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Government / Local politics

Why do most city branding campaigns fail?

So 86 per cent is a pretty high failure rate, right? Why would you even attempt a project with such shocking odds? Particularly if it was a costly undertaking, with a price tag that can run into the millions… Why bother?

And yet, according to a study by consulting firm k629, many cities around the world face exactly these odds in their attempts to rebrand themselves. Such campaigns can revitalise a city, and secure it a more prominent place on the map. Yet more often than not, mayors find that their hopes were misplaced: the average branding campaign is just an expensive damp squib.

Take Adelaide, for example. In 2013, the South Australian city spent over A$1 million on a new logo. Everyone hated it. A comedian and TV host, Wil Anderson, even likened it to a “particularly crap origami Pope hat”. 

So why do cities keep bothering with branding? And what do they need to do differently?

From an international perspective, a great brand is certainly a valuable asset. It can help a city to attract everything from tourists to investors to talent. It can help promote exports. It can boost residents’ pride.


And it’s not just for famous cities, either, says José Torres, of Bloom Consulting: “There’s something special about every city. City branding isn’t about inventing something; it’s about discovering what’s already there.”

The key is to examine a city’s characteristics and policies, and then align them to a single big idea, he says. Not everyone gets this right. “If a city’s big idea is to brand itself as a party town, a law forcing bars to close early would contradict that. The resulting confusion weakens the overall brand.” 

It’s perhaps also worth spelling out what city branding isn’t. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just a logo or a tagline. It’s not a promotional campaign. And it’s definitely not advertising. 

Brand strategist Günter Soydanbay rejects the word campaign altogether, preferring “journey” or “transformation”. The word ”campaign” smacks of ad-speak, he says: that’s problematic because advertising only offers quick-fix solutions to perceived problems. 

But for cities, it’s actions, not words, that really affect reputation. An effective city brand strategy brings all stakeholders together – from investors to officials to residents – at the beginning of the process. That way, they can define a common vision and then agree on a plan to reach it.

“A city always speaks through the behaviour of its stakeholders,” Soydanbay adds. “Campaigns just focus on words and images. And that’s why they fail, because they don’t change the behaviour.” In other words, there are no quick-fixes. 

There’s another reason why regular marketing campaigns don’t measure up: cities are simply too complex.

Any campaign that amounts to advertising has to ignores all the nuance that helps shape a city’s identity. Edinburgh’s ongoing “Capital City” campaign; the 2005 Leeds “Live it Love it” campaign; the heavy presence of Buenos Aires in Coca Cola’s “Just Add Zero” ads. Each of these amounted to marketing a single aspect of a city in a unified way. The problem is, you can’t turn a city into a tagline and a logo.

One solution is to make greater use of “placemaking”: an emerging discipline combining town planning, urbanism and architecture. Its goal is to understand how shared space actually gets used, and improve it: that could mean pedestrianisation, slowing down traffic, or creating entire new public spaces.

Malcolm Allan, of consulting firm PlaceMatters, suggests that successful rebranding requires marketing agencies and placemakers to join forces to create an overall strategy. “Marketing is useful in a long-term brand strategy, but it’s not sufficient for place makers, town planners or marketers to handle the strategy on their own,” he says. “A combined approach is needed, with a holistic view of the process.”

With the right approach, cities can improve their reputation. But can they build a truly global brand? And should this be even be their goal?

Not necessarily, argues Günter Soydanbay. Not every city is New York, London, or Paris; nor should it try to be. Most cities operate within their own ‘ecosystems’.

Take Montreal, which has a good reputation among the French-speaking creative circles around the world. That’s a small proportion of the world’s population, but there are more than enough of them for Montreal to prosper. By taking a long-term and practical approach to improving their reputation, and not mistaking branding for advertising, other cities can find their own niche, too. 

Image credits: Adelaide government; Si Wilson on Flickr, re-used under creative commons.
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