Executing a City Brand Strategy | MIPIM-World Blog

More than ever, there’s a race between cities for financial and human capital.  Businesses, students, tourists and employees increasingly have the freedom to choose where in the world they make their mark. If your city’s not on their map, you won’t get a look in. As a city’s profile becomes ever more important, ‘standing out’ by standing for something is becoming the essential objective for city leaders the world over.


But if the need for developing a city’s brand is understood, how to go about developing a city’s brand continues to be an area for debate.  Mistakenly, many people believe that a city’s branding can be solved with little more than a new logo.  Google “city positioning” and you’ll find a rogue’s gallery of trite, clichéd icons that attempt, and fail, to encapsulate all the little, intangible things that make a city great.


Don’t get us wrong, brand identity can be tremendously powerful – it’s hard to put a figure on the huge value of ‘I heart NY’ for example – but relying on this alone to deliver city differentiation is somewhat misguided. Identity serves to announce change but it does not deliver change itself.


Look to the commercial world and you’ll find great brands like Apple and Virgin who focus their brand building efforts on experiences. The minimalism of the iPod interface, the commitment of Virgin Atlantic to deliver ‘entertainment in the sky’ through every single touch point. Big or small, it’s the physical things that work hardest to deliver. If I tell you I’m funny you might believe me, if I make you laugh there’ll be no doubt about it.


So if you’ve taken the time to distil a single-minded city strategy, make sure your next steps serve to pour that strategy into every aspect of city life, not just to write it on the label.


By way of example, last year we were engaged by Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, to help them develop their city’s brand.  As Greg will have no doubt discussed at some point in this blog, the need to create an idea for the city based on the collective truths of its residents was at the heart of our approach. We interviewed members of the municipality, the university, businesses and citizens alike to get a true flavour of what rational attributes and emotional values might set the city apart.


What came to the surface was a city that held innovation and collaboration at the top of its list of virtues.  Now, at this point you’re probably thinking to yourselves that these qualities are hardly the most differentiating, and, if we’d stopped there and made a logo and a tagline about innovation and collaboration, you’d probably be right.  But what we did instead was to explain to the city that if they were going to create something differentiating around these qualities, that they’d have to bring them to life in the most physical way possible.


So, as well as the visual identity and a snappy new tagline – “Aarhus. Danish for progress” – we spent the majority of our effort helping them establish a mechanism to activate their positioning.  Our premise was simple: if you’re to be known as a hotbed of innovation through collaboration, you’d need to create a vehicle where newcomers, especially businesses, would be able to fast track their immersion into these skillsets. The big activation idea was what we called “the city wide innovation network”.  This was effectively an on-boarding system for start-up businesses to give them access to the best of the city.  Imagine arriving somewhere to be given accommodation, access to the municipality, access to the university, access to staff, access to experts further up and down the supply chain – with a small army of highly intelligent and creative collaborators meeting you off the plane, suddenly intangible concepts like innovation and collaboration could become unmissable.


In the case of Aarhus, therefore, the role of brand communication was less to announce the brand to the outside world, and more to give confidence to the city’s citizens that they could deliver on their promise, a couple of examples of which we’ve included below.


Activating a brand idea, within a company, is a complex task that requires people from across the organisation to work together in new ways.  Put such a task on the scale of a city and you’ve a different league of complexity.  But with clarity of purpose, clear leadership, considered processes and, most of all, lots of exemplars of what you want people to do, it’s definitely not impossible.  We live in an experience economy where the difference between doing what you say you’re going to do, and merely saying it, is what matters most.


Written by Simon Cotterrell, Co-owner at Goosebumps Brand Consultancy


Top image credit : Photobank gallery



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