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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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