Innovation Districts are of great value to urban renewal, not only in terms of spatial and economic redevelopment, but also with regard to the enrichment and empowerment of the image of the city in question. Conversely, the overarching city brand can add to and accelerate the success of an Innovation District. In this process, strategic place branding – turning a place into a brand – is of great value. In this article I will discuss the emerging place branding discipline in depth. From a number of practical examples I will distil five success factors that underlie successful place and city branding.
New Energy in the City
Clustering innovative entrepreneurs and education and research institutes in an Innovation District is a proven method of bringing new energy to a city. With the arrival of new, often young and highly educated residents and users in a certain area the city gains expertise, spending power and vigour. If properly positioned, however, the Innovation District can also contribute to the reputation of the city as a whole. After all, more and more cities are presenting themselves as innovation hubs and ideal locations for start-ups and scale-ups. Local initiatives help them flesh out that promise. Of this, LX Factory in Lisbon, Station F in Paris and Silicon Allee in Berlin are striking examples. Communities and a lively programme of events and activities develop around these physical locations.
Approaching a Place like a Brand
To draw the right people, it is important for a place to develop a clear vision and a distinct identity. Or, as Simon Anholt put it crisply even in 2006: ‘In today’s world every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, business, investments and attention.’ This is why it is useful to approach places like a brand, that is: provide them with sets of (positive) associations like the ones evoked by products or companies. Brands showcase what distinguishes them from competitors and inspire brand loyalty in certain groups on the basis of specific core values. Car brands such as Volvo and Tesla, for example, each conjure up totally different associations and hence appeal to very different people.
The strategic positioning of places is in line with the positioning of products. Robert Govers and Frank Go (2009) define the development of place brands as ‘the process of discovering, creating, developing and realising ideas and concepts for (re)constructing place identities, their defining traits and “genius loci” and subsequently building the sense of place.’
A place that draws you in
A good place brand is distinctive, authentic and relevant; it is easy to remember and furthermore appeals to the right people. When everything clicks, this creates a clear sense of place: the unique vibe of a specific place, a place people want to be part of. When an Innovation District is sharply focused on its distinguishing and unique features, prospective visitors will receive the right message and have the right expectations. Properly publicized, Innovation Districts will draw the right target groups. And this ultimately benefits the entire city.
But how do you achieve a successful place brand that supports the city brand and vice versa? Below, I will present five success factors on the basis of four cases.
Where Thinking Joins Up
The London KQ, or Knowledge Quarter, is a consortium that now includes 85 world-renowned academic, cultural, research, scientific and media organizations all based around King’s Cross Station, from the British Library and the University of London to Google. What they have in common is that they are actively engaged in the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. Together they form the largest concentration of knowledge institutes in London. As a research hub, the Knowledge Quarter generates mutual connections and promotes KQ activities. Through a joint strategy including festivals, awards and events the KQ expresses and underlines the brand proposition that KQ is the ‘gateway to knowledge’. This way, the Knowledge Quarter supports the brand ‘London’. The identity of the city is partly held up by cultural and scientific pillars. It is no accident that some of the world’s most reputable cultural and knowledge institutes are located in this city. The Knowledge Quarter strengthens this brand proposition and, with partners like Google, future-proofs its promise.
Proof of Promise
We see a similar reciprocity in other cities as well. Berlin, for example, has the ambition of becoming the startup capital of – at the very least – Europe. The city presents itself as ‘Europe’s booming Startup Hub’. The Berlin-based Silicon Allee links up perfectly with that ambition. This originally English-language blog about the Berlin tech scene was set up to provide Berlin’s startup scene with international recognition. The initiative quickly developed into a lively community and in 2017 procured a physical place in the city: the Silicon Allee campus. This campus houses an impressive list of German and international tech companies. The urban campus and the city brand support each other and in addition, Silicon Allee proves that Berlin is a major startup hub.
We can distil two success factors from these examples. First of all, the brand of the Innovation District and that of its mother city must be in line. They have to share some strands of the brand’s DNA to make the combination logical. Secondly, the brand has to be integrated, that is, people have to be able to experience the brand in public space through events, through the community, through stories and so on.
Brainport Eindhoven is also working to integrate its branding. The urban region claims it is a ‘world-class innovative top technology region’. At the crossroads of high-tech, design and social innovation, this umbrella brand connects dozens of stakeholders and all the innovations that see the light of day in Eindhoven under this heading. Governments and public and private parties collaborate more closely on the basis of a shared ambition. Different areas in and around the city underline the claim and spread the brand message, including Eindhoven University of Technology, Strijp-S and the High Tech Campus. Here, too, the Brainport Eindhoven place brand extends beyond physical locations. All aspects of the brand have been developed, including a brand identity and different storylines. An online toolbox offers all stakeholders free access to, among other things, logos, photos, promotional videos, brochures and sample texts.
Excellent PR has ensured that delegations from all over the world visit Eindhoven. Companies based in Eindhoven benefit from the umbrella brand. Anyone who links up with the Brainport Eindhoven brand automatically emanates professionalism, technical innovativeness and ambition.
The above shows that the close collaboration of all stakeholders is a key to success. After all, the parties concerned create the brand together. Realising a common ambition is a concerted effort. From this third success factor follows a fourth. Of course all stakeholders have to communicate the brand in an unambiguous way as well. It is worthwhile, or actually necessary, to facilitate this, for example by using a practical toolkit. This helps stakeholders to promote the brand and encourages them to become brand ambassadors.
Rotterdam also fosters the ambition to become a more attractive startup location. The municipal government brought the Cambridge Innovation Centre and the affiliated network vehicle Venture Café to the city, for example, but the areas in the city fringes offer lots of opportunities as well. Under the moniker Rotterdam Makers District, two areas formerly occupied by harbour activities now focus on the new manufacturing industry (this applies new techniques such as 3D printing) and the energy transition in the maritime sector. Their first offshoot was the RDM Campus, but the Merwe-Vierhavens District has seen plenty of development in recent years as well. The municipality and Port of Rotterdam play key roles in the development of both areas. They initiate and facilitate activities and initiatives and for now, they carry the load of the process. However, the growing success of the Rotterdam Makers District means more and more public and commercial parties join. The number of brand ‘owners’ gradually increases.
This shows that place branding, especially in the beginning, is impossible without leadership. It takes an initiator to prepare the way and enthuse potential ambassadors. A good place brand not only has many owners (contributors), but also a captain who monitors the course towards the dot on the horizon.
In short, Innovation Districts bring new energy and activity into a city, attract new target groups, but can also be of great value to the city brand. In order for both brands to benefit optimally from each other, take account of: 1) synergy in brand DNA; 2) integrated brand development; 3) close collaboration; 4. clear pointers for storytelling, and 5) clear leadership. Taking those factors into account, the road to an extremely successful place brand lies before you.
- Anholt, Competitive Identity: The New Brand Management for Nations, Cities and Regions (London 2006).
- Go, R. Govers, Place Branding: Glocal, Virtual and Physical Identities, Constructed, Imagined and Experienced (London 2009).