Why do most city branding campaigns fail?

Montreal: a city that's got it right. Image: Jim Trodel via Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

So 86 per cent is a pretty high failure rate, right? Why would you even attempt a project with such shocking odds? Particularly if it was a costly undertaking, with a price tag that can run into the millions… Why bother?

And yet, according to a study by consulting firm k629, many cities around the world face exactly these odds in their attempts to rebrand themselves. Such campaigns can revitalise a city, and secure it a more prominent place on the map. Yet more often than not, mayors find that their hopes were misplaced: the average branding campaign is just an expensive damp squib.

Take Adelaide, for example. In 2013, the South Australian city spent over A$1 million on a new logo. Everyone hated it. A comedian and TV host, Wil Anderson, even likened it to a “particularly crap origami Pope hat”. 

So why do cities keep bothering with branding? And what do they need to do differently?

From an international perspective, a great brand is certainly a valuable asset. It can help a city to attract everything from tourists to investors to talent. It can help promote exports. It can boost residents’ pride.


And it’s not just for famous cities, either, says José Torres, of Bloom Consulting: “There’s something special about every city. City branding isn’t about inventing something; it’s about discovering what’s already there.”

The key is to examine a city’s characteristics and policies, and then align them to a single big idea, he says. Not everyone gets this right. “If a city’s big idea is to brand itself as a party town, a law forcing bars to close early would contradict that. The resulting confusion weakens the overall brand.” 

It’s perhaps also worth spelling out what city branding isn’t. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just a logo or a tagline. It’s not a promotional campaign. And it’s definitely not advertising. 

Brand strategist Günter Soydanbay rejects the word campaign altogether, preferring “journey” or “transformation”. The word ”campaign” smacks of ad-speak, he says: that’s problematic because advertising only offers quick-fix solutions to perceived problems. 

But for cities, it’s actions, not words, that really affect reputation. An effective city brand strategy brings all stakeholders together – from investors to officials to residents – at the beginning of the process. That way, they can define a common vision and then agree on a plan to reach it.

“A city always speaks through the behaviour of its stakeholders,” Soydanbay adds. “Campaigns just focus on words and images. And that’s why they fail, because they don’t change the behaviour.” In other words, there are no quick-fixes. 

There’s another reason why regular marketing campaigns don’t measure up: cities are simply too complex.

Any campaign that amounts to advertising has to ignores all the nuance that helps shape a city’s identity. Edinburgh’s ongoing "Capital City" campaign; the 2005 Leeds "Live it Love it" campaign; the heavy presence of Buenos Aires in Coca Cola's "Just Add Zero" ads. Each of these amounted to marketing a single aspect of a city in a unified way. The problem is, you can’t turn a city into a tagline and a logo.

One solution is to make greater use of “placemaking”: an emerging discipline combining town planning, urbanism and architecture. Its goal is to understand how shared space actually gets used, and improve it: that could mean pedestrianisation, slowing down traffic, or creating entire new public spaces.

Malcolm Allan, of consulting firm PlaceMatters, suggests that successful rebranding requires marketing agencies and placemakers to join forces to create an overall strategy. “Marketing is useful in a long-term brand strategy, but it’s not sufficient for place makers, town planners or marketers to handle the strategy on their own,” he says. “A combined approach is needed, with a holistic view of the process.”

With the right approach, cities can improve their reputation. But can they build a truly global brand? And should this be even be their goal?

Not necessarily, argues Günter Soydanbay. Not every city is New York, London, or Paris; nor should it try to be. Most cities operate within their own ‘ecosystems’.

Take Montreal, which has a good reputation among the French-speaking creative circles around the world. That’s a small proportion of the world’s population, but there are more than enough of them for Montreal to prosper. By taking a long-term and practical approach to improving their reputation, and not mistaking branding for advertising, other cities can find their own niche, too. 

Image credits: Adelaide government; Si Wilson on Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.