How does the DNA of a place help to inform its story?
John Till has been creating place brand campaigns for many years. Now heading up the place branding agency Thinking Place, John talks to Placesbrands about the DNA of places, creating a shared sense of purpose among stakeholders, and what he’s learned from more than a decade at the front lines of place branding.
Placesbrands: John, what’s your core philosophy of place?
John Till: We’ve always believed that there’s a problem with the word ‘brand’. This word creates a lot of unhelpful images in people’s minds, about logos, advertising and so on, none of which really figure in what we do. Place branding is about looking into the future about what a place can be for, who it’s for, and how it’s distinct, and how it should focus its development.
It’s a strategic process. Much of what we do is try to bring stakeholders together behind a shared sense of purpose. That’s always been important, and even more so in UK at present because of austerity. At the heart of everything we do is creating a place story. That’s the centre of our universe and we believe in it passionately. It’s the mechanism that we use to engage people throughout the process.
Place branding is also about developing strong engagement with different stakeholders in different ways depending on who they are, which could be business owners, media, youth, community, and so on. It’s important to engage rather than just consulting. Listening to people is about them starting on the journey as ambassadors for that story. We want them to do that for the place long after we’ve gone, as it’s absolutely critical. We spend a lot of time on the ground getting a feel for the place, walking, talking, taking photos, and understanding spatial relationships.
What have you learned from a decade working in place branding?
After ten years we’ve gained the benefits of comparisons and of having a variety of perspectives coming together to create the story. It’s like a funnelling process getting rid of what’s less important and working towards the most important. It’s a forward projection of where they are and where they could be. We view history as a continuum.
The DNA of a place is very important and should be used to project a place forward. Take Belfast for example. They once created the biggest ships in the world, based on vision and strong work ethic. Belfast doesn’t make ships anymore, but the city is using the same qualities in its cyber-security approach: “From ships to chips.”
Momentum is very important. Sometimes the time just isn’t right, but then three or four years later the place gets some major new investments, or different leadership. It’s important to remember that places are the fastest moving and most dynamic entities you can imagine. There are multiple audiences, demands, and challenges, so you need an approach that’s completely flexible. You can flex stories according to which audience you’re talking to.
A logo just isn’t enough. Logos are rigid and inflexible. You want people to embrace the place brand, but you can never get any organisation to use a logo that effectively competes with their own brand. Getting them to talk it up is the only route to success, so you need a flexible way to engage with them. We’ve created an approach called ‘the visual language’, which can work like a logo or a watermark. Places can use it without needing logos. It’s much more subtle while still engaging with the brand, and has proven very popular.
What’s been your most satisfying project, and why?
Working on Lancashire, my home county. It’s a real privilege to be working on my own county. South Downs National Park would come close because it’s not actually an entity. Everyone told us it couldn’t have a shared story or a shared visual representation, but we managed to do that and get it signed off through the governance of the national park, which can be quite tough. I think that’s a major achievement.
What sort of challenges did you face promoting the image of Hull?
Hull’s an interesting one. I formed my attachment to place branding there. I spent seven years as chief executive, way before many views about place branding became prevalent. My remit was to transform the image and investment climate of Hull. We’ve been back since to refresh the story and promote the city as Hull and Humber. Hull isn’t a clone town. It has a strong relationship with the Baltic ports, it has fishing and trade, plus it oozes character and quirkiness.
Hull’s location is actually an important port to Europe. Hull has a very European outlook. It also has a good university and a very strong business cohort. The project was about mobilising people’s passion and bringing the assets together. Now Hull is booming and has been awarded City of Culture for 2017. The fact that Hull bid for City of Culture at all is largely thanks to the early work in building up the city’s confidence.
So what’s next for Thinking Place?
Being ten years old is a landmark. We’ve prospered through the recession, which is a great acknowledgement of the quality of work I think we’ve done. This year will be about doing what we don’t do so much of; celebrating our achievements. The greatest success is when we go to Burnley, Coventry, and many other places and see everything we achieved still bearing fruit. There’s great opportunity in the UK at present, as place has never been higher on the agenda. There are lots of opportunities for us to help places translate what they do into something meaningful for their customers.
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