A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 20, 2017

The Forces Driving Cities To Create Their Own Global Brands

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized. Currently, 51% of the world's population lives in cities, as the following article reports. In another 50 years it will be 80%.

The issue is that cities are not competing against rural areas or suburbs, they are competing with each other for investment and growth. Which is why creating a brand has become so important. JL

Heidi Mitchell reports in the Wall Street Journal:

25 years ago that there were 10 global cities; today there are 100. So visibility and differentiation is key. Cities are competing globally for population, students, cultural events, corporations, ventures and live entertainment. If they want to compete against other global population centers, they need to position themselves as attractive places for knowledge workers, institutions, cultural and sporting events, and even film shoots.
A quarter-century ago, cities sought to promote a positive image mainly because they wanted to attract tourists and foreign investment. Today, metro areas from San Diego to São Paulo have come to a new realization: If they want to compete against other global population centers, they need to position themselves as attractive places for knowledge workers, institutions, cultural and sporting events, and even film shoots.
Greg Clark, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, has been studying this phenomenon and advising civic leaders on the importance of their brand for three decades. His recent book, “Global Cities: A Short History,” explains how age-old forces such as trade, migration, diversity and technology have allowed some cities to emerge as global leaders while others fall behind.
In a recent interview, Mr. Clark—who has advised more than 200 cities, including many of those mentioned below—discussed why a strong urban identity can’t be forced and when positioning a city on the global stage is essential. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: What exactly is a “city brand”?
MR. CLARK: City branding is the accumulation of identity, reputation and the promise that any individual city can become known for certain characteristics. For citizens, it’s: Would you like to live here? Do you want to move away? Are you happy with the lifestyle? Then there is a visitor dimension: Would you want to visit here? The third is for business: Can you see this place providing you with an environment that will give you a return on your endeavor? And the fourth is innovation: Does this place have the ability to inspire and provide solutions?
In the end, cities are competing globally for population, students, cultural events, corporations, ventures and live entertainment. The difficulty is that cities aren’t simply products or companies, so it’s easy to make mistakes.
WSJ: What sort of mistakes?
MR. CLARK: The typical failure is to think that cities need a logo, a slogan and an iconic image. Stuff like that can be useful, but they aren’t solutions unless they are the culmination of other events. The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, is a useful symbol because it shows the city’s shift from postindustrial decline to a place of art and culture. The building on its own wouldn’t work unless there was a story behind it about change.
On the other hand, Cape Town said “This City Works For You,” which in the context of Africa means that this is a city that does business efficiently. But that message doesn’t have meaning or purpose beyond business, so it fails globally.
WSJ: Where are the success stories?
MR. CLARK: Glasgow developed a brand strategy for less than $100,000 by crowdsourcing the work through a competition. In the end, it chose a tagline that has a deeper narrative behind it: “People Make Glasgow” expresses the Glaswegian quality of working with one another with a sense of common purpose.
WSJ: How does a city even begin to create a brand? MR. CLARK: City positioning is a long, slow process that doesn’t need to involve much money or ad agencies. It does involves leaders bringing together different representatives of the city. The main steps would be to benchmark the city’s identity against other places with comparable assets; recruit citizens and city institutions to build an alliance; align existing events and marketing with an agreed-upon common story; train citizens and civic leaders to be champions of that story; and review progress annually to develop additional approaches.
Tel Aviv is a good example. Despite a vibrant tourism sector, the Israeli city in 1998 was losing population to its regional neighbors. Mayor Ron Huldai stepped in and effectively “recruited” citizens by investing in public spaces, fixing potholes, improving schools, tackling crime and promoting the famous Bauhaus buildings [a collection of some 4,000 Modernist buildings]. The population returned and new immigrants arrived as the city successfully evolved into a “livable city,” then a “nonstop city” and then a “startup city.”
In a way, this sequential positioning provided a narrative that has helped build a brand for external audiences, as well as loyalty among the citizens and stakeholders.
WSJ: Should all cities brand themselves?
MR. CLARK:Not all the time. It made no sense until 1994 for any Eastern European country locked in an authoritarian regime to tell its story to businesses. Cities in conflict zones such as Belfast and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have only laterally needed to attract new events. There are two other groups for whom a brand is really important: cities where there is a dominant national identity—like those in Canada, whose outward impression is nonurban, but where 85% of citizens live in five cities—and cities that have become famous for one thing but are desperate to switch to another.
WSJ: Can cities get stuck in an outmoded identity—or even change their brand?
MR. CLARK: Who knew that San Diego is a great city of technology and a leader in oncology and oceanography? Not many, because it has retained a holiday identity. It could be a global leader if a different story about it as an innovation center is told.
In Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia, I was expecting to see a postindustrial malaise, a rust-belt Australia. Instead, I found a city where coal mining is active and the technical university is relocating to the city center. People are moving back into the city, the population is growing, and there is some of the best surfing and waterfront in the country. They need to get together and tell the world that they are a center for an organic lifestyle.WSJ: Are there traps that city brands can fall into?
MR. CLARK: The worst situation is when your product is worse than your image. Currently Berlin is perceived to be sexy and attractive, but the capacity to fulfill its promise is subject to some question. However, if your expectations are low, but quality of life is high, you can make progress quickly. Pittsburgh, for example, has vastly improved, but because it’s part of the Rust Belt, it hasn’t focused on building an international story that gives it a positive identity, reputation and promise. That said, it isn’t a bad thing when a product is already better than its image. You can make progress quickly.
WSJ: What if I don’t live in a city? Should I even care?
MR. CLARK: Right now 51% of the world lives in cities; by the end of the cycle that we’re in, from 1980 to 2080, 80% will live in cities. Humankind will be mostly urbanized with a stable population. Cities and rural areas are not in a zero-sum game. Rural areas connected to cities can benefit from city success, and cities will depend upon rural areas for many of the things they need, like water, clean air and access to wilderness. We all have a collective interest in the performance of cities. They are engines of economic development, sustainability, social mobility and encouraging citizens cross-culturally. Having a high regard for cities and what they can accomplish is important.
And there are more cities now that are capable of [attracting mobile people and events]. We might have said 25 years ago that there were 10 global cities; today we might say there are 100. So visibility and differentiation is key.


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