How city marketing is maturing to create global brands

From attracting waves of tourists and appealing to entrepreneurs, to keeping the message relevant for locals, marketers must strike a delicate balance to ensure their destination stands out on the world stage.

Isle of MTV Malta
DJ Sigala performing at the 2018 edition of Isle of MTV Malta.

Destination marketing is fiercely competitive. Countries and cities compete daily to capture visitors’ attention in a globalised world where international travel continues to boom.

Simultaneously, city marketers must also drive investment to their destinations, attract the next generation of entrepreneurs and ensure the city remains relevant for the local population.

Balancing these competing demands, city marketers should approach their task as they would a fully-fledged brand, advises former Creative England CMO Dawn Paine.

In January, Paine co-founded The Extraordinary Club, a collective aimed at propelling growth in the creative industries by challenging creative and digital SMEs to be “ballsy and ambitious” in their outlook.

She argues the post-Brexit devolutionary landscape means the conditions are perfect for the creative and digital sectors to flourish in cities across the UK.  Marketers should explore the concept of smart, connected cities, in particular imagining how future tech such as robotics and driverless cars will affect their city brands.

“Cities are like magnets in that they can both attract and repel, and there isn’t really an in-between state, which I find very interesting in terms of how one thinks about market disruption,” says Paine.

“The things that can grow a city are the things it is pulling in – new residents, visitors, business investment – so there’s that melting pot of people, ideas and money. The flipside, of course, is those cities that aren’t doing what they need to grow will see population decline, businesses relocate and economies start to shrink.”

Cities are like magnets in that they can both attract and repel, and there isn’t really an in-between state, which is very interesting in terms of market disruption.

Dawn Paine, The Extraordinary Club

She argues it is crucial for any city to attract, grow and incubate entrepreneurs by reimagining themselves as an innovation centre. To achieve this, city marketers must think beyond the posters and slogans to devise strategies that create “powerhouse brands”.

“I would like to see city marketing at the table with all the other huge global brands in the world. There is a huge piece of repositioning work, even in the marketing industry, in terms of actually recognising the economic impact of cities,” explains Paine.

“Therefore, there’s an onus within those cities to be bold and brave in terms of how they market themselves. Cities need to be much more fearless in how they differentiate themselves.”

Quick reactions

With Britain’s impending exit from the EU scheduled to take place on 29 March 2019, cities across Europe have ramped up the pressure with campaigns designed to lure entrepreneurs away from the UK.

In March, Transport for London (TfL) banned an outdoor campaign from the Normandy Development Agency that called for entrepreneurs to “vote with their feet” post-Brexit and relocate to Northern France.

Berlin Partner for Business and Technology has taken a subtler approach. Positioning the city as a place where “ideas spread faster”, the organisation is offering free tours to startups hosted by Berlin ‘insiders’ and has built a talent portal offering information about the city’s different industries, job offers and advice on how to relocate.

While other cities have capitalised on Brexit uncertainty, the Mayor of London’s promotional agency London & Partners has not crumbled under the pressure, explains director of business tourism and major events Tracy Halliwell.

London & Partners kicked into action amid concerns that perceptions of the capital would sour as news of the Brexit vote flooded in on 24 June 2016.

Overnight the team came up with #LondonisOpen. Describing it as a “Eureka moment”, Halliwell explains that London & Partners took the hashtag straight to social media, encouraging its partners to tell their own stories.

The campaign went viral, garnering the support of employers, universities, citizens and celebrities. On the first day alone, #LondonisOpen generated 17,813 tweets, while by the end of the first week the hashtag had reached 87 million people, generated 35,685 tweets and 4,530 online mentions or pieces of coverage. By 24 October 2016, #LondonisOpen had reached 326 million people.

“It was phenomenally successful and it unified the city behind a simple message. It meant that we’re open for business, open for students, for events, for diversity, for inclusion, because it meant so many different things to so many people,” says Halliwell, speaking to Marketing Week at the International Place Branding Event in Liverpool in June.

“People interpreted it the way they wanted, because it was simple. We used social media and it was so cheap, we hardly spent any money on it. It wasn’t some huge campaign and that’s the beauty of it.”

Proving the concept had longevity, London & Partners rolled out #LondonisOpen in response to last year’s terrorist attacks to convey the city’s resilient spirit and then again during the summer festival season to communicate that “London is open” for music and sporting events.

The rise of the city state

It is estimated that by 2050 over two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Paine says this will force cities to reimagine themselves as brands rather than just destinations to be marketed. As a result, cities will rise in importance over nation brands.

The Extraordinary Club
Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor, Steve Rotherham, speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Extraordinary Club in June.

This opinion is shared by Mateu Hernández Maluquer, managing director of Barcelona Global, an independent collective of entrepreneurs, companies and startups.

“We share a vision that cities in the 21st century really matter. They matter more than nations. We tell our citizens, civic leaders, universities and entrepreneurs that Barcelona has an opportunity to do something, to be a better city,” explained Hernández Maluquer, speaking on stage at the Liverpool event.

“Our mission is to make Barcelona one of the best cities in the world for talent and economic opportunities. Talent attracts [money] in a much more effective way than [money] attracts talent. If a city like Barcelona is able to attract, retain and create talent, we have a great future.”

Barcelona Global hopes to help the city attract the best global talent by creating a programme to help the partners of people moving to work in Barcelona find jobs, as well as lobbying the Spanish government to relax taxation on freelancers.

Speaking at the same event, Marketing Liverpool director, Chris Brown, explained how his organisation is reinvigorating the Liverpool city brand, which historically has been more powerful internationally than domestically.

“Domestically, Liverpool’s brand was a busted flush and the further south you go in the country the more that negativity was ingrained,” he explained.

“We’ve spent a lot of time – probably too much time – trying to crack that particular issue and we probably got a bit too preoccupied with it. We have raised our bar, raised our maturity levels and we’re in a different place now in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.”

The focus is on building the pride, passion and belief of the citizens, adopting a “Berlin-style model” that sees cities as vibrant and ambitious places that appeal to all kinds of people. Brown explains that Liverpool is now attracting a greater number of major companies and as a result is retaining more young talent.

“We’re starting to attract much younger talent to stay in the city through creative and tech. They are creating product and an entrepreneurial momentum, which is bringing huge amounts of young visitors to our city and they’re consuming experiences in a very different way to how we thought,” he explains.

The top-down approach of officials deciding on a vision for the city is also changing. Marketing Liverpool’s focus is on creating a narrative that is based on collaboration rather than trading off an old-fashioned image of the city.

Taking a progressive stance

For Visit Scotland, expressing the country’s “multidimensional” progressive values means putting its people at the heart of all its marketing.

Charlie Smith, director of marketing, digital and brand, describes Visit Scotland as “marketing Scotland with Scotland” by giving a more rounded sense of the country as a culturally-rich, welcoming and innovative place to live and work.

“We talk about the warmth of our welcome and our natural assets, but now we’re also talking about the fact we’re an inclusive country, those progressive attributes, those culturally rich assets we have,” says Smith.

Visit Scotland has become even more rigorous in its targeting, mixing high-spec brand films aimed at the “curious and thoughtful” cinema market with smaller-scale pieces for YouTube.

The team also filmed 12 mini-documentaries depicting people who have moved to Scotland from other countries, talking about their experience of being entrepreneurs, academics, students and artists.

Smith describes people as Scotland’s best asset, which is why they are at the forefront of all Visit Scotland campaigns. He insists that no individual organisation has control over the marketing of a country and therefore it can only be done well when everyone rallies around a clear narrative. For Visit Scotland this is a message of welcome.

“It’s very genuine. It’s something that’s shared by our people. It’s something that the politicians agree with in Scotland, so we’re really joined up as a country to say ‘please come and live and work in Scotland. You add to our nation, you add to our culture, you add to our society’. It’s a great story to be able to tell,” Smith adds.

On a city level, Stockholm has taken a firmly values-driven approach to its marketing. Its latest campaign sees the Swedish capital talking up the fact that 50% of people living in Stockholm originate from outside the city, the fastest growing in Europe. The campaign also focuses on the fact citizens receive 480 days of paid parental leave, subsidised childcare and university education is free.

In March, the city marketers then collaborated with 60 companies to promote Stockholm as a place where women can be business leaders and prioritise their family life.

“We wanted to emphasise the fact that we have come a long way on the bumpy road to gender equality and you could say that the glass ceiling is a little bit higher up in Stockholm,” explains Olle Zetterberg, CEO of Stockholm Business Region.

“We have produced six unicorns [a startup worth $1bn] in a small city like this. It is very important for us to be more open and international to provide our fast-growing tech sector with people that can come and work in those companies.”

Ensuring maximum impact

For the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Association (LVCVA) the only way to bring the ‘entertainment capital of the world’ to life is through activations, events and experiences.

Its entire marketing strategy is aimed an increasing tourism and positioning Las Vegas as a leader in destination marketing, meaning the team prefer to use immersive outdoor campaigns to highlight the sights, sounds and tastes of Vegas.

Las Vegas
The ‘See Vegas’ outdoor campaign takeover at Oxford Circus underground station.

Recent examples include the ‘See Vegas’ takeover of Oxford Circus London Underground station and the ‘Vegas: alter your reality’ activation at London Bridge, where visitors used VR headsets to view graffiti artist Insa’s interpretation of the city.

“Capturing Las Vegas in photos and videos never tells the whole story,” says Cathy Tull, LVCVA CMO. “Using new and innovative ways to connect with consumers, that is a reflection of Las Vegas, and why we created the first-ever destination VR art programme.”

The UK campaign is aimed at broadening the perception of Las Vegas as a destination for repeat visitors. LVCVA also recognises that the B2B market is a vital part of the destination’s development given that the city hosts close to 22,000 meetings and conventions each year.

Putting a destination on the map can also involves committing to a long-term partnership, such as the one between MTV and the Malta Tourism Board. Twelve years ago, the music channel and broadcaster launched Isle of MTV Malta, Europe’s largest free music festival, in the Maltese capital Valletta.

At the time, the tourism board wanted to shift perceptions among a younger demographic that Malta was a destination for older people and break into their holiday wishlist alongside the Balearic Islands, Turkey and Croatia. MTV wanted to find a location that could add a storytelling aspect to the live music experience.

“Malta was ripe for discovery, both from an artist perspective and importantly for the audience,” explains Russell Samuel, vice-president creative and integrated marketing at Viacom, the owner of MTV.

“We know from our audience insight that discovery of a new place and music experiences are big factors when they’re considering potential new holiday destinations. When they’re seeing their favourite star posting about the amazing time they’re having in Malta it becomes a genuine topic of conversation.”

Isle of MTV Malta
Paloma Faith performing on stage at Isle of MTV Malta 2018.

As well as creating videos and live streams about the festival experience, MTV focused on evergreen content about Malta as a wider destination, to maintain a year-round conversation with tourists and locals alike.

Last year, the relationship evolved into MTV Malta Music Week, a week’s worth of experiences that showcase the wider island across different venues and MTV sub-brands such as Club MTV and a reimagining of the iconic 1990s dance show The Grind as a Facebook Live broadcast.

Next, Viacom will launch a week of Nickelodeon experiences aimed at children aged four to 14. Scheduled to take place from 13 to 18 April 2019, the week-long festival is aimed at helping the Malta Tourism Authority stand out for families in the competitive Easter holiday market.

The success of the partnership is such that over the 12-year period, desire to find out more about Malta has almost doubled among MTV viewers (versus non-viewers), who are also three times more likely to holiday in Malta. Furthermore, the number of tourists visiting Malta aged 24 and under is up 120%, accounting for 25% of tourists visiting the island annually.

During the past five years alone the number of holidays being booked by MTV viewers has increased by over 70%.

“Of course, it’s not solely down to Isle of MTV,” Samuel acknowledges. “But when we talk to the Ministry of Tourism there’s an acknowledgement that it has definitely been the catalyst and the anchor around which they’ve been able to implement a successful youth tourism strategy and build this cluster of events to put Malta on the map.”