restricted only to urban or digital spaces as even within villages you have “imagined communities” of shared spiritual beliefs such as Roman Catholicism.  With the transition to digital communities this is particularly relevant as the imagined communities release the concept of community from the geographical setting. This allows community members to possess a vast sense of the unmet others fellow community members, to imagine them.

The main point here remains, that in the move from rural to urban to digital the basic principles of forming community remained (mutuality and emotional bonds) while the environment in which they were manifested expanded and got “noisier” (as technology removed boundaries and gave access to a multitude of possible communities).  Belonging to a community or another is a constantly negotiated process as individuals have to juggle which to be a part of and which one to let go of.

The elements of a community

But how do you decide between different communities of belonging? Why be involved in one and not the other? If we think of communities forming on the foundation of exchange and emotional bonds we can identify the following 3 interlinked elements:

  1. Purpose(s). This is both the individual purpose of the person entering the community as well as the common purpose of the community as a whole (that depending of the culture either emerges from the clustering of purposes of its members or defines the purpose of the members). No matter the relationship of subordination they are both interconnected and enforced by one another.
  2. Common values and ideas If the purpose is about the “what we do” the values are about the “how we do it”. It is the main differentiator between communities of similar purposes but that have different ways of going about making that happen.
  3. Own field of communication & Interaction this is referring to the way the purpose and the values are being lived in the “daily life” of the community. How it’s captured in the way they communicate, in the structures that facilitate exchange and, in the rites and rituals that facilitate belonging and maintain the values and the purpose. This includes also the space in which the community manifests itself.

In order to analyze the elements it’s helpful to use what Frederick Barth called “the boundary concept”. In analyzing ethnic communities he urges us to look carefully at their boundaries = meaning what the community defines as “themselves” or “the other”. What he is saying is that it easier to understand our allegiance to each other, “that we are playing the same game” in the moments when we are made aware of the “team” we are playing against or of others that play different games. This awareness is not aggressive and confrontational as it is strengthening and underlying the identity of both teams.

The why of a (brand) community

One of the key tasks of a marketer is managing the relationship between a brand and its consumers. The aim is to develop it (just like any relationship) and increase engagement to the brand so that they have a stronger chance to become loyal consumers that do not migrate to competitors. Moreover, some brands (that represent for example user generated products) need to have that engagement from the start in order to actually make the product work.  In the search for engagement and loyalty, communities are seen as a good tool, with many brands investing in building spaces where the brand is central and the consumers  come together to “worship” it, talk about it and evangelize it.

Nevertheless, brands must not forget that within a community the members develop first and foremost relationships to each other. And these relationships are built on exchange of purpose and sense of belonging. If the brand wants to be part of those relationships it needs to either provide a reason and context for the relationships of exchange to occur (in the case of a new community) or enter within already established ones. I will try to detail these 2 different types of communities below:

  1. The brand makers

This is the community of people that build the brand: produce, market and sell it. This community has inside also consumers of the brand – their weight depending on the relevance of their role to the brand making process. In the case of a football game, for example, the people that are on the stadium are as important to the delivery of the game as the players in the field. They are part of the product, they are brand makers. The ones that are at home watching the final product on TV are just consumers. This is what makes the difference.  The first ones are a community together with the players, the stadium, and the organizers behind the scenes. Together they make the product work, they have clear roles and responsibilities and exchange and a field of communication and interaction.

The involvement of consumers as makers differs depending on how vital their role is in the making process.  It can range from minimal (for consumer goods products for example) to essential (for user generated digital products or co-working spaces). If & when a company is thinking about involving consumers in a community of makers it needs to reflect to which extent they are contributing to the brand making process and to which to each-other.

  1. The brand partners

This is where the brand enters an existing community as a member. So, the brand is not the generator but one of the elements. For example the brand can choose to act through its marketing strategy as partner/member in existing communities – like organizations for example. It could be through investment – like a sponsorship strategy, or skills – partnering up with other brands to develop industry programs. In this way the brand acts/performs its identity alongside other members.

This approach puts the brand on the same level of interaction of all the other members and makes it act as an integral identity. It is important as the act of being in a community enforces to the others the individual purpose and values of the brand not just on an ideological level but as a day to day interaction.

The difference between the 2 types of community participation is that in the first one the brand is the purpose & the outcome of the community itself (here the brand is created) and in the second the brand acts out as part of a community to fulfill the purpose of that community.


On (brand) community: Theory and Practice @ Impact Hub Amsterdam (1)

I have spent the last 2 months researching the theoretical concept of (brand) community as it exists in the business of Impact Hub Amsterdam. I would like to share part of this work here, in 2 posts.

In the first one ( that you can see below) I want to give a condensed version of the concept of community, its applications to branding as well as explain the frame I used to research it at Impact Hub Amsterdam. 

In the second, following post, I will go in depth with an article on the theory behind understanding and applying the concept of community to branding.



Coaching service : first customers

As a new entrepreneur, after experiencing everything in just 6 months – from anxiety, uncertainty, rejection and confusion to excitement, acceptance and euphoria – I understand now how some can become addicted to the process of building a company. There is nothing and then there is something. Something that you have built with your own hands, that makes an impact in other people’s lives and businesses. Something that not only gives you revenue but also a sense of purpose and self worth. Because they come with this awareness, the first customers are a gift and their stories blend with my own as they are remembered later on.

Enrique was my my mentor in the Impact Hub business accelerator (the business model challenge) I joined to understand better the needs of social startups. Sylva is the owner of one of the startups – HGMOP (http://hetgrotemiddenoostenplatform.nl/) – that participated in the program. I will let them tell the story of our collaboration, in the 2 videos below:




Identity in Branding – who is representing who?


The thing I was most constantly challenged with during my anthropology education – from my peers to the professors and actually even myself – was what is the actual value of my branding & marketing knowledge. Talking about branding to a cultural anthropologist is not an easy matter. The difficulty relied not in explaining or understanding what i did but in agreeing that it is a skill and that there is any value in it. I did not expect a cultural anthropologist to challenge the relevance of my job and even more I did not expect to partly agree with some of their critics. And this happened because I believe cultural anthropologists are also branding specialists although from a different perspective.  Of course at the beginning I knew nothing of that – I was the girl that knew of Michel Foucault (one of the fathers of cultural anthropology) by a name association from a fiction book that I had read in highschool (Foucault’s pendulum).

Let me try to explain how I came to this conclusion. In my corporate career, I was always taught that branding represents  a)“crafting” an identity/personality for your product by doing consumer research and a brief to an advertising agency and b) getting your consumers to “believe” in that identity/personality by spending on media or other engagement tactics to have the highest SOV (share of voice) on your positioning among your competitors.

Identity, power and agency are core concepts in cultural anthropology. There are multiple theories that discuss them and even a discipline called material culture that analyses all that from the perspective of the products and their relationship with people. I was told (and showed during my own research) I had no power in creating anything’s identity other than my own (and even that is debatable), that identity is not a fixed concept but constantly changing and that people/consumers make their own mind about products (no matter how much SOV you throw at them).

So what does this mean for me? For a while I was trapped in my own cognitive dissonance. I still believed that brands did had something that you could classify as an identity while at the same time doubting the scale of the influence of branding experts in the process.

Identity, a (social) relationship between representation and perception

The concept of identity is very difficult to explain because of the complexity of its meaning. That is why there is often one-dimensional (incomplete) interpretation of this concept, or a confusion of different terms used to explain the meaning of identity.  However, according to Golubovic the basic meaning of identity refers to where one (a person or a group) belongs, and what is expressed as “self-image” or/and “common-image”, what integrates them inside self or a group existence, and what differentiate them vis-à-vis “others”.  It is, according to Jenkins, a social process of identification of making sense of who we are and who other people are. In simpler terms we (re)define who we are by reflecting it on the social framework around us (other people, objects, structures). In this way identity is a matter of both internal and external definition, negotiable and changeable as with the social framework surrounding us.

If I imagine my identity as being a (social) relationship between how I think of myself and how my social environment reflects that we could expand this to objects and say that an object’s identity is the (social) relationship between how it is being represented by its producer and how its being perceived by its environment (incl. consumers).  The material culture discipline – out of which I would highlight Daniel Miller’s work – explores this relationship in great depth from the perspectives of the key concepts in cultural anthropology: identity, power, agency.  For the purpose of this paper I will not go any further in anthropological theory but start connecting the 2 concepts of representation and perception with the branding discipline.

Current branding theories also defines the discipline through the lens of representation and perception:

  • For producer/product is a mechanism aimed to achieve competitive advantage by helping help them differentiate themselves in front of their consumers: The American Marketing Association (1960) “ Branding is A name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.”(representation)
  • For the consumers is a means to form recognition, association and emotional connection with the product. By accepting “the promise of the bundles of attributes that he buys and provide satisfaction . .” Ambler (1992) and by creating a shared history and ultimately associating human qualities to the product (anthropomorfism/objectification)

It is ultimately about representing the producer and intermediating the relationship between a product and its consumer.

The history of branding, the discipline develops as the (social) relationship between the producer and its consumers transforms

The origin of the word “brand” goes way back to 1553 and it comes from brond = piece of burning wood. It was meant as an “identyfing mark made by a hot iron” to symbolize ownership of cattle.

In the ancient marketplace the brand was the producer. Products were sold out of bins with the branding signs of the producer and they had “small” geographical coverage = meaning they reached their customers via direct interaction. The producer told the story of the product, why he was doing it, his/hers unique technique of producing it and persuaded the consumer to buy it and trust specific benefits. His personality also played a role in the perceptions and emotional associations people made with the product. The product’s identity and the respective (social) relationship was at its most clear and effective state as there were no intermediaries and constructed messages.

The industrial revolution  separated the producer from the consumer through mass production, cheaper transportation, stronger competition and the start of the “packaged goods” society. The brand became the product that – in the absence of the producer – had to transmit a constructed message, to “talk”  through packaging and advertising about its functional benefits. As consumption increased so did the competition between the brands. As similar products were competing for the same consumer the functional message was not enough to differentiate. In the wake of the post WW2 consumerism, driven by the development of television and understanding of anthropomorphism, the constructed message became more complex incorporating emotional features and personality.

In today’s world, over-consumption and internet have pushed the relationship between a producer and its consumers to a new/yet old dimension. New in the sense that over-consumption has lead to a more “blase” attitude towards brands challenging the need for new ones and increasing concerns about the impact products make on the environment. In this context next to function and personality in order to justify their purpose and differentiate brands started to embrace causes. Old, in the sense that Internet has allowed consumers to take back some of the power that they have lost in the packaged good society. It allowed them to challenge the reality of the constructed messages and through digital proximity reinstate a direct relationship between them and the producer that resembles the ancient marketplace.

Branding and the startup mindset

In the ancient marketplace a branding specialist was also a kind of cultural anthropologist. He would have to closely observe the producer to understand what materials to develop that reflected his personality and needs. He was not constructing or manipulating identity – he was projecting the identity of the producer on the materials thus representing the producer. The success/or failure of his representation was based on the direct contact/feedback of the client directly buying and interacting with the producer (as there were no middle men – like media or distribution channels – to obstruct the producer and present constructed imagery.

Any brand, at its beginning starts like that. Imagine a startup with a person with an idea born out of passion and interest, then a product and then a consumer. While the business grows, processes and systems are set in place. People get behind computers and get more risk adverse. They hire more people. They forget how its like to wonder freely about why you do what you do and how your product reflects that. They get inspired with powerpoint and watch consumers behind the glass door of a focus group. They care more about perception than representation. They forget that the brand is a representation of them and together with success (and even without) the brand becomes mass-ified, generic, a representation of a corporate culture connected to its consumers through an infinite number of intermediaries. I believe the brand of today needs to go back to representing its owners. It needs to reconnect to why it does what it does and why people find it useful. It needs to build a culture around that to attract the right people to tell its story.

So coming back to my original point branding much like anthropology is about representation. Like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture trying to represent its identity to the outside word, I believe a branding specialist needs to study the culture of the producer trying to build a brand to represent him to its consumers.

The “dulling” of Amsterdam: a branding & anthropological perspective


When I was first approached to have a contribution on the topic of “the dulling” of Amsterdam, I started thinking about how I can contribute to it from the perspective of my formation: branding and anthropology.

In the Merriam Webster dictionary place dulling is defined as “not exciting or interesting”, “not having a sharp point”. From what perspective can we look at a place like that and what are the mechanisms involved in this perception?  This paper will address this from the point of view of the residents of a place, in the context of the transformation of their space to accommodate tourism. So the structure will cover the following:  Place Identity and the role of residents. Amsterdam and Tourism. Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt. Conclusion and implications on “dulling”.

But before approaching  the dulling of a place as a result of tourism as perceived by its residents I would like to talk about what makes the place what it is (its identity) to its residents and what are its drivers of change. This is connected to the topic of dulling because as a place changes its identity can be perceived – at a certain moment in time – by its residents, duller than it was at a previous moment.

Place identity – an open system of interaction between elements, people and processes

Place identity/image has been addressed in various ways across disciplines.  The political geographer John Agnew (2011) outlines 3 fundamental aspects of a place: 1. Location (the fixed coordinates of a place in space). 2. Locale (meaning the material setting for social relations – the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals) 3. Sense of place. (the subjective and emotional attachment individuals have to place). In marketing there is a similar view seeing place as not only a geographical location with physical attributes but also with settings for social relations, experiences and personal interpretations.

The materiality as one part of the place is manifested through built environment, topography and administrative boundaries and sense of place as another is what creates identification and attachment between the individual and the place. Materiality and sense of place are mutually supporting and both contribute to place identity (Warnaby and Medway 2013). Thus places are complex open systems of interactions between elements, people and processes (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013, Warnaby and Medway’s 2013). This view on places illustrates identity as emergent fluid and changeable (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013) dependable of the interactions between the three.

Let’s look at these interactions from the perspective of people. Residents are only a part of the total number of people of a place. People cover anyone that can claim influence on either the elements or processes of the place – like residents, investors, businesses, visitors.  Place leaves impressions on its people but it also mirrors back their impressions and expectations (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013). This means that the identity of the place to a specific group of people – like the residents – is connected to the level of influence that they have at a certain moment in time over the materiality and the social fabric of the place versus the other groups of people. When the balance changes, the place changes and their image of the place changes with it.

Let’s take tourism as an example. In touristic areas, places start changing to accommodate the (commercial) expectations of the visitors and businesses. This change, if done out of balance, can lead to a higher perception of “dulling” on behalf of the local residents as the place (through both the topography and the social life) reflects more the commercial touristic interests that the interests of the residents. Even done in balance the place nevertheless transforms to include the interests of the tourists and this can be seen as “dulling” if compared to a previous non-touristic place identity.  So my point here is that “dulling” can be a perceived effect of a place identity change/transformation and tourism can be a driver of that transformation. The intensity of the perceived “dulling” has to do with how much the change is driven in a balanced way by residents and tourism.  I want to talk a bit more on how is this relevant to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam and tourism

In recent years one of the strongest challenges in Amsterdam has been how to manage the impact of the   number of tourists on the local residents. In a city of app. 800.000 inhabitants, more than 6.000.000 tourists were estimated to visit in 2013. As the municipality and the business environment try to accommodate them, the residents complain of economic transformations (like new hotels and horeca) of their neighbourhoods that slowly reduce its residential/local function. There is a strong pressure from the residents as well as the media, on the city council and especially on its marketing department (Amsterdam Marketing) to find ways to relieve the tourism pressure on the city, and especially the city center.

Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt

The Nieuwmarkt is a special neighborhood in the center of Amsterdam. First, Nieuwmarkt looks and feels like a “small village” in a highly trafficked touristic central area. Second, it is an icon for the residents’ ability to oppose capitalistic processes – in the 70s, when the city officials, decided to dismantle the neighbourhood and transform it into office spaces and a highway, the residents rioted and managed to alter the plans and keep their neighborhood residential. For these two reasons, I chose it as my fieldwork and hoped to find here the answer to the question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood?”   Many residents I have talked to expressed that the number of tourists is too much for them to handle but they have found ways to fight back. Many of them refer to these actions as “the second fight for the Nieuwmarkt”. Only this time it is not a fight against the municipality but against the tourism industry and local businesses as its economic enablers. In order to answer my research question, I chronicle their actions. I show that although they are disconnected from the wider tourism generating activities they influence the businesses that emerge as a result of those activities and subsequently maintain a local balance in their neighborhood.

I formally interviewed between 50-60 people I also had 10 informal short interviews with tourists around the Nieuwmarkt. To answer my central question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood”, I will argue by joining the current debates surrounding participative marketing, against the empiricist marketing tradition that considers residents consumers with no agency of the product that is the city developed by the city branding/marketing policies. I aim to show that residents do have agency and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below. I will do this by using the social world’s arena framework developed by Clarke and Star 2008 as a tool to understand construction of meaning and power dynamics on a social level.

In classic marketing tradition (Simon Anholt Moilanen & Rainisto 2009) residents are seen by local governments as “consumers” of the place they live in, next to businesses and visitors.  The role of residents only as consumers has been challenged both in literature on urban governance (Zenker and Seigis 2012) as well as in place branding, in particular the emergent literature on residents as central participants (Karavatzis 2012, Braun, Katavatzis and Zenker 2013). Residents suffer the effects (like excessive tourism) of place branding initiatives so they should be engaged throughout the process and they should have a higher influencing power that the other groups in articulating and implementing the marketing activities of the place (Karavatzis and Hatch 2013).

Including the residents in the participation process means treating them like citizens with rights to contribute to the marketing activities (Braun, Karavatzis, and Zenker 2013). In a democratic system residents chose their local officials, they have political power and participate in political decision making. This is both an obligation and a right (meaning that authorities need to create the structure for the residents to exercise their right to participate in decision making).

Hitting “the sweet spot” of what is the best participation strategy has proven difficult as places are very complex structures but the key to this dynamic as per Braun, Karavatzis and Zenker (2013) is in the relationship (and specifically how mutually influential it is) that place authority develops with the residents “Arguably, the significance attributed here to residents – and specifically the suggestion to consult them and listen to them at all stages of the branding process – challenges place authorities. It is a very demanding exercise in terms of political will and risk-taking because place authorities may find themselves outside of what Ind and Bjerke (2007) call the “zone of comfort”. Zenker and Erfgen (2014) echo this opinion, stating than when the participatory approach is entering place authorities, some of the power of decision making must be given up and this generates uncomfortable situations, this being one of the reason why participatory measures sometimes fail in implementation.

 Various school of thought in sociology and anthropology argue against the perception that power is located within the state mechanism and people (in this case residents) have no agency to resist the top down decisions (in this case city marketing activities or their effects – like tourism). The social worlds framework is a theoretical and methodological extension of symbolic interactionism developed by Anselm Strauss (1991) and Howard Becker (1986).  According to Clarke and Star (2008 p.115) social worlds are “groups with shared commitments to certain activities, sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals and building shared ideologies about how to go about their business”. At the core of the framework of the social worlds are the interactions between the various social worlds that constitute the identification of the social worlds themselves. In the interaction between the social worlds we can observe power and agency being is exerted.

In my research, focusing on the dynamic between the social worlds / groups of residents, businesses and municipality, I tried to show that residents in the Nieuwmarkt do have agency, and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below, influencing economic processes triggered by increase in tourism and aiming to change the structure of their neighborhood. They deal with tourism in different ways but the basis for all actions is the participative model of collaboration between the municipality and the residents, as by exercising their agency, they act and are treated as citizens of the neighborhood.

There are some people that use a more “subtle” approach when it comes to dealing with the municipality and the business environment. They use the relationship they have with the municipality as well as the wide network of information gathering that they have set in place (e.g. neighborhood walk, traffic group) to influence policy and business development. The key to their success is that they manage to not openly challenge the legitimacy of either business or municipality but actually collaborate on an equal power position.  Others adopt a more “combative” approach – through protests, petitions – and “everyday resistance” (e.g. discretization of newly open businesses).

I have seen this in action when Betty Blue – the new bakery on Sint Antoniesbreestraat – applied for a horeca license. It was difficult to like the arrival of a new horeca especially in a neighborhood with already enough places and a street of (mostly) social houses despite its future commercial ambitions. It took numerous back and forth discussions between the owners, the residents and the municipality to release the license. Eventually the license was released with a restricted opening time (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding noise) and a restriction of ownership to only this particular group (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding lack of trust in potential future owners). This was the result of a long process in which the residents of the street came together in online and offline groups, writing petitions, attending meetings, taking pictures, thus making sure that the residential function of their street is maintained. Their commitment to the street is likely to also influence  the long term development of Betty Blue as the new owners learn it’s in their interest to include more the residents in their decision making process.

Although they challenge   the business environment (and sometimes the municipality) their resistance is important as it narrows the policy options available, amplifying – in the cases where their interests converge – the more “subtle” work the others are doing, thus leading to stronger effects (like the hotel ban with the SoHo project). By these actions the residents actively influence the tourism related commercial transformation of the area. They are steering the neighborhood into developments (like the closing of the square traffic, the fish market, the ban on more hotels) that maintain the residential function of the area as well as promote commerce that caters to the needs of inhabitants and actively oppose activities that do not (like the Soho Hotel or the Skylight cafe)

Relevance for the “dulling” topic

So, how is this research relevant for my position on the topic of the “dulling” of Amsterdam? I have started this talk by saying that place identity is formed by the interaction of materials, people and processes. As this interaction changes, the identity changes as well as the perception of the people. Like an omelet that changes taste if you keep the same ingredients but you decide to change the ratio of one to another or if you chose to add new elements. As a result for some groups of people “dulling” can appear as a consequence when comparing a previous reality with a current one. It’s still an omelet but with a different taste or composition.

During my research I have seen how residents are actively engaged in maintaining the status quo of their neighborhood, influencing economic changes made as a result of increase in tourism.  They manage to influence certain processes because of two reasons: they invest a lot of time and energy into understanding the processes and trying to influence and the municipality offers them the platform for participation. This participation strategy is a reflection of the result of the 70’s riots (that in some way was generated by the city looking at residents as consumers and reducing their role as citizens) and the acknowledgment of both municipality and residents that they need to work together with a stronger participation model.

Even in this case the neighborhood is still changing although with a lower speed that its neighbors. There are more horeca than necessary, bars, souvenir shops, Airbnb, gentrification, effects of the reality of living in a highly attractive touristic city center. For the residents that have been here for 30-40 years this is not the same neighborhood.  Nevertheless by actively influencing the decision making process they still have a say to where the neighborhood is going. But this say is representative of the weight they now have in the group of people that live and work in the Nieuwmarkt. It’s still an omelet but the new taste reflects the new ingredients.


This is the beginning of an exciting new chapter – entrepreneurship.
This is me at this time in my life combining my knowledge of branding and anthropology with my love for meeting cool people and doing cool projects.

I hope the Sweet Spot grows into a place that brings together like minded people and enables them to do the same. I hope it branches out in the various corners of the world that I have lived in and love (Brazil, Romania, Netherlands, Austria, Germany) and the many more I do not know of yet. I hope it builds multi disciplinary and multicultural teams connecting branding and anthropology to help create and grow more authentic brands.

But for now is this. The beginning. This website and my first training project: a workshop on how to bring mission and purpose at the center of your brand.

If you want to know more about it check it out here:


This is the first one. To many more cool ones ahead!