The IPA goes to Birmingham: For big brands, Birmingham is the real deal

Last week the IPA in partnership with Birmingham Creative City Partnership hosted another of their Creative Birmingham seminars based on the key themes of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP).

Having explored IP, Access to Finance and Talent in previous events this time the focus was on infrastructure. Following the high profile re-opening of New Street Station and the creation of Grand Central shopping centre with John Lewis as the jewel in its crown, we were hosted by John Lewis itself to consider business infrastructure and its impact on the wider community of creative businesses.

We had the benefit of insights from Andy Street, Chair of GBSLEP and CEO of John Lewis and Martin Hanson of HSBC on why big brands are investing in Birmingham. Local lad Andy Wilson, IPA regional Head and Chief Executive WAA, reflected on what this means for the city’s creative industries, with Anita Bhalla OBE of Creative City Partnership chairing the event.

The event offered invaluable insights into the thought processes of global brands as to the factors that influence an investment in a location. These are a few themes I discerned:

Heritage is important but the future is imperative

John Lewis may have walked away from the Bull Ring as a potential location back in 1998 but Birmingham-born Andy Street felt that was a mistake. He saw the economic potential of Birmingham as an area with a huge population of potential customers.

John Lewis has already demonstrated its effectiveness as a driver of retail regeneration as anchor tenant of Liverpool One. It needed a large scheme where it could go in first and be linked to a story of transformation.

Grand Central fited the bill. HSBC, in setting up the HQ of its ring-fenced retail bank in Birmingham, had legacy with the founding fathers of the bank from Midland Bank and Birmingham & Midshires.

But more importantly, HSBC saw Birmingham as a city on the rise – there was more than one mention of the city having passed its “tipping point” – and in locating here, HBSC wants to be spoken of in the same breath as any mention of Birmingham’s renaissance.

Yes there’s transport but there’s also people

Both Andy Street and Martin Hanson spoke of Birmingham’s central location in international transport hubs. HS2 in particular was mentioned as a game-changer – not because it would transform the city into a dormitory town for London but that the South-East would now find it much easier to access Brummie talent and resources.

John Lewis worked for two years prior to opening with 250 long-term unemployed, resulting in the recruitment of around 80 partners for the new store (and the others on the scheme won retail employment elsewhere).

HSBC emphasised that the new retail bank had to be close to its customer base. While two-thirds of the 1,300 jobs and the new HQ will be existing staff members relocating from London, around 600 or 700 jobs will be recruited from the local population.

For HSBC, Birmingham and its people represents a real, local, liveable alternative to the “bubble” of Canary wharf and something more like the High Street that the bank is seeking to represent. In attracting and retaining talented staff Birmingham offers a specific high quality of life to graduates, apprentices and those re-locating.

It’s about the story you can tell and “talkability”

Both brands spoke about the Birmingham story and wanted to be part of it: Grand Central and the New Street redevelopment was already a national story (the Queen had just officially opened the scheme on the day of the event).

Films commissioned by John Lewis, made by local creatives Blue Monday, emphasised the story of the people of Birmingham: diverse, creative, resilient, helpful, collaborative, talented and good humoured.

HSBC has been working with Marketing Birmingham, which created an intranet for re-locating staff to find out about city suburbs, schools and leisure opportunities. But the most effective way to convert people to the idea of living in Birmingham was just to visit the speakers belived – tours in an open-top bus and experiencing a Brummie welcome spoke more eloquently of its attractions than any virtual portal.

In conclusion Andy Wilson from WAA spoke of the challenge ahead for “brand Birmingham”. With so much going on the notion of a brand may well be out of date.

Perhaps, he suggested, we need storytellers and brand ambassadors to make the brand from inside out. If a cohesive brand has got a bass, a rhythm and a melody does the city’s current positioning have the requisite strength in depth? Not a reductive logo and strapline but something altogether deeper and more subtle?

“Watch this space” promised Andy Street. The LEP has commissioned work on the brand that promises to be a more nuanced approach.

After this event I can’t wait to see what that might be – and how it can contribute to a city whose moment (whisper it) appears to have come.

Watch a short film on Birmingham here.

Click here for photos from the event.

Helga Henry is Director, Creative Shift, a boutique consultancy specialising in creativity and business.​

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