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.

 
 
 
 

Tatton MP Esther McVey thinks Leeds is south of Birmingham for some reason

Great hair, though: Esther McVey. Image: Getty.

Earlier this morning, while everyone was focused on the implosion of the Labour party, former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey decided it was the perfect moment to promote her campaign against High Speed 2.

A quick reminder of the route of the proposed high speed rail link. Phase One will run from London to Birmingham. Should Phase Two ever go ahead, it will split just beyond Birmingham to create a y-shaped network, with one arm running to Manchester and the other to Leeds.

The map McVey tweeted this morning suggests that she doesn't know this. But that is, at worst, the seventh worst thing about the map, because, look:

Let’s look at that a big more closely:

Yep. How many things are wrong with it? Let’s count.

1) Manchester is not east of Leeds;

2) Leeds is not south of Birmingham;


3) Both Manchester and Leeds are further from London than Birmingham, rather than, as this map suggests, closer;

4) To get from London to Manchester you kind of have to pass Birmingham, Esther;

5) There is no railway line that runs from London to Leeds to Birmingham because that would be a really stupid way round, what with Leeds being quite a long way north of Birmingham;

6) Should the government decide to boost the north by scrapping Hs2 and improving east-west lines instead, those improved east-west lines will not cross the proposed route of HS2 Phase One because they are quite a long way to the north of it.

Okay I'm going to stop there and get back to staring at the flaming bin fire that we loving call the Labour party. But for the record, Esther: I'm not taking advice on transport policy from anyone who doesn't know where Leeds is.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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