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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.