City brand fundamentals

José Torres of Bloom Consulting tells us why most city branding attempts fail, the ingredients for success, and how to brand unknown cities.

Placesbrands: José, why should cities care about branding themselves?

José Torres: Thanks to globalisation, the brand or reputation of a city impacts on six dimensions (brand impact areas): investment, tourism, talent, pride, public diplomacy and exports. Today, the brand plays a huge role in affecting these six objectives.

The internet has made it extremely easy for people to quickly Google and decide where they want to go. The brand of cities and countries is an asset; it’s a decisive factor for stakeholders to decide if they want to go there or not. From an international perspective, a brand is one of a city’s most valuable assets.

Many city branding campaigns are not successful because most of the time these are actually advertising strategies. I’d like to clarify one point: I’m not against advertising – I think it has its place, and a city brand strategy CAN involve some element of advertising. But cities take the wrong approach when they believe that city brand = advertising. This is not so.

At present, the majority of proactive city branding strategies fail. Although, accidental success HAS happened, for example with San Francisco, where they implemented good policies, well-thought out actions etc, and so they developed a good reputation – organically. They did the groundwork, almost without thinking about the ‘brand’. This is exactly what city branding should be like.

One of the key elements of groundwork is stakeholder involvement and investment. Within a city brand, there are many stakeholders all with different agendas. Everyone that touches the brand should be involved in developing the strategy. This is one of the major keys to success in city branding.

PB: What are some other keys to successful city branding?

JT: Keeping in mind that city branding is NOT about promotion. It is about defining the idea you want to convey for the six dimensions I mentioned earlier. Gaining a strong and clear understanding of this concept is absolutely vital for success.

Stakeholder engagement/management is also key, and finally, measurement. The latter is another reason why city brand strategies tend to fail. Branding a city is a very high-profile activity, in the spotlight and which requires investment. If you don’t show demonstrable results from a governance perspective, people will quickly start to criticise.

People, especially journalists, are quick to ask why a government is ‘wasting’ money on so-called ‘vanity’ branding projects to improve a city’s reputation, when it could be spending more money on ‘concrete’ issues such as education, sewers, unemployment, health, and so on.

It’s not enough for the mayor to announce, ‘we’ve improved the reputation of our city’, because it’s not tangible enough and doesn’t convince the majority of people. Measuring results is best done from a financial perspective, which makes results immediately more tangible and less easy to criticise.

Of course, a good branding project will have impacts in many other areas, improving society, increasing happiness etc – but concrete financial figures are easiest for people to understand. Money talks and everyone understands – even if they have no idea about the value of place branding itself. Talking in sums of money helps to quantify the effect of city branding.

PB: Are there any other reliable measures of brand impact?

JT: At Bloom Consulting, these are the major measures that we use to assess city branding impact:

1. Economic. GDP – but it is key to understand exactly where the city branding produced the increased economic activity. It has to be narrowed down.

2. Happiness. This can be measured on the dimensions of talent, and pride. Pride is the citizens’ pride in their city, making them proud of where they live. This could even be a specific goal of a branding strategy, e.g. to make people into better brand ambassadors, discourage them from leaving, or just to make them happy to live there. Bhutan is a great example of this, with its Gross Happiness Index – which became part of the country’s overall identity and helped attract many more tourists = great success for the country’s brand.

3. Demand, for example digital demand. How much more appeal and interest in the city has been generated? This is something we can measure. This tool enables me to measure the reality – who is searching online for the city or country? Exactly how interested are tourists and investors, thanks to the city brand? (This tool is unique to Bloom). It’s an absolute truth about how appealing my city or nation is, as measured by online activity.

4. Perceptions. as measured by surveys.

PB: Can unknown cities be branded?

JT: Yes they can. There’s always something special about every city. City branding isn’t about inventing something; it’s about finding out what’s already there. This could be actions & activities (such as planned events, art fairs etc), characteristics (such as landscapes and weather), or policies (laws, regulations etc). There are certain things that shape common perceptions of the city. We need to examine all these and see how we can align them with one big idea.

For example, if a city’s big idea is to brand itself as a party town, a law forcing all bars to close early would contradict that. This creates confusion in perception. So I need to clearly understand my overall direction, and then shape all actions, activities, and policies to support it. Only after this can a city brand be developed. I like to keep in mind that every city has its charm, always.

PB: So why do cities keep trying to use logo and slogan campaigns?

JT: Mainly because they don’t really know what city branding is. Also because marketing and ad agencies sell ‘branding’ campaigns to cities. Although sometimes, cities approach ad agencies specifically requesting a logo and tagline. But the whole concept is wrong from the very beginning. Of course, the ad agency wants new business, so they will embark on a logo and tagline campaign. This is referred to as the ‘city brand strategy’, when in fact it is not.

Here’s a nice example to finish up. The small town of Borja, in north Spain, had a chapel where there was a beautiful but damaged 19th century fresco. One old lady took it upon herself to restore the fresco, and her actions made the town famous. International press covered the story, saying that the lady ‘destroyed’ the fresco, but she made the town notorious and lots of tourists came to see the fresco. This example proves that cities can become global without spending any money on advertising, but this route is highly unpredictable (similar to viral marketing), and involves no strategy.

José Filipe Torres is CEO and founding partner of Bloom Consulting, a specialist place branding agency based in Madrid. José founded Bloom in 2003 and since then has worked on projects across the globe, for countries including Spain, Portugal, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia and Brazil.

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