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Column: City branding as part of an inclusive solution

A column by Isabel Parra

Are cities really showing the best of themselves by using their current branding strategies? Isabel Parra explains how cities are presently not doing this. She proposes two important ways in which cities can shift the focus of their branding efforts from merely attracting, to connecting.

Brands have the power to create communities. Some intuitive examples of brand-created communities are Harley-Davidson, Lego, Rapha, and Couchsurfing. Over the past decades, cities learned to apply branding techniques. They treated themselves as products with a primary goal to attract international investments, tourists and new (talented) residents. Additionally, cities went through transformations which came accompanied by gentrification struggles, such as community displacement, lack of belonging, rivalry and sometimes even resentment. For these gloomy results, city branding has been blamed.

Why? Because cities have adopted brand models designed to attract instead of connect.

In the night of 23 to 24 July 2019, the iconic ‘I Amsterdam’-letters were set on fire by local residents. Originally intended as a symbol of inclusion, a neighbourhood initiative had banned the letters from Museum Square for not representing their city values a year earlier. Instead, they argued, I Amsterdam symbolized individualism and mass tourism.[1]

Residents of Barcelona handed out posters near the Sagrada Familia which instructed tourists to not tell their friends about their holiday, so that Barcelona would remain a secret. The goal was to make tourists conscious of their responsibility for skyrocketing housing prices and displacements of native or marginalized residents.

Both Amsterdam and Barcelona have been recognised as successfully using city branding to attract tourists and investments. Both of their urban planners were accused by their residents of putting visitors and investors first. [2]
By recalibrating their models, city branding has the potential to help these cities. Two lessons can help them in getting started:

1. Urban planners need to be involved in the branding processes and make it part of the development strategy.
A socially inclusive vision can only be achieved by putting the communities at the centre of the strategy. After critically reading city branding theories and practices, city branding researchers Bonakdar and Audirac identified the need to link city branding and urban planning to address social challenges. This means a different focus than the more simplistic version municipalities worked with in the past.

2. Brands knit the culture and transform management.
Companies like Nike, ING and Virgin have transformed their organisational structure and adapted their processes in order to be ´on-brand´. The brand leads their actions and became the glue uniting the internal and external cultures. For Nike’s CEO Phil Knight the shoes are a manifestation of the brand: “Nike is a marketing company, and the product is our most important marketing tool … [the brand] knits the whole organization together.” [3]
Municipalities should adapt the way these teams relate themselves to the institutions in the city, the residents and to the urban agencies employed to shape the city brand.

The power of brands can connect cities’ diverse communities to each other, when urban planners and residents co-create branding strategies and align around them. Both Amsterdam and Rotterdam have been migrant destination cities for centuries and their multicultural societies have made them great. In the process to create an attractive image that connects to a shared identity, brands can become the glue that unites all the cultures of these global cities.

Read more about city branding and place branding here.

Sources:

[1] Hitti, “Amsterdam Council Removes ‘I Amsterdam’ Sign after It Becomes Selfie Spot.”

[2] Ren and Keil, The Globalizing Cities Reader; Dinnie, City Branding: Theory and Cases; Kavaratzis and Ashworth, “City Branding.”

[3] Kornberger, Brand Society, 17.