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Liverpool across the Mersey

Stoking city pride

Liverpool across the Mersey
photo credit: Sunrise over the River Mersey, Liverpool via photopin (license)

Placesbrands talks with Liverpool-based brand agency Uniform about galvanising citizen participation, rekindling a sense of civic pride, and keeping the smart cities of the future definitively people-focused.

Congratulations on being named twice in the City Nation Place place branding awards shortlist! How did you feel upon hearing the news?

Proud. These are two very different projects. Wirral Waters is a truly transformational project. Doing it right is more important than doing it quickly (the right considered approach is more important than rushing through the process to publicise a ‘logo’). Our client at Peel has been very supportive of the approach. Everyone is determined to make this the finest placemaking project that we’ve seen to date by working with the community.

As for Liverpool, this is a big city project on a city with an upward trajectory, but maintaining momentum can sometimes be more difficult than starting from scratch. It’s been complex but fulfilling to see the execution and support.

I’d like to talk first about the Wirral Waters regeneration project. Tell me about the approach Uniform used to get citizens on board with the project. What specific challenges did you encounter? And what are your thoughts on the importance of citizen participation for place branding as a whole?

The challenge was simple: 40 years of industrial decline, high unemployment and low aspirations. People had forgotten what it was like to be asked. Stimulating conversation in that environment isn’t easy – traditional workshops simply don’t work so we had to create our own tools that sparked debate, provoked comment and built aspiration.

We designed a multi-layered approach to maximise engagement. We held face to face meetings with many local community leaders, most of whom had been involved first-hand in Birkenhead for 20+ years. Also, we ran workshops with parents and groups of children from different schools across the town.

We also used the following approaches to inspire citizens and get them involved:

1.Create your own identity.

Take inspiration from the past history of the place to draw your own logo. Use photographs where you want. Create a name.

2. Who Lives Here?

People make a place, not buildings, so who do local people think will live in this transformed location? Sitting in groups, each person had to complete a profile of the person, giving the name, age, marital status, number of children, occupation, personality, and likes/dislikes.

3. Start Building Your City

We wanted to hear what local residents thought Wirral Waters would become, so we gave them a large map of the development and a sheet of stickers. They had to map out luxury apartments and family homes, schools and restaurants, affordable homes and sports centres, cinemas, – this was a starting point – they were encouraged to add their own.

4. What’s On Guide

We asked them to name the type of events that would local, national and international visitors to the new development? Again, we provided reference inspiration and highlighted the waterfront, green spaces, large docklands as ref.

5. Wish You Were Here!

We asked them to write a postcard from a tourist from this new development. What highlights would stand out? We encouraged ambition!

6. Imagine the Headlines!

Once the new place has been launched to the public, what do you want the media to say about it? We gave them an empty template with a masthead. The aim was to get a better picture of perceptions, which would allow us first hand information and allow us to take positive action, communicating feedback back to the developer, allowing local people to influence the future of the place, which it did!

How would you say Liverpool’s image has shifted over the last decade? 

Physical change is always at the heart of a project like this. People could see the regeneration underway. As a place, Liverpool has been an undervalued resource for decades and that sense of pride had diminished as a result. But a revitalised city returned that sense of pride. Major redevelopment, like the Liverpool One shopping centre, has been key, as it gave other businessmen and women the confidence to invest in the city. Liverpool suddenly had the footfall to support a flourishing independent sector.

Credit is also due to the Mayor’s ongoing investment in landmark cultural events, like the Giants, Liverpool International Music Festival and the variety of incredible festivals on the waterfront. Liverpool has rediscovered its place on the stage. It’s a great place to visit, to work and to live.

How has Uniform’s work with Marketing Liverpool helped develop the city brand? 

Stakeholders in the city were passionate about the Liverpool brand, but it needed clarity. What were they buying into? What were the benefits to them and to the city? By creating a clear offer and a framework everyone knew exactly what was expected and where it was going, while the creative look and feel built on the proposition of ‘dynamic creativity’ positioning.

In terms of effectiveness, it’s too early to say. But Marketing Liverpool has been committed to rolling it out across all touch points, so the visibility is high which is key to success.

What’s Uniform’s core place branding philosophy?

We have seven principles when it comes to place branding. At the core is the idea that places should be crafted by the people and owned by the people. It’s about experiences, and memories. You have to take everyone with you throughout the process.

Having a strong reputation and a clear sense of identity is now a pre-requisite for any city to be successful. If a city is consistently telling the same authentic, credible and motivating story, then in time it will start to achieve some control over its image. But ultimately it’s what you do that builds a reputation. As a place are you doing enough interesting things that express who you are? We live and breathe these principles.

Finally, in the wake of this double accolade, what are Uniform’s 2016 place branding goals?

We want to work on the most interesting place brand projects; outward-looking, future-facing and ambitious. We’re constantly in conversations with city leaders and developers about how they can develop. This includes how to create the framework to allow a sense of place to happen, naturally and authentically, along with the tools needed to allow this to continue strategically.

Uniform are advocates of the mantra that people make places, so it’s important that we don’t let the smart city agenda become a campaign for efficiency, forgetting the role of people! We’re just completing a report that looks at the role that technology can have on place. Play will become an increasingly important part of creating a sense of place.

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