West Midlands Feature
Birmingham has come in for something of a pasting in recent weeks. The first blow came in the form of a poll by supermarket chain Somerfield, which identified Birmingham and Liverpool as the rudest cities in the UK. The second, more painful strike was dealt by a survey conducted by BBC Inside Out - the broadcaster’s regional current affairs programme - which revealed that more people now see Manchester as the UK’s second city, a title long associated with Birmingham.
“This has been brewing for a while,” says Dave Hodgson, marketing director for Marketing Birmingham. “Over the last few years there seems to have been a series of media-led Manchester-versus-Birmingham debates. There have been a plethora of polls, each involving a small piece of research ranking and comparing cities on a range of different areas. However, this isn’t something that concerns us.”
Hodgson was a man in demand throughout February, fervently defending his city on TV and in the press. But despite Birmingham’s lack of luck with the polls, Hodgson and the city remain unperturbed. And why shouldn’t they? Much is made of Manchester’s dramatic makeover in the past 10 years, but Birmingham has also benefited from substantial investment. The revamped Bullring and the canal-side developments are just two of areas where the city has been transformed - and it can still boast more green space than its northwest counterpart.
“If you go back five or ten years, the perception of Birmingham was really low from a lifestyle point of view,” Hodgson says. “Things like shopping, going out and where to eat were all perceived to be better elsewhere. That perception has been improving dramatically in recent years. “However, what Manchester has been doing well for a very long time is talking about what it has been doing. Its use of PR has been key to this.
“For Birmingham, there’s a gap between perception and reality. We’ve found that the people who visit the city really enjoy it, and it often outscores the likes of Manchester. But the perception of Birmingham, particularly among those people who have never been, is quite some way behind the reality.”
One area of contention is what constitutes being the second city. According to Karen Bernie, managing director of Birmingham-based Wyatt, size does matter. “Second city has always been about size and Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK. However, there is definitely perception issue.”
Bron Eames, managing director of Sutton Coldfield-based Haslimann Taylor and the recently voted chairman of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Midlands Group, believes Birmingham remains the second city, but offers her take on why some people see the debate differently. “Apart from a shedload of investment and redevelopment, it’s because Mancunians are more self confident and talk the city up big time. Brummies are much more self effacing.”
Julia Willoughby, managing director of Birmingham-based Willoughby PR, believes the creative industries are important to improving perceptions of the city, but insists the second city tag isn’t the real issue. “I think Manchester has been successful in promoting its new creative scene over the last five years,” she says. “Birmingham needs to focus on its proposition and clearly communicate it. As a city, creative industries are now being recognised by initiatives like Enterprise City, and there has never been a better time for the creative sector to capitalise on this. Let’s not waste energy arguing which city sits on the top of the pile, but work on the positives of what Birmingham offers as the creativity and cultural aspects are at an all-time high.”
Digital expert Chris Tomlinson, managing director of WebXpress - part of the WAA Group - believes the prevalence of the internet is an area that’s yet to be fully exploited by the city.
“My bugbear is the way the region is marketed online,” he says. “Take the Visit Birmingham website; it would be quite difficult for someone coming to the city, looking for things to do to get a clear idea of what’s on offer. Go to the Visit Manchester site and it’s a different story. Manchester seems to have got its act together a bit more when it comes to raising perceptions.”
Hodgson says: “The important thing for us is to bring the perception closer to the reality, both nationally and internationally.”
And through its three rostered agencies - McCann Erickson Birmingham, WAA and SBG & Finex - Marketing Birmingham has launched a series of campaigns aimed at doing just that. “Since the launch of Birmingham Bites in summer 2005, our food and drink campaign has gone from strength to strength. We have achieved more than £7million worth of media coverage to date, and have hosted major food events in the city.
“And last year saw the start of a real push on Birmingham’s extensive fashion and retail offering. This whole area will remain a focus for the city this year.”
Eames calls for the likes of Marketing Birmingham, Advantage West Midlands and other organisations to bring more consistency to the way they sell the region: “All the organisations that market Birmingham and the West Midlands need to do so in a more cohesive way.”
Likewise, Bernie says: “The message is a bit too fragmented at the moment. There needs to be a greater level of integration from organisations and bodies whose objectives are very similar. Improving this could be a big step for improving perception.”
Eames believes there’s another major issue to consider: football. “Regardless of marketing, for me there are two fundamental issues to sort out: New Street station must be redeveloped and the city has to have two teams in the Premiership, and one that regularly plays in the Champions League. Is that too much to ask?”
Aston Villa fan Tomlinson agrees: “You go abroad and people know all about Manchester United. Perhaps Birmingham suffers from not having a similar level of sporting success.”
Hodgson, however, sees it differently. “Our forthcoming sports campaign will celebrate Birmingham’s great sporting credentials. The city has staged more major sporting events than any other UK city. This year is no exception – we’re staging the European Athletic Indoor Championships, the only major athletics event before the Olympic Games.”
Tourism is another vital component of a successful city and Hodgson and his team have been working hard to entice the BBC’s Holiday programme to visit the city. It finally paid off when the show recently included a section on the city following a visit by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen.
“They were overwhelmed by what they found,” says Hodgson of the BBC visit. “They came away saying they had too much footage. This, for me, sums up the difference between perception and reality. That programme proves the city is firmly on the map as a short-break destination.”
During his visit, Bowen spoke to local journalists about the Holiday team’s findings in Birmingham. “It’s suddenly coming into its own after all of those years of having its heart ripped out,” he explained. “Suddenly things are beginning to bolt together.”
He identified the Radisson building, a visible landmark on the city’s skyline, as an example of the progress being made in Birmingham. “It’s something you see as you drive in, something you see on the horizon, and in a way it’s almost something Birmingham needs more of: real signature horizon statements.”
It’s a horizon that’s looking brighter and brighter. While people outside the West Midlands continue to take pops at Birmingham, the city is not only fighting fit, it’s looking stronger than ever.