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Branding a cross-border mentality

The Dutch province of Limburg has a notable history. In its capital city, Maastricht, the treaty that created the European Union was signed back in 1992.

Limburg is also home to the laboratory that invented the world’s first synthetic hamburger, and the mountainous smugglers’ maze that helped saved valuable Dutch artwork from the Nazis during the Second World War.

As well, Limburg is famous for its cross-border mentality. This comes from the province’s unique location, snuggled in-between Belgium and Germany. In fact, when I entered Limburg, my flight from Istanbul landed at Düsseldorf airport. I then travelled by road all the way from Germany into the Netherlands (which really isn’t very far).

But it illustrates how closely overlapping these border regions are. Many Limburgians speak French and German as well as their native Dutch, and often travel between the three countries for shopping, work and leisure. Some Limburgians even say that they feel more in common with the neighbouring countries than with fellow Dutch in the Hague or in Amsterdam.

While staying in Limburg, I talked with a wide range of people, including local businessmen, museum managers, the mayor of Maastricht, and the governor of Limburg. I also spent time with the people at Connect Limburg, talking about their long-term place branding strategy for the province and their goals for the next ten years.

Robert Govers, who helped devise the initial Limburg place branding strategy, told me that it was fairly straightforward to reach agreement with all stakeholders on how the Limburg brand should look. Stakeholders were convinced that ‘crossing borders’ forms a core part of the Limburg DNA and that it was vital to include this in the strategy.

Usually, it takes much time and juggling to get all stakeholders on board with a new place branding strategy. But in Limburg’s case, the identity was already so strong that few people needed to question it.

Conny Moonen, head of Connect Limburg, reinforced this point when she told me that, in Limburg, most people see borders not as obstacles, but as interfaces.

She said: “We want to focus on creating options, being open-minded, and connecting across borders. We hope that Limburg will become a benchmark for how countries should interact across borders.

“In ten years time I’d like to see Limburg known as the ‘heartbeat of Europe’ – the place where it all began.”

There’s a lot more to say about Limburg, but for now I’d like to point you in the direction of two published pieces I wrote recently for the UK press. In the first, for City Nation Place, I explore the overall Limburg place branding approach in more detail, including my interviews with key figures in the province.

The second piece, for City Metric, highlights Maastricht and its attempts to create a distinctive identity within the umbrella of Limburg’s cross-border mentality.

Anatomy of a brand campaign

Today we talk to Kerstin Steglich and Christof Biggeleben from branding agency Ketchum Pleon. Our goal is to delve further into the details of their brand campaign for the Saxony region.

How did they make sure the campaign was people-focused? How did they address the needs of all the stakeholders? In what way was storytelling integrated into the campaign?

Placesbrands: How did you define the ‘unique selling point’ of Saxony?

Kerstin Steglich: For the Simply Saxony campaign we didn’t focus on a single highlight, particular aspects or services from Saxony – but instead we focused on an attitude. It is pragmatism, innovation and a doer mentality that has always made a Saxon.

This is precisely the attitude that we put in the centre of the campaign – and we tell exactly the stories that reflect this attitude. Simply Saxony may be interpreted individually by every inhabitant of Saxony. Thereby every Saxon can become a part of the campaign.

What differentiates Simply Saxony from other advertising campaigns?

Christof Biggeleben: On one hand, we deliberately kept the claim very open. It doesn’t postulate a classic brand promise but invites you to take part and try out. We entered into dialogue with the Saxons from the very beginning.

We added the stories of the people to the campaign and then engaged them in concrete terms (as an individual, via sports clubs, cultural institutions or companies). No other German federal state campaign has achieved this to the same extent.

Secondly, we started with the communication in Saxony itself. Effectively, that was agenda setting in the direction of the inhabitants.

Only after the campaign was approved by the Saxons, did we open it up to other parts of Germany and abroad. With this strategy, we have made sure that the campaign is supported by the people. Saxon artists and sportsmen are on the road as ambassadors of Saxony and the campaign. Saxon companies implement the campaign when marketing their products. And the claim has already become a dictum.

How would you define good place branding? Is it always about logos and slogans – or does it involve more?

CB: Logo and slogans are important, beyond doubt. The logo is almost a kind of visual identity card for a state. The slogans summarise the strengths of the state and put them in a nutshell. But a campaign must also be lived by the people, because they are a country. People, slogans, and logos must go hand in hand.

What role does storytelling play in a good place brand strategy?

CB: In the ‘Age of Digital’, storytelling plays the key role. We made our strategy more in line with the Brothers Grimm, their fairy tales and the nation-building processes from the 19th century than with the nation-branding textbooks. Stories, myths, and festivals led to a national consciousness and national identities in the 19th century across Europe.

In Germany, for example, the collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm was an eminently political process. They served as evidence of cultural unity of the Germans, in a country that was not politically unified. This shows the power of storytelling. People remember. And they continue to tell the stories.

Basically, we do the very same thing today with the campaign by giving the Saxons a stage for their stories. It’s still an ‘invention of tradition’ as the historian Eric Hobsbawm once said. Only today, this principle is stated in the sign of branding processes.

You mentioned that the Saxony brand is supported by ‘all of Saxony’. How did you manage to engage this wide and diverse range of stakeholders?

KS: The stage is again the keyword: we worked together with Saxon ambassadors, especially Saxon artists, presenting their state. For instance, we made a PR stunt on Times Square with the Thomaner Boys Choir from Leipzig. Some of the musicians of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra played a spontaneous concert on the street in New York on the day exactly 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.

Another example is the video artist Sebastian Linda, who brought his unique perspective on the state into a film. I think that again the issue of attitude and identification is in the foreground.

Because the Saxons identify strongly with their state and with the attitude the campaign is based on, they like to be on the road as ambassadors. Of course, with the campaign we have also offered a stage for artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs.

The video shows different scenarios, from urban to nature elements, and various cultural angles, including skateboarding, urban fashion, and a mosque. Who in particular are your key target audiences?

KS: The campaign doesn’t have one single target audience. As a classic location campaign it’s both thematic and broad in terms of the target groups. It uses the topics of business, innovation, education, art, culture … and therefore addresses investors, tourists, and professionals with tailored measures.

The aforementioned film by Sebastian Linda is primarily aimed at a young, creative target group in Germany and internationally. Here, the aim was to draw attention to Saxony as a state to visit, but perhaps also to study and to live.

After all, there was little knowledge of Saxony, there were few concrete images in the minds of the target audiences. Where knowledge is lacking, prejudices and stereotypes tend to enter in its place. Therefore, the film is intended to convey a modern, Saxon lifestyle.

According to a recent survey, 42% of Germans now know the brand Simply Saxony. Do you think this means they have actually formed a whole new set of associations around Saxony, or does it just signify that they are aware of the logo and slogan?

KS: In the best case scenario – both! We would wish for that. Therefore, a second survey last fall requested more details. Compared to 2011, there was a 20% increase in positive spontaneous associations (with landscape, landmarks and cities) in all German regions, but especially in the western provinces. We were particularly pleased by positive developments in tourism, industry and education.

In this period Saxony’s perception has increased by 29% due to the support of our campaign. However, there is still plenty of work to do because many West German workers cannot yet imagine a move to Saxony. Fortunately, this east-west difference is no longer an issue for young people, 25 years after reunification.

How did you leverage social media as part of the campaign? What value in general would you say social media has in helping to develop new associations with a place?

CB: Social media is the catalyst of good stories, especially when they break with the usual stereotypes, and when the story is told differently from what is expected. Actually, this is just as the filmmaker Sebastian Linda did with the project ‘Travel where you live’. We can reach international audiences via social media that we never would have reached with traditional TV spots in three to five destinations 15 years ago.

One can almost speak of a ‘digital nation-branding’, because photos of places and countries are transported much faster via social media. In the 19th century it was the principle of the world exhibition buildings such as the Eiffel Tower, which expressed the image of a country. Today, good YouTube clips can achieve this. Or one big film project, such as the Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand.

But we must also remember: a major event is still central, as the Football World Cup 2006 in Germany has shown. This is the perfect stage for the people of a country. And it has changed perceptions worldwide.

Does the Simply Saxony campaign tie into a long-term vision for the development of Saxony? 

CB: I would rather answer in general. At first, campaigns can only be icebreakers. You can correct distorted images such as in the case of Saxony, and break stereotypes. But then you need to add that special momentum. Does the campaign exactly hit the lifestyle and attitude of the people?

If place-branding campaigns succeed, the long-term strategy can only be people making the campaign into their campaign. Because they are the best ambassadors of their country. If that succeeds, then the campaign did a good job.

Signposting the city

Guardian Cities recently discussed how typefaces have been instrumental in building city identity. The story kicks off with the case of the the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which was hit hard by the decline in manufacturing over the last few decades.

In Eindhoven, things started going pear-shaped in the 80s, but went horribly wrong in the late 90s when the Dutch electronics giant, Philips, abruptly shifted its head office to Amsterdam, finishing off two decades of gradual pulling away.

Manufacturing goods for Philips had been the lifeblood of Eindhoven for decades and its loss was a severe blow, not just to the city’s economic base but also to its sense of pride and self-esteem. But where other cities might have floundered into a major downward spiral, Eindhoven showed typical Dutch pragmatism and began to reinvent itself to rise from the ashes in a different form.

The empty factories left by the departing Philips became affordable real estate, allowing for a number of startups and creative companies to move in, take root and thrive. This new burst of creativity in turn spurred Eindhoven’s technology and design sectors to new and imaginative heights.

As this flurry of activity began to change the nature of Eindhoven, so city planners began to nurture the idea of rebranding the city to match its new state of being. As design had rejuvenated the city’s economy, it seemed appropriate that design should also feature as a strong part of the rebranding campaign. Planners suggested creating a distinctive city typeface.

The city marketing department liked the idea, and commissioned various agencies to work on it. As they played around with sticky tape to make the font sketches, they discovered that the way the letters looked when outlined in tape, rough, with the corners missing, somehow reflected Eindhoven’s new identity as a post-industrial city still uneven around the edges.

Dutch designer, Remco van de Craats, believes that typeface can and does reflect the uniqueness of a city. Calling it the ‘voice of the city’, he asserts that type has ‘a lot of effect on the atmosphere of a place’.

Further examples can be seen around the world, such as the distinctive signage of London, Paris or New York, or the new Cyrillic typeface currently being created for Moscow’s imposing underground system. Some people, mainly font designers, say that the city’s identity is closely tied up with its typeface. They believe that the font somehow contributes to forming part of the city’s distinct personality.

Many cities are hopping on the bandwagon and commissioning new typefaces to help boost their image and bolster their identity. It’s easier for large famous cities to achieve this, but what about smaller, lesser-known ones?

The small US city of Chattanooga is currently involved in a project, funded by crowd-sourcing, to create a new city font. One of the lead designers, Jeremy Dooley, believes that a smaller city lends itself better to this kind of project because it is less diverse, less fragmented and people are more likely to reach agreement on what the font should be like.

Dooley points out that typefaces in mega-cities have achieved fame and become imbued with meaning in a largely organic way, over the years. This has often happened via their use as part of the city’s transport network, which has given them a high degree of exposure to everyone who visits or lives in the city.

Chattanooga’s deliberate attempt to introduce new fonts as part of a city’s rebranding is a more experimental approach. One might argue that this somewhat ‘artificial’ method is similar to those branding projects that try to impose a new logo or slogan onto a city. This is an ineffective way of generating a new identity.

Of course, brand consultants have thought of this already, and they have come up with an explanation. According to London-based brand consultant Paul Bailey, a successful city typeface must tap into ‘what makes this place this place.’ It must reflect the existing personality of the city, or that of the city in transition to a new phase of being.

However, there’s a risk that by getting too carried away with typeface, city marketers can fall into the same trap as that of logos and slogans.

A strong typeface is a useful addition that may enhance the image of the city on a superficial level, but a typeface alone can’t rejuvenate an entire city identity.

As with logos and slogans, it can only be effective if the proper groundwork has already been done. If the city is doing well in terms of economy, infrastructure, environment, governance, safety, culture, etc, then a suitable typeface could be used to add an extra cherry on top of an existing range of positive achievements.

When used without this foundation, typeface is unlikely to have significant effect on the image of a city. It would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

From pariah to chart-topper

Last year, Japan scored its first top spot in a country brand index when it came first in FutureBrand’s annual index.

The FutureBrand index measures the strength of countries’ brands based on factors including the number of consumer brands the country is known for (an easy win for Japan with its multitude of famous names in electronics), its expertise across a whole range of consumer categories, plus its overall momentum in sustainability, innovation and technology.

Anyone who’s been to Japan will know about all the quirky, unique things that can be found there, so it’s no huge surprise that Japan scores highly for innovation. And of course, Tokyo winning the 2020 Summer Olympics is the icing on the cake of Japanese popularity.

With the huge leaps forward made by Japan over the last few decades, it’s easy to forget that it was once a very unpopular nation. After the Second World War, Japan, along with Germany, was one of the global pariahs, lambasted and despised for the part it played against Allied forces in the war.

However, Japan made a concerted effort to salvage its image, combined with making big strides in creating a strong economy. By the turn of the century, Japan was well-established as a respected and admired nation.

But from the perspectives of two of its closest neighbours, Japan remains unpopular. According to a 2013 Pew survey of Asian attitudes, only 8% of Chinese voiced favourable opinions about Japan. Although the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is considered generally popular among many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, he is not well-liked by either China or South Korea.

This animosity has long-standing roots in history, much of it stemming from the brutality of Japanese soldiers towards Chinese and Korean citizens during the Second World War. Many Chinese and Koreans believe that Abe has still not apologised sufficiently for these tragic events, although some analysts argue that in fact Japan has tried to apologise but China has so far not accepted.

It seems that, despite Japan’s growing popularity and strong global image, the nation still has concerns about how it is perceived globally in the light of these historical negative encounters with its nearest neighbours.

A recent article in the Japan Times mentions an upcoming government initiative to help address this situation. Called ‘Japan House’, the plan is to set up communication centres in various major locations around the world, such as London, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo to start with. If successful, these will be followed by centres in Hong Kong, Jakarta and Istanbul.

The centres, in the style of the British Council, Goethe Institute or Alliance Française, will promulgate Japanese culture around the world, aiming to further strengthen Japan’s global image and perhaps mitigate some of the concerns surrounding wartime events. According to the article, ministers have said that the Japan House centres will use a mix of animation, comic book displays, restaurants and local specialities to promote Japan.

One can’t help but think, however, that it would be most effective for Japan to go directly to the source of the discontent and perhaps consider what China and South Korea really want. Of course, diplomacy is far more complex than just issuing an apology.

But on a fundamental level, perhaps it would be a good start if Japan accepted more responsibility for its wartime actions. Then neighbourly relations may begin to improve and Japan could start to repair the one part of its image that is less glowing than the rest.

In the meantime, it’ll be great to see the new Japan House open in Istanbul, along with all the local food specialities!

photo credit: The Abbot's Ale House, Cork via photopin (license)

Cork: Rebel county, smart city

photo credit: The Abbot's Ale House, Cork via photopin (license)
photo credit: The Abbot’s Ale House, Cork via photopin (license)

Everyone’s getting excited about smart cities these days. Often planned from scratch, these ultra-modern metropolises bristle with the latest innovations in technology: environmentally friendly buildings and infrastructure; computers that control many aspects of urban dwelling; wi-fi as ubiquitous as oxygen.

The UAE and South Korea already have their own smart cities; China and India aren’t far behind. In Europe, meanwhile, the concept is taking hold and influencing the redevelopment of existing cities.

But policy advisor and nation brand strategist Simon Anholt thinks all this smart city stuff is a waste of time. “It’s boring,” he says. “It’s the sort of discussion that may mean something to architects, planners or consultants but I’m sure conveys very little to most people who live in or visit cities.”

That might be why planners in the Irish city of Cork are trying something different. They liked the idea of the city being known as “smart”, but wanted to develop its reputation in a more lasting way. So instead of going for the hi-tech, impersonal route, they’re trying to build on the city’s existing assets – and take the meaning of “smart” in a different, more human direction.

“Stakeholders were creating a Tower of Babel effect, with too many dissonant messages coming out about Cork,” explains town planner and place-making specialist Malcolm Allan. “It was hard to discern exactly what was special about the city. Lots of people said, ‘The whole fecking place is wonderful’, but part of our job was to figure out the ‘proof points’ – to actually highlight and back up what Cork could offer.”

Cork is the name of both Ireland’s second city and of the county that contains it. It was the birthplace of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence; consequently, it’s known as the “rebel county”. It’s always been seen as independently minded and a law unto itself; a great trading place from which many departed to seek a new life in the US.

According to Malcolm Allan, who has been developing Cork’s place-making strategy, Cork people see themselves as the “better city” of Ireland. It’s similar to the way Brummies define themselves against London, or Glaswegians against Edinburgh.

“There’s this idea of the ‘fierce pride’ of Cork,” Allan says. “The smart city concept is something we investigated along the way. Politicians wanted to develop this angle, but they didn’t want the brand to focus on being ‘Ireland’s smart city’, because so many other European cities are already doing this. Living the brand became the priority, by attracting hi-tech firms and hiring talented people.”

To burnish its smart city credentials, Cork decided to play up and develop its long-time associations with large tech companies. Apple has had an office in the city for the last 25 years, attracted, in large part, by Ireland’s generous corporate tax breaks.

The tech giant stayed and expanded partly due to Cork’s top-quality education system, which produced excellent IT graduates. Over the years, an influx of other tech companies such as EMC have created a critical mass in the industry, giving Cork a well-deserved reputation as a genuine smart city.

“Ireland is well known for its ability to attract tech companies,” says John Dennehy, founder of Make IT in Cork, an initiative designed to attract more techies to the city. ”The big pull factors are availability of talent, track record, and low corporation tax. There are some clear competitive advantages over Dublin including lower cost of housing and office space, easier access to schools, shorter commutes and the different lifestyle associated with a smaller town.”

Cork has strayed away from the usual “smart city” path, with all the associated trappings of innovation and ultra-modernity; instead, it’s chosen to interpret the smart city concept in its own way, by focusing on existing “smart” assets.

Cork’s city planners realised that investing in a bunch of flashy technology and promoting Cork as “Ireland’s smart city” would not differentiate the brand, but would simply get it lost in the already over-crowded European smart city niche.

So they took a more subtle long-term approach, by investing in knowledge and producing/attracting smart people to do smart jobs. In the long-term, this new take on the “smart city” brand is likely to serve Cork well  – because it reflects the city’s real strengths.