Can Liverpool set the record straight?

Armed with a European City of Culture award and £2bn of investment money, Liverpool plans to pull the curtain on its image as the run-down home of the ‘cheeky Scouser’ and reinvent itself as a centre for tourism. By Sonoo Singh

Armed with a European City of Culture award and &£2bn of investment money, Liverpool plans to pull the curtain on its image as the run-down home of the ‘cheeky Scouser’ and reinvent itself as a centre for tourism. By Sonoo Singh

Three years ago, Home Secretary Jack Straw had to apologise to Liverpudlians after provoking anger with an off-the-cuff remark about Scousers. At a public meeting he joked that they were “always up to something”.

This was not the first time that the capital of Merseyside has been knocked by outsiders, who perceive the city as a northern wasteland populated by perm-haired, shell-suited, cheeky and light-fingered opportunists.

But now the city is making headlines for all the right reasons. Last week, it was crowned the European Capital of Culture for 2008 and is expected to benefit from more than &£2bn of investment over the next five years.

The city now faces the twin challenges of marketing itself as a destination for tourism and business investment and shedding an ingrained and often media-perpetuated image of lazy, dole-cheating chancers, as seen in Eighties BBC sitcom Bread, ailing Channel 4 soap Brookside and sketch comedy The Fast Show.

Several observers have remarked that it will be a huge challenge to market Liverpool as a cultural city when it still seems to be labouring under the shadows of the Toxteth riots of 1985, inner-city gang violence and a significant level of unemployment.

According to the European Commission’s Urban Audit report, which assesses the quality of life of European cities, Liverpool remains one of the most deprived cities in the UK and has experienced significant unemployment over the past 30 years, with rates consistently higher than the national average.

Simon Knox, professor of brand marketing at the Cranfield School of Management, says: “Liverpool will never be able to become a mainstream tourist attraction, but there are lessons to be learnt from Glasgow, which was chosen as the City of Culture in 1988, and has since been completely transformed.”

Struthers Advertising devised the promotional strapline “Glasgow’s miles better” for the rebranding of the city and the local authority capitalised on the opportunities with great success.

A spokesman for Liverpool City Council maintains that the city’s stereotypes have been manufactured by the Londonand South-east-based media and says: “People just haven’t been listening. Unemployment is reducing and it is one of the safest cities in the country. Liverpool has art galleries, shopping centres and trendy bars. We are also close to becoming the film capital of Britain with the number of films shot here. I don’t see why it should be a problem marketing ourselves to the UK and abroad as the ‘happening’ city.”

He points to developments in the city in the past decade, including the redevelopment of the Albert Dock area and the opening of the northern branch of Tate gallery.

Liverpool is not short of cultural heroes – at least, of a popular nature. The Beatles and Liverpool Football Club have been ambassadors for the city for decades, and the veteran entertainers Jimmy Tarbuck, Ken Dodd and Cilla Black are often referred to as “professional Scousers” for playing on their Liverpudlian heritage. There is also a new wave of talent, taking in cross-dressing TV personality Lily Savage, pop group Atomic Kitten, footballer Michael Owen and the dance club brand Cream.

In the world of the arts, Liverpool can boast authors Beryl Bainbridge and Catherine Cookson, poet Roger McGough, playwright Alan Bleasdale, TV production maverick Phil Redgrave and actor Paul McGann, among others.

But it takes a long time for a city to change its image and market itself as a brand, according to Corporate Edge, which has a lot of experience repositioning cities and countries and developing accompanying imagery and emblems. This is because a city needs a vivid and compelling reason why the rest of the world should buy everything it can offer. Previous Corporate Edge clients include Scotland, Spain, New Zealand and Ghana, as well as VisitBritain.

Corporate Edge chairwoman Creenagh Lodge says: “More British newspapers are read throughout the world than those of any other nation, which is the reason why a place like Liverpool has got stuck with its Scouser image and is also just as well known for The Beatles. But the trick now will be to use what is already known and layer it over with a new emblem.”

However, she says, creating a logo featuring The Beatles or the River Mersey will not be enough to turn around the city’s fortunes. “The brand will need to offer both short-term and long-term solutions for attracting tourism and investment, while appealing to the aspirations and ideas of the locals.”

One insider fears that simply creating an image for the city through standard advertising techniques – jingles, slogans, logos and glossy brochures – could prove to be ineffective. “A fabricated image could never adequately represent the intricate realities of an entire society,” he says.

Liverpool City Council refuses to give details of how it intends to market Liverpool as a “city to remember” but says: “It will not only be about transforming our image but also transforming the city. We do not need to rebrand the city, because the changes taking place are for real. How people perceive us is important to us, but we will not be working on that by producing a glitzy advertising campaign alone.”

The Capital of European Culture is expecting an extra 1.7 million visitors, who are likely to generate an extra income of more than &£50m a year. Plans for 2008 include the redevelopment of the Paradise Street area as one of Europe’s biggest city centre regeneration schemes together with various celebrations and festivals. And by 2005 Liverpool hopes to have created a &£10.5m cruise liner terminal.

As the European cultural capital for 2008, Liverpool has an opportunity to showcase the new and revive the old. It has never lacked an identity but what it needs now is to be recognised as a forward-looking, 21st-century city.

See North West Editorial Focus

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