City branding: Is it an urban necessity or a frivolous expense?
The answer seems to be that it can be both, depending how a council goes about creating a recognizable city identity for use in ads, economic proposals, and tourism.
Case in point: In Nashua, N.H., a branding project undertaken two years ago has left the city council genuinely befuddled, with little or nothing to show for what appears to have cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. The following video, culled from footage of city council meetings, reveals the extent of the confusion:
Now teleport over to Glasgow, Scotland, where a city marketing bureau set up in 2005 claims dramatic results, including increases in tourist expenditure and business travel amounting to hundreds of millions of UK pounds annually. More recently, the bureau introduced a "People Make Glasgow" branding campaign. The video below is an example of one of the bureau's short videos, though it was taken a couple of years ago:
What accounts for the difference in these two projects? Granted, one is for a small city, the other for a major international one. Still, it's possible to trace the roots of success and failure despite the size differences.
Let's start with Nashua. Here, the project doesn't seem to have been clearly defined from the outset. Consider how Mayor Donnalee Lozeau described the work initially: "I think you're going to see what they call a reskinning of the website, potentially, with color changes and a tagline, maybe, and a new brand that will be used throughout."
All good, but a city brand calls for more than a website rehaul and a handful of brochures. "Branding is a long-term coordinated and integrated strategic exercise and not a tagline," blogged one consultant. "One-size-fits-all strategies using mass media are no longer effective."
Several years ago, an organization called CEOs for Cities partnered with consultancy Prophet and produced a city branding how-to report that still contains helpful information. Here's one relevant statement from that document:
Unfortunately, there is the common misconception that branding is simply a communications strategy, a tagline, visual identity or logo. It is much, much more. It is a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for a place that is relevant and compelling to key audiences.
The process of city branding must be understood before anything meaningful can be done, most experts say. Another branding consultant, Bill Baker, puts it this way on his blog: "We understand the need for ambitious cities to have great advertising, designs and communications. But those actions come after the overall strategic framework is established."
The strategic process of city branding is a long and thorough one. Simon Anholt, a policy expert who is often quoted as a source of current knowledge on city branding, includes in his advisory program for country, city, or region branding at least three visits over a period of six to twelve months, during which he conducts in-depth workshops, with "cabinet-plus attendees" -- the prime minister, cabinet or council, and "top decision-makers from trade; tourism; culture/heritage/sport; economic affairs; education; CEOs of major corporations; and civil and religious leaders.
Establishing a strategic framework is the basis for any successful city branding project. In Glasgow, the bureau took four weeks to gather input from over 1,500 people worldwide via social media. Additionally, the team conducted 40 personal interviews with academics and city officials. Analyzing all the results produced the wording that helped the creative team come up with the new "People Make Glasgow" slogan.
In poor Nashua's case, the champions of the project confused the channels for using a new brand with the process of branding. They fell for nearly all of the "Common Place Branding Pitfalls" Bill Baker describes elsewhere on his site. These include "insufficient understand of branding" and "failure to grasp the scope of branding."
Nashua compounded its problem by being lacking in communication and in internal organization. Without those, how could any coherent strategy develop?
In contrast, Glasgow stepped up to the plate, throwing all of its weight and support behind a branding effort that tapped the knowledge of outsiders and insiders alike.
City branding is here to stay. Cities large and small must take steps to ensure they do it right the first time. Otherwise, it's not worth doing at all.
— Mary Jander, Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities