In the age of globalisation, where many aspects of life have become homogenised, there has never been a more important time for the local. But in the clamour for attention, cities need to have a strong clear brand to remain competitive and attract the investment and businesses required to succeed on a national and international stage.
For the world’s biggest cities, their name alone can stand as their brand. To put this into perspective, there is only one city in the UK with this status: London. Other cities, in contrast, have had to be more creative in capturing attention, borrowing the techniques of corporate and consumer organisations.
Such branding exercises are nothing new. Many cities in the Midlands and the North have long-standing brands that were built on the back of the industries they fostered. Manchester, for example, was known as Cottonopolis, while Belfast (not to be outdone) was Linenopolis.
Meanwhile in the Birmingham area, with public transport now under the control of the West Midlands mayor, a common brand has been launched to unify trains, trams and buses with Mayor Andy Street tellingly deploying the analogy of “the iconic red London bus – it is recognised the world over.”
London, led the way in utilising branding across its public transport network. Under the leadership of Frank Pick, the visual identity of the London Underground, with its distinctive font and roundel, was set in place in the 1920s. This branding has survived to this day; its latest incarnation in a purple colourway for the opening of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail).
However, even the quality of London’s icons has not prevented it from asserting the need for a fresh push to remind the world of its character and identity recently – just look at the ‘London is Open’ campaign that was established in the wake of the EU referendum.
Figure 1: Primary functions of city branding
Source: adapted from ATCM
Promotional campaigns can take city branding to another level and can have significant benefits in shifting perceptions of that city (Figure 1). A global classic must surely be the 1970s I ❤ NYC campaign, which has been borrowed on numerous occasions around the world, most recently for Manchester (I ❤ MCR). Readers of a certain age may well remember the mid-1980s campaign which was designed to promote Glasgow. The city recruited Mr Happy, the children’s book character, to promote itself under the caption, 'Glasgow’s Miles Better'. That may be over 30 years ago, but Glasgow still makes use of city-wide branding – currently 'People Make Glasgow' with a vivid pink colour palette.
The biggest dilemma with branding is whether it is worth it. A study for the Urban Land Institute concluded that the return on investment ‘may be difficult to gauge’. And while the spend on the brand may happen locally, its receipts (via taxation) may be channelled elsewhere. Even then, as the corporate world has proven to its cost, there can be no guarantee of success from a rebranding (see for example, the ill-fated Consignia brand). City branding has become so common that some mistakes look likely over the next 20 years; but the risks for cities that fail to be recognised are high, as they could in turn miss out on major investment opportunities and tourism.
So city branding will evolve. We expect all major UK cities to attempt some sort of branding exercise in the next 20 years, and not necessarily successfully or with lasting impact. However as such exercises become more sophisticated, they must have the support of and represent the authentic identity of the residents of the city in question as the ultimate brand ambassadors.