1. Economics
May 13, 2015

Hamburgers and crossing borders: branding Maastricht

By Samantha North

Which city can claim to be the birthplace of both the European Union and the world’s first synthetic hamburger? Where else but the Dutch city of Maastricht?

The city’s name probably rings vaguely familiar to many Europeans. During the early 1990s, people will remember hearing the city’s name frequently bandied about on the news, in the run-up to and aftermath of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which brought the European Union into existence.

Maastricht’s hamburger developments came much later, when the culinary wonder emerged from the laboratory in the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, McDonalds are unlikely to adopt the recipe any time soon, since producing the synthetic hamburger cost over $300,000.

A hamburger and a treaty are both excellent things – but latterly Maastricht has decided to carve out a new identity for itself, one that could help garner worldwide respect. Hopefully, achieving this goal would eventually result in increased tourism, inward investment, influx of foreign talent, and overall better recognition for the city on the increasingly crowded and competitive global stage.

City brand strategists working on Maastricht didn’t take long to conclude that the city’s main asset was its distinctive cross-border nature. Maastricht is capital of the province of Limburg, situated snugly between diminutive Belgium and mighty Germany. The province has absorbed characteristics from both countries, and many locals say they feel greater loyalty to Liège, Aachen or Düsseldorf than to the more distant heavyweights The Hague or Amsterdam.

“Historically this [loyalty] makes a lot of sense,” says Robert Govers, the scholar and place-branding expert leading the Limburg brand strategy. “There are many links with Belgium and Germany because of the Hapsburg Empire, and this region has been part of all kinds of weird constellations in the past. In culture, identity and behaviour, [the people of Maastricht and Limburg] are much more similar to Belgians and southern Germans than to the Dutch.”

Aside from its potent historical connections, modern Maastricht also displays a strong trend for innovation that the city leaders hope to capitalise upon. The Brightlands Campus, home to the famous hamburger-growing lab, is the source of numerous groundbreaking scientific projects in materials, nutrition and healthcare.

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Brightlands is actually comprised of three separate campuses, all based in Limburg, and one in Maastricht itself, which attract large quantities of international researchers, students and entrepreneurs. As well as being a boon for the local economy, this kind of initiative stays true to the desired cross-border identity and helps reinforce the brand. In genuine city branding – not the logo and slogan variety – it is reality that creates perception.

“Knowledge crossing borders is something that Brightlands is constantly practicing in many senses – industries, disciplines, countries and so on,” says Bert Kip, CEO of Brightlands’ Chemelot Campus. “We have a specific niche and there are few like us in the world.”

Maastricht and its environs. Image: Google Maps.

As well as defining a clear strategy and getting major stakeholders on board, successful city branding also requires belief, commitment and active involvement from the residents of the city themselves. The people of the place should be “living the brand”.

Fortunately for Maastricht, the government seems to understand this, and its residents’ unusually international outlook is visible in the every day life of the city. As its mayor, Onno Hoes, says: “At our Friday Market, people from Belgium are doing their groceries side by side with international students and local people from Maastricht. It’s part of everyday life here. People are what make a city tick!”

That sounds wonderful in theory – but real life isn’t quite so easy. It may seem pretty straightforward for Maastricht to brand itself as a cross-border provincial capital city that specialises in innovation. But, as with every city brand journey, there are certain challenges that crop up along the way, again and again.

Bridging the gap in stakeholder understanding is one of them. According to Govers: “Private sector players often find it hard to understand how place branding helps improve their business performance. For example, in Limburg, some of them think that borders are irrelevant.

“We always have to explain that this branding stuff is primarily about building reputation and awareness, which creates an opening in people’s minds. Then you can start talking about your products and services. It’s a very difficult story to explain to people.”

Despite these predictable bumps in the road, the brand strategy is moving forward nicely. In 2014, a ten-year plan was established for the branding of Maastricht and Limburg as a whole. This has now been absorbed into local policymaking, and paying attention to the brand is becoming business as usual.

Hopefully, as Govers commented, ten years should be enough to shift the needle for the Maastricht brand. Hamburgers and treaties may soon be a distant memory.

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