As cities grow in size and importance, the image of the city is coming under the control of savvy communicators who know what it takes to create a successful destination brand.
A new breed of ‘city stylists’ and ‘cool coordinators’ are shaping perceptions.
A few years ago, when global urbanisation passed the tipping point of 50%, a new era was heralded: for the first time in the history of the planet, more humans were living in urban areas than in the rural environment. Cities have always been key focal points for developing culture, trade and politics as wealth, prosperity and communications propel us ever-forwards through history.
“Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time.” Kevin Lynch, The Image of The City, 1960.
Cities are complex organisms that shape-shift across history, sometimes influencing, or being influenced by, the fate of the mother state. Cities are dynamic environments, constantly in a state of flux, renewal, growth, expansion, and with numerous stakeholders, all with a vested interest in how the city functions and also how it is perceived at local, and global levels.
Today, perhaps more than ever, cities are competing with one another. In the age of the digital nomad, where borders are soft, and employment is location-independent, cities are competing to attract their future citizens and to retain top incumbents. Cities have become brands, many positioning themselves as post-industrial creative hubs intent on seducing the mobile and fickle creative classes.
As economies depend more and more on intellectual property, these city brands have had to up their game to woo potential citizens. Architecture has always been one of the key tools in city branding and provided a boon for so-called ‘starchitects’ as each city ticks-off their ‘must-have’ lists of Hadids, Fosters, Pianos, Koolhaas’s and Liebeskinds.
“Architecture is central to this urban rebranding, the skin on a town or city’s face.” Tom Dyckhoff, The Age of Spectacle, 2017.
By attracting human capital in the form of intellectuals and artists, thinkers and makers, cities can become hotbeds of innovation, generating creative capital that in turn stimulates further development and economic growth. Attraction, thus, is a key aspect in enticing new burgers to settle down and set-up shop. A strong city brand can go some of the way in attracting interest.
However, it is the ‘content’, the way in which a city can fulfil its promise, that is the ultimate litmus test. Hype can grab attention, but if there is little to substantiate the claim, or a lack of underpinning, then attention will be cast elsewhere and one only has to look at the history of utopian communities, such as Robert Owens’ New Harmony, in Indiana, USA, for evidence of how high ideals and promises vs actuality aren’t always guaranteed to produce a successful outcome.
So, this begs the question: who owns the image of the city?
“Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own. While it may be stable in general outlines for some time, it is ever changing in detail. Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases. No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities for sensuous enjoyment is an act quite separate from architecture or music or literature. It may learn a great deal from these other arts, but it cannot imitate them.”(Lynch)
Many municipalities will claim that they own the image of their city. However, in today’s online world, Googling images of a city will often deliver swathes of visitor-generated content that reflects how the city is perceived – not necessarily how the municipality wants to portray it. As with many brands – the true owners are often not the brand itself, but its consumers.
Cities are people, not concrete
In 2016, I attended a forum in Rotterdam, discussing precisely this topic. Google searches on the term ‘Rotterdam’ produced unending images of the city’s edgy architectural icons. However, the people, and the culture of the city were rarely portrayed. ‘Betonville’ – was my own personal name for this phenomenon and the city’s overt leveraging of edgy architecture – a term that was somewhat validated by a speaker from the municipality’s city marketing department, who stated: “it’s all very nice, but concrete has no soul, and we miss the balance of the human element in the portrayal of our city.” Consequently, a strategy was devised to populate the citybranding image bank – part of the marketing Toolkit – with manifold shots of people on the streets in an attempt to display the character and multi-ethnicity of the city, on a human scale.
“Potentially, the city is in itself the powerful symbol of a complex society. If visually well set forth, it can also have strong expressive meaning.” (Lynch)
However, this is all still very much in the ‘self-promotion’ category, pressing the ‘send’ button and launching one’s desired vision into the ether. The narrative is much more convincing when an independent third-party shapes the perception and, in the past, this would have entailed press junkets, plying reporters with lavish food and accommodation and hoping that they would be favourable to the cause. Those days are long gone, however, partly due to the breakdown of conventional media giving rise to new breeds of independent journalists and writers.
Bringing in the press
Furthermore, to corral this new breed of reporters, bloggers, vloggers and foodies, still requires a well-considered strategy and coordinated vision if the city in question is to be represented optimally. Rotterdam has been one of the most successful cities in creating a buzz around its ongoing development in recent years. Always the poorer, less glamourous relative of long-term show-stopper Amsterdam, Rotterdam has had to fight damn hard to emerge from the shadow of its northern neighbour – now a mere 25 minutes away by regular high-speed train from the stunning, new, swoopy Rotterdam Centraal Station.
The city’s previous claim to fame was based around Europoort – the sprawling harbour area east of the city stretching some 40km to the North Sea coast. It was this 24-hour hard-working mega-port that distilled the rolled-up-sleeves and no-nonsense, down-to-earth spirit that the Rotterdammers effortlessly embrace and embody. That, and the resolution to rebuild the city after it was devastated by bombing raids during WWII.
The official city slogan ‘Make it Happen’ is firmly in tune with that characteristic. Now, as the modern city centre seeks space to expand, the former dockyards and industrial wharves are being turned into innovation docks, maker spaces and places of industrial-spectacle-verging-on-art as personified by artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde’s Dream Factory in the city’s upcoming Innovation District M4H.
Telling the story of a place
Despite the huge challenge in re-tuning the city’s somewhat drab industrial image into something altogether more melodious, it can have escaped nobody’s attention that Rotterdam is sweeping away the title of ‘must-visit destination’ across a plethora of media, varying from CNN and Huffington Post, to Vogue and The Guardian, throwing some serious shadow on Amsterdam, it’s old, historic competitor. It seems like every day the city is popping up in different media – a report in Spanish on the BBC World website or films on German TV around resilience and sustainability in the harbour city.
This success is largely attributable to the efforts Rotterdam Partners – a focussed and dynamic organisation driven to put the city on the map. Moreover, within Rotterdam Partners, it is International Press Officer, Kim Heinen, who is being lauded for a strategy that makes other cities and destinations sit up and take notice. She has been referred to as the ‘city stylist’ by local blog ‘Vers Beton’ (fresh concrete): a title that is entirely appropriate.
Today’s New York City is a delight; one of the world’s most desirable places to live, work, or visit. Its name is synonymous with success, wealth and the American dream. But back in the mid-70s, New York was a different place. It was dirty and rundown, suffering from serious crime and drug problems. People associated New York with danger and lawlessness. Despite the city’s low morale at this time, New Yorkers still regarded their city with great affection. Perhaps some kind of catalyst was needed to rally people around and set much-needed social change in motion.
In 1977, Milton Glaser was the man who provided that catalyst. His historic ‘I Love NY’ logo design harnessed the positive spirit of New Yorkers and, with its bright uplifting looks, became a tangible representation of people’s inherent love for their city. As their sense of pride grew, so people became more inspired to make New York a better place to live.
As Glaser himself once commented in an interview, New Yorkers suddenly experienced a ‘shift in sensibility.’ One day the streets were ‘full of dog crap’ and no-one cared; the next day, people got fed up with stepping in it. The city began to react. Authorities started levying $100 fines upon careless dog owners, and the streets quickly became cleaner. Many have said that Glaser’s logo helped turn New York’s image around. And it wasn’t just a temporary shift.
Throughout the 80s and 90s New York experienced a meteoric rise in popularity and success. International firms jostled with each other to invest in New York and foreign tourists flocked to see the city’s iconic landmarks. Shows such as Friends and Sex and the City furthered enhance New York’s new image and spread it across the world via people’s living rooms. Today, Glaser’s bold red on white ‘I Love NY’ is one of the world’s most recognisable city logos, adapted, satirised, loved, changed, featured on t-shirts, mugs, and all kinds of souvenirs. Some call the New York campaign the first true example of planned city brand strategy.
What does a city brand do?
As today’s city brand experts are well aware, it usually takes more than just a logo to brand a city. City branding involves communicating the feelings, culture, and overall mindset people experience when visiting a city. The best brand strategies always dig deeper into the history and culture of cities, to discover their archetypes, their soul, their identity, and their reality.
In our current digital age, it’s easy for potential visitors to quickly Google a city and decide whether or not they want to go there. For cities, it has become vital to define themselves. Else they risk becoming bland and irrelevant, getting swept away and perhaps even buried by the tide of information that consumes audiences every day. That makes having a distinctive city brand one of a city’s most valuable assets.
The brand promise is an essential part of building a city’s brand. What does the city wish to become known for? And is it making efforts to live that promise on a consistent, long-term basis? That’s what an effective city brand strategy should look like. Think of Paris, London, or Stockholm. What associations come to mind when these city names are mentioned? We all carry a certain set of associations in our minds that are invoked almost subconsciously when we hear the names of these cities.
What drives city brands?
A city brand has a number of key drivers: attraction of tourists, inward investment, and talent in the form of new taxpaying residents. The key to powerful, resonant branding is to find what makes your city stand out from the crowd. For example, most tourists want similar things in a destination, such as plenty of decent hotels and places to eat, lots of history and culture, things to see and do, all wrapped up in a safe environment in which to do them all.
But these are nothing unique and many cities offer these benefits. To truly stand out, a city needs to find its unique story and then tell it to its target audiences in an original, compelling and believable way. Successful city branding depends largely on how well a city can define its offer and make itself stand out among the competition. Positioning is everything – and it must be simple, credible and relevant.
In conclusion, yes, cities can be brands. In fact, many of them become so with little effort on their part. But rather than accepting the reputation your city gains organically, it’s wise to take steps to steer it in a direction that will be beneficial for all stakeholders, from local government to business and civil society. Responsibility for driving the brand of your city rests in your hands. Be strategic, be imaginative, and make the most of it!
Listen to our Place Branding podcast interview with Milton
The world’s most famous, and copied, city brand device.
It’s a question that gets asked a lot. We do have a name that sort of provokes the question I guess. Well the best way to answer it is a snap shot of the last couple of weeks and some of the things I have been involved with working with our team members.
Just over two weeks ago I was in Lapland, in the municipality of Arvidsjaur (it’s where they have the winter testing of cars and polar driving experience) running workshops with stakeholders and meeting local politicians to see how we can help reverse the decline in population and boost summer tourism.
It’s a really fascinating brief. Lapland is an incredible experience (and actually the weather was beautiful – and we were just 160 kilometres from the polar circle). I was working there with two of UP’s Swedish marketeers, Jenny (who is actually a fabulous Finn) and Mats (equally fabulous but from southern Sweden where they have strange accents). Running brand workshops with these two is always enjoyable, fun and we all quickly discover that it’s a myth that northern Swedes are quite. Anything but. In the middle of the workshop though we all take a break for a traditional Swedish fika, (comprising having a coffee and a bit of a chat). It’s a very important part of the Swedish culture.
If you want to discover more about the importance of the Swedish fika go to the bottom of this blog.
Julian and Rudolf
Mats Renée, centre, working with his group in a break out session in Arvidsjaur
Fast forward to June 2nd. It’s 38 degrees centigrade outside, but we are inside one of the world’s coolest, but hottest, sustainable developments
We’re now running a digital workshop at the Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Masdar is a university, a renewable energy developer, an investor and is building one of the world’s most sustainable cities. The company comprises four integrated business units complemented by a graduate-level research university. Pretty impressive, and the people we meet are impressive as well.
At this workshop I’m accompanied by two amazing UP members based in Dubai, Zar and Asra. Both are smart, fun and highly professional. The clothes worn at this session are a mix of western casual to arabic, and it helps to make for a really exotic and interesting session.
We have great discussions around digital, Inbound Marketing, developing content and emerging trends. During this workshop we break not for a fika but for prayers. Again, we get great input and interaction at the workshops, with the noise level rising during the breakout sessions as the attendees really get into it. It was something I’ll never forget. I just think how lucky I am to have experienced two such contrasting places in the space of just a couple of weeks. From Lapland to Abu Dhabi.
So why are we called UP THERE, EVERYWHERE? Simply because we are.
I’ve lived in Sweden a good few years now but my Swedish doesn’t appear to get much better. I speak what I call ICA Swedish (ICA being the name of the local grocery store, where I can make myself understood pretty well, but that’s about it).
One Swedish word I do know however is Lagom. It’s a word that is central to the Swedish psyche, and in fact pretty much everything else that has gone on in Sweden for the last few hundred years. It means just enough – but never too much. It’s about being average. Everyone being the same – equal. Now I’ve battled this word for a good number of years, as average is not really something I have an affinity for and I’ve come to the conclusion that Lagom is so embedded in the Swedish way of life, it can never be removed. Which is probably why they’ll never win a world cup – but that’s another story.
In my work with cities and place branding I find that far too often most places are Lagom in the way they approach their marketing. The positioning of cities, what they stand for, is key in their successful marketing. Too many places end up doing something average, creating what I call wallpaper positioning – trying to be all things to everyone and in so doing achieve and stand for very little.
Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is certainly not a lagom city. I was recently asked to be a keynote speaker on City Branding at the Capital City Vision Event in Cardiff (www.cdffuture.com/page/programme/). They asked me to talk about my experience with the branding and marketing of Stockholm and other places.
I realised I had not been to Cardiff in well over 20 years and when last there it was not particularly a city I had looked forward to visiting. Wales was a place I knew well however, having spent many holidays on the west coast, Cardigan Bay. Added to this my grandmother, now sadly no longer with us, was Welsh. She was from the valleys. So, in the words of Granny Stubbs, ‘I had a bit of an affliction for Wales’.
So back to Cardiff. What a spectacular difference to the city of my youth. Modern Cardiff is a welcoming and interesting place with a dramatically changed architecture from when I knew it. The millennium Stadium is spectacular. It looks like something from another planet, that has been dropped from the mother ship to fit perfectly into the centre of the city. I walked round all sides of it in awe. Built for the 1999 Rugby World Cup, it’s hosted many other great sporting events, including one of the most memorable FA Cup Finals ever, between Liverpool and West Ham (which after extra time and a 3-3 score, ended up with Liverpool winning on penalties). There are several things I really like about the Millennium Stadium. One being that it’s right slap–bang in the centre of the city. It gives it a very special feeling, for such a major stadium. The other thing I love is the cost – at somewhere under 150 million pounds, it makes Wembley Stadium, which cost closer to 750 million, look incredibly expensive and actually a waste of money. I know which I prefer.
The list of other dramatic new architecture in the city is impressive as well – the Millennium Centre, Richard RogersSenedd(or Welsh Senate building) and the fantastic new Cardiff Bay Development. By 2018 the new BBC Wales head office will house 1200 staff right in the very heart of the city. Today the city is already home to many well known BBC productions, most notably Dr.Who (check out the Dr Who Experience if you’re into Daleks).
Dr Who.Made in Cardiff
I had my family with me and we walked the city streets one evening looking for a good restaurant and we were spoilt for choice (we eventually chose a Brazilian restaurant called Viva Brazil, where the Passadors, or meat carvers, move from table to table, offering fifteen different cuts of meat.)
Walking through The Hayes and around the St Davids Centre the choice and variance of restaurants and food is spectacular and again a far cry from the fish and chips city of my youth.
Cardiff Bay development.
The St Davids Centre development is by renowned architect Eric R. Kuhne and his company Civic Arts. The centre combines leisure, retail, entertainment, office, and residential spaces into a vibrant new centrepiece in the very heart of the city. I had the huge good fortune that Eric was one of the other keynote speakers on the platform with me in Cardiff and what a speech it was covering as a professional many of the things I appreciate about good urban thinking and design. Eric is the founder of Civic Arts which he describes as ‘a research and design practice dedicated to rediscovering the pageantry of civic life‘. Civic Arts is currently building both mixed-use and specialised projects on four continents, from urban regeneration schemes to entire city master plans. He believes that ‘the city has been, and always will be, the ultimate ‘Marketplace of Ideas.’ As a city person it’s sentiment I can easily embrace.
It was a true pleasure to listen to Eric’s speech and share the same platform as such an urban visionary.
The Miner by local sculptor Robert Thomas, is a reminder of the sweat and blood that the city of Cardiff is built upon. It makes the point wonderfully well of how very different, and comparatively easy, our modern day life is.
Tim Williams CEO of The Committee for Sydney
Another key participant at the Capital City Vision Event, was Tim Williams – CEO of The Committee for Sydney. Tim, a proud Welshman, was formerly CEO of the Thames Gateway London Partnership where he made the Gateway in East London the key urban regeneration project for London and indeed the UK. Tim is recognised as one of the leading urban renewal thinkers and practitioners at work in the field, with an international reputation.
Tim’s brilliant speech focused on the future of cities. People are flocking to cities and most interestingly back to city centres. The dream of our parents and grand parents of living in suburbia is in full reverse. Thirty years ago inner cities had connotations of being dangerous, low quality slum districts but today more and more people want to live in the heart of cities. The easy access to amenities, connectivity and being able to conduct daily life in a simpler, lower cost way are some of the major drivers. These new urbanites offer many benefits to society as well, such as reduced carbon footprint as daily commutes are impacted and with people living in smaller city centre accommodation.
These people are educated and seeking knowledge based jobs as well. This phenomenon is what the demographer William Frey has in mind when he says “A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”
The point is to ensure you have some of what attracts ‘bright flight’: walkable urbanism.
And it’s not just the young. Interestingly the baby boomers, who are now approaching retirement age, are seeking easier, lower cost, life styles with their larger homes in the suburbs now costing them more time and effort to maintain and heat. City centre living also reduces the need for cars. This means cities need efficient, good quality, public transportation systems as well as offering walkable urbanism.
Place Branding: The Drivers and Issues
My own speech in Cardiff focused on three aspects of developing a strong city brand. Firstly I looked at some of the drivers for city branding such as the attraction of tourists, inward investment as well as new tax paying residents. Place and city branding is one of the most complex marketing tasks that can be undertaken and has to involve a high degree of stakeholder contact. Identifying and involving the key stakeholders is central to any place branding strategy. Finally I looked at positioning, which goes to the very heart of place branding. Here I referenced my own work for the city of Stockholm and its positioning as The Capital of Scandinavia. The art of marketing is the art of branding. The art of branding is the art of positioning. What do you stand for and represent? I play a little game of asking people what one word they would use to describe a city. It’s one of the most challenging questions to answer for any brand and goes to the heart of positioning.
Place branding has grown enormously in the last ten years and as one place markets itself, very other place has to. Many of the disciplines of consumer marketing apply however to place branding. Like a traditional brand, places need to develop long term strategies. These should have a ten and twenty year perspective and not change with every political cycle. This means politicians need to be engaged early on and the strategy needs to have cross political party agreement to have a long term future. Stockholm’s has been in place now over ten years and has been through different political administrations successfully.
Building strong place brands can have a remarkable impact on cities. Just take the case of Barcelona. Today it is seen as one of the world’s most successful cities. However, it was all very different forty years ago. In the 1975 series Fawlty Towers Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter who lived in fear of Mr Fawlty, was cast as coming from Barcelona. His home town was chosen with great care – as at that stage Barcelona was considered by many foreigners to be a run down, dirty, industrial black hole. It wasn’t until the death of Franco in 1975, that a new regional focus was put in place to get the city back on a path to regeneration. One of the key springboards in the strategy was the winning, and hugely successful staging of, the 1992 Olympic games, Barcelona is one of the few destinations to have run an Olympics at a profit. More than most places, the case of Barcelona proves that it is possible to turn around the fortunes of a city given the right strategy, a high degree of stakeholder involvement, focus and – most importantly – investment.
The Barcelona case was I felt relevant to my Cardiff presentation. Cardiff has been through a remarkable transformation since my youth. It’s already impressive. But the UK needs to embrace a more decentralised approach. London still dominates but turning the UK’s regional cities into new economic power houses would have tremendous benefits for the entire UK economy.
I was asked what one word I would use to describe Cardiff and spontaneously I replied passion. It’s a city with genuine passion and pride. You can feel it in meeting the local people and politicians. Lagom? Certainly not. Cardiff is a place that deserves to succeed and stand out. As the Capital city of Wales it also has a gravitas that most cities can’t match.
Cardiff has yet more potential to offer and I believe the best is yet to come. Granny Stubbs, my Welsh grandmother, would be proud.
Watch an extract from the Capital City Vision speech here: