Merseyside is the Skoda of the UK urban regeneration world. The area that people love to poke fun at for everything from the scouse accent to crime levels.
But just as the car maker is trying to change perceptions of itself through new product development and its Volkswagen parentage, so Merseyside is about to embark on the same adventure. And it’s kicking off with a 1m advertising campaign designed to challenge perceptions of the region.
The campaign, which breaks this week, is the brainchild of the Mersey Partnership, the organisation created in 1993 by public and private sector interests from glass maker Pilkington to Unilever and Liverpool City Council. Its task is to improve, and market, the image of a region dogged by memories of Derek Hatton, the Militant Tendency and industrial unrest – and to attract inward investment.
Its creation was an implicit admission that previous attempts to market Merseyside had failed. The Mersey Pride campaign in the mid-Eighties faded away with the abolition of the County Council and the Merseyside Development Corporation has a narrow remit that does not extend beyond the Liverpool waterfront and a life that ends in 1998.
In the two years since it set up shop, the Partnership has developed a direct marketing campaign to provoke investment interest, raised the money for the first stage of an advertising programme and hired Finch Advertising to execute it.
“It had got to the stage where we were asking who spoke for Merseyside,” concedes Partnership chief executive Christopher Gibaud. “There was still a sense that Merseyside was off limits, socially and economically bankrupt and still had Derek Hatton running Liverpool City Council. We needed to create a more positive backcloth.”
The chosen backcloth is one that concentrates on the local people under the Merseyside A ‘pool of talent corporate banner.
The initial 1m campaign is being financed with money from the European Community’s Objective One fund. The Partnership had originally sought almost 2m from the fund, for what is seen as the opening shot in a five-year programme, but it is having to make do with 1m.
It hopes to secure a similar annual sum from Europe, which will be matched by the Partnership members, giving an annual budget of 2m to the end of the century. But unless it hits EC set targets the money for years two to five will not materialise, possibly bringing the venture to a premature end.
Along with attracting private sector funding and raising awareness of the region, the most clearly defined target is to attract at least 850 definite business enquiries in the two-year period to the end of 1995. At present, it is running at 500-plus.
Even if the money is secured it is still a huge task to reinvent a region on a total budget of 9m over five years – equivalent to last year’s launch budget for Unilever’s ill-fated Persil Power. Gibaud says the campaign has been deliberately designed to “have a high impact” and the hope is that it will act as a catalyst for other bodies in the region to take the campaign on board and use it in their own promotional activity.
They need the 1m spend to make as big a noise as possible around the region .
“Changing Merseyside’s image cannot be achieved in nine months, it is a long-term job. We can’t turn the image of the region around on 1m per year – we have to create a campaign that can be developed by other public and private organisations,” says Gibaud. “That is the only way to create a powerful and sustainable campaign.
“The single most important factor in any campaign promoting an area is broad-based support of the population,” he adds.
To that end, a decision was taken to focus the campaign on the people and on Liverpool, clearly the biggest city on Merseyside but also the one with the worst reputation.
Finch drew up the corporate logo which is explicitly focused on local people and their skills. The campaign is a mixture of press ads in the quality broadsheets, combined with a poster campaign and direct response scheme on Merseyside to raise awareness of the campaign in the community.
But Merseyside is just one of a huge range of regions and cities up and down Britain and in Europe competing for investment. The first objective for Finch was simply to get Merseyside considered by investors.
“Most of the other locations are already on the list and have bigger budgets,” claims Finch strategic planning director Sev D’Souza. “But Merseyside is not even on the starting blocks, because of the negative perceptions. At best, people have a neutral view so we felt we had to change attitudes.
“It would have been wrong to create a 100 per cent image campaign presenting Merseyside as some sort of dreamland. At the same time, we did not want to go to the other extreme of taking a solely factual approach and felt a middle course, using wit to disarm the audience and giving them surprising facts about the region, was most appropriate.”
The themes the campaign concentrates on are the productivity of the workforce, an industrial relations record 12 per cent better than the national average, local celebrities, ranging from the Beatles to Ian Rush, and their clichéd reputation for humour.
D’Souza denies the campaign peddles tired stereotypes and patronises local people. “This is a risky campaign but it needs to be to achieve the targets set and make the impact we want. We have played with existing stereotypical images but to draw out the humour. There is no point in trying to pretend Merseyside does not have a bad reputation.”
But there is still a question to be asked about whether Merseyside has acted too late in trying to reinvent itself. This is denied by Gibaud who is supported by Eddie Friel, the former chief executive of the Greater Glasgow Tourist Board, who now acts as a consultant on city marketing.
“It is never too late to arrest the decline and make it a better place to live. The fundamental point is that cities should be there for people to work and relax in. The mobility of business makes it less important where you are located geographically and so a location has to offer other attractions, like a good quality of life.”
Friel has been advising McCann-Erickson on setting up a dedicated unit to advise on worldwide city marketing. “The one thing advertising can’t do is impose a solution. A simple veneer is not enough if residents don’t feel they share in the idea. Campaigns like this are about giving people a belief in their own area, identifying what makes it different and marketing that difference.”
Easier said than done when you carry the baggage attached to Merseyside.