Can branding pave a city’s streets with gold?

Cities and regions often find themselves squabbling over pots of cash, be it from private funding or the annual influx of students, in a scramble for investment. To get the upper hand, more are turning to branding in the hope of becoming the place to be for businesses, consumers and home buyers.

Leeds is the latest city to upgrade its image (MW last week) in an attempt to woo residents, students, businesses and investors. It has launched a new brand identity – “Leeds Live it Love it” – three months after the creation of Marketing Leeds, a joint venture between the City Council and Chamber of Commerce.

Elsewhere, cities from Southampton to Glasgow are busy inventing an image. This week, Aberdeen (and Aberdeenshire) is unveiling a new identity, developed by Corporate Edge. More public and private money is being thrown at the concept of “place branding” – and specialist agencies are profiting. But opinion is divided over the best way of marketing a city.

Malcolm Allan, director and co-founder of Placebrands, says the Leeds authorities’ efforts are “a waste of money.” He says locations should focus on attracting investment that will herald the future they desire, rather than creating a brand.

Allan says his efforts, in cities such as Southampton, are more akin to direct marketing than advertising, and that identifying the target market is crucial. “You don’t advertise and leave it to chance,” he says. “In Southampton, we have profiled and targeted the investors and industries that we want.” He adds that branding must take into account the existing character of a city, rather than trying to impose a new way of life on residents.

Marketing Leeds rejects Allan’s criticism. It says the new brand is based on the reality of life in Leeds and that the new organisation – headed by experienced destination marketer Kevin Johnson, a previous director of marketing services at the British Tourist Authority – is designed to communicate that message to a wider market.

The branding has won praise from Team Saatchi chief executive Michael Parker, who compares it to the “I ⢠NY” campaign.

Confused regional messages compound problems faced by place marketers. Allan contrasts Scotland’s tourist brand – “recreating Brigadoon” – with the more modern image of “Silicon Glen”.

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau chief executive Scott Taylor says cities should not be restricted by regional messages: “It is critical that cities are given the ability to market themselves independently.” For instance, he says, few people would describe Amsterdam as “Dutch” or New York as “American”.

Glasgow was one of the first UK cities to revamp its image, a process that began with The McKinsey Report some 20 years ago. In addition to creating a tourist board, the consultant recommended measures to improve the city’s image, such as grants for home owners to clean their properties, and banning out-of-town shopping developments.

Rita Clifton, chairman of brand consultancy Interbrand, likens place branding to an iceberg, with only a small amount of the work actually visible. She differentiates between the branding process and the communication of the brand, which is undertaken separately, but says it is important the operations have a unified approach and are clear in what they are trying to achieve. “If you are not careful, you can create a lot of hum about a city, but no real noise,” Clifton warns.

Place branding is becoming a lucrative concept for agencies as cities attempt to shout loudest about the benefits for residents and companies that choose to live and invest in them, rather than their rivals.

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