Hamburgers and crossing borders: branding Maastricht

A view of Maastricht from the St John's church tower. Image: Kleon 3/Wikimedia Commons.

Which city can claim to be the birthplace of both the European Union and the world’s first synthetic hamburger? Where else but the Dutch city of Maastricht?

The city’s name probably rings vaguely familiar to many Europeans. During the early 1990s, people will remember hearing the city’s name frequently bandied about on the news, in the run-up to and aftermath of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which brought the European Union into existence.

Maastricht’s hamburger developments came much later, when the culinary wonder emerged from the laboratory in the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, McDonalds are unlikely to adopt the recipe any time soon, since producing the synthetic hamburger cost over $300,000.

A hamburger and a treaty are both excellent things – but latterly Maastricht has decided to carve out a new identity for itself, one that could help garner worldwide respect. Hopefully, achieving this goal would eventually result in increased tourism, inward investment, influx of foreign talent, and overall better recognition for the city on the increasingly crowded and competitive global stage.

City brand strategists working on Maastricht didn’t take long to conclude that the city’s main asset was its distinctive cross-border nature. Maastricht is capital of the province of Limburg, situated snugly between diminutive Belgium and mighty Germany. The province has absorbed characteristics from both countries, and many locals say they feel greater loyalty to Liège, Aachen or Düsseldorf than to the more distant heavyweights The Hague or Amsterdam.

“Historically this [loyalty] makes a lot of sense,” says Robert Govers, the scholar and place-branding expert leading the Limburg brand strategy. “There are many links with Belgium and Germany because of the Hapsburg Empire, and this region has been part of all kinds of weird constellations in the past. In culture, identity and behaviour, [the people of Maastricht and Limburg] are much more similar to Belgians and southern Germans than to the Dutch.”

Aside from its potent historical connections, modern Maastricht also displays a strong trend for innovation that the city leaders hope to capitalise upon. The Brightlands Campus, home to the famous hamburger-growing lab, is the source of numerous groundbreaking scientific projects in materials, nutrition and healthcare.

Brightlands is actually comprised of three separate campuses, all based in Limburg, and one in Maastricht itself, which attract large quantities of international researchers, students and entrepreneurs. As well as being a boon for the local economy, this kind of initiative stays true to the desired cross-border identity and helps reinforce the brand. In genuine city branding – not the logo and slogan variety – it is reality that creates perception.

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

Maastricht and its environs. Image: Google Maps.

As well as defining a clear strategy and getting major stakeholders on board, successful city branding also requires belief, commitment and active involvement from the residents of the city themselves. The people of the place should be “living the brand”.

Fortunately for Maastricht, the government seems to understand this, and its residents’ unusually international outlook is visible in the every day life of the city. As its mayor, Onno Hoes, says: “At our Friday Market, people from Belgium are doing their groceries side by side with international students and local people from Maastricht. It’s part of everyday life here. People are what make a city tick!”

That sounds wonderful in theory – but real life isn’t quite so easy. It may seem pretty straightforward for Maastricht to brand itself as a cross-border provincial capital city that specialises in innovation. But, as with every city brand journey, there are certain challenges that crop up along the way, again and again.

Bridging the gap in stakeholder understanding is one of them. According to Govers: “Private sector players often find it hard to understand how place branding helps improve their business performance. For example, in Limburg, some of them think that borders are irrelevant.

“We always have to explain that this branding stuff is primarily about building reputation and awareness, which creates an opening in people’s minds. Then you can start talking about your products and services. It’s a very difficult story to explain to people.”

Despite these predictable bumps in the road, the brand strategy is moving forward nicely. In 2014, a ten-year plan was established for the branding of Maastricht and Limburg as a whole. This has now been absorbed into local policymaking, and paying attention to the brand is becoming business as usual.

Hopefully, as Govers commented, ten years should be enough to shift the needle for the Maastricht brand. Hamburgers and treaties may soon be a distant memory.


Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.

What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.