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An Agencycalleden Tony Stanton Feature

Rebranding cities

By The Drum | Administrator

April 3, 2008 | 10 min read

No place like home

Despite miserly budgets and the weighty baggage of local cynicism to surmount, there’s always a crowd of agencies lining city walls to challenge for these place branding briefs. Many are on a hiding to nothing, according to Purple Circle’s John Lyle, who became so weary with the barracking his agency received for its Nottinghamshire place brand in 2005, he says he’ll never do another one again. It is, he reckons, ‘a poisoned chalice’.

Lyle never anticipated his agency’s innocuous slanted N would cause such a stir that it would be BBC newsworthy and even a story in his sister’s home of Sydney. “We had a great launch on the Saturday, it was on TV and the Nottingham Evening Post gave it a four-page spread saying how they’d been involved with it since the start. By Tuesday the mood had changed.”

Lyle says the initially supportive Evening Post was the pivot for the backlash. By the Tuesday they’d started printing letters from locals calling it an outrage that £120,000 of tax payers’ money had gone on a logo when so much else needed fixing in the area. “It’s the most public of design jobs, so everyone becomes a designer and gives their critique,” he reasons. “With a consumer brand you’ve only got a few masters. With a place brand you’ve got hundreds.”

Lowest ebb

The lowest ebb was when the paper printed Lyle’s mobile phone number, inviting aggrieved Nottinghamshire folk to challenge him on the issue personally. He took around 15 ‘unpleasant’ calls at the time, but adds, proudly, that he’s still not changed his number.

With regards to his detractors, Lyle says the best defence came from Glasgow’s Miles Better collaborator Dr. John Heely, the chief executive of Experience Nottinghamshire – the organisation that instigated the rebrand. “He asked the simple question, ‘would you rather we did it on the cheap?’ This was brilliant because it can only be a good thing that people care to invest what’s obviously considered a decent sum.”

“Daftest of all,” Lyle says, “is that we did other branding work in Nottingham for the council, which settled down nicely and didn’t get criticised at all. We’d earlier done work for Bedford which went well so we had no idea things would turn out like this.”

An Agency Called England has branded its home city of Leeds, Hull, Ashford and several others. Its managing director Tony Stanton says that it’s because these jobs are publicly funded that they are so scrutinised. For those who do criticise his place brands, he has a straightforward retort: “I ask them, ‘what’s your view on the Union flag then?’ It’s only an icon. It doesn’t tell you what’s under the surface of Britain. It’s a shortcut.”

Stanton is no stranger to the controversy that place branding can cause. It emerged the ‘Live It, Love It,’ slogan his agency crafted for Leeds three years ago had already been used in Hong Kong. To this day, he stresses the idea was completely independent and the similarity only came to light in the period of due diligence.

What concerns Stanton isn’t so much the reaction the branding receives, but the initial attitude of the brand managers before any work is undertaken. “Take any commercial brand: Sony, Nike, whoever. The people behind these brands have a pride in what they’re doing. They know they’re going to need to get an agency in to market them, but they believe in the product.

“With a city – you’re called in by the brand managers who already have a downer on the place. They call for a rebrand because they think the product is crap.”

Despite the different attitudes that Stanton perceives between place managers and their commercial product counterparts, he says it has no bearing on their expectations for the brand. “A big commercial brand will invest many millions per annum on marketing. They know what they want and that’s people to buy more of their product – they want customers.

“But place work is incredibly complicated. It’s the most under-resourced area of marketing. Budgets are always too small and the client’s outlook too short.

“With place brands, in some cases, they have a wild ambition. They’ll say, ‘we want to reinvent ourselves in six months’, and then give you a budget of £50,000. It doesn’t match up.”

Hemisphere has recently been tasked to rebrand Greater Manchester town Oldham after work with Salford and Sunderland. Sue Vanden, the Manchester-based agency’s marketing director, is fire fighting the issue of their budget with townsfolk at the moment. “There’s confusion about the money. In reality, it is peanuts and the outlay is worth it in the long-term to bring more investment into the town.”

Unnecessary messages

Vanden explained that through the agency’s recent rebrand job for Bolton – over and above what they were paid and its budget – they’ve saved the town money. “With Bolton, there were so many different organisations and stakeholders giving out conflicting, unnecessary messages and using different logos. Introducing one consistent brand has made them much more efficient.”

Sue Strange, assistant director of communications and marketing at Bolton Council, confirms it has seen savings as a result of the streamlining and says the new-look is bringing in investment.

“Already, in terms of raising awareness and generating interest and ultimately investment, the brand has been invaluable. Using the brand to profile development opportunities in Bolton has helped to secure proposals from a number of major developers coming to Bolton for the first time. Total investment in the town centre over the next five to 10 years is currently worth over £1billion,” Strange says.

Getting all the different stakeholders in a town like Bolton to agree on the same message isn’t easy though, Vanden stresses. “Half of the battle with place branding is political. Just as it’s an easy issue for local newspapers to pick up on, it’s also an easy target for opposition politicians to prompt the tired ‘why’s this cash being wasted?’ debate.”

At the moment though, Vanden’s key problem is getting the people of Oldham to pull in the same direction. “Oldham’s a difficult one – there are people in the town who want a name change. There are people in Saddleworth who don’t consider themselves part of Oldham or Greater Manchester at all. It’s difficult to get people to realise the town’s potential.”

One of the things the town has got going for it is the highest proportion of people under 25 in Greater Manchester. “They don’t seem as shackled to the old ways quite so much, they are more receptive to what we want to do”, Vanden adds. “It’s the people who’ve been in the town for years who tend to be more cynical and not as keen on change. Ultimately it’s an inherent sense of civic pride, but Oldham needs to move on.”

If Oldham’s a tricky task, what about South Manchester suburb Wythenshawe? For years, the most reported thing about this plot of Manchester landscape has been its legend as Europe’s largest council estate. It’s a dubious honour that has even been immortalised in hit TV show Shameless, where the area doubles for the external shots of the hard-bitten Chatsworth Estate.

Perception versus reality

Manchester agency Creative Concern has been tasked with the £30,000 project. The agency’s chief executive, Steve Connor says they have to challenge a lot of out-dated preconceptions about the area. “It’s perception versus reality,” he says. “In the last ten years there’s been a significant change in Wythenshawe and there’s more investment to come.”

Connor says there’s been a ‘mixed’ reaction on the ground when the agency has ventured into Wythenshawe but, while it’s very early days for the project, he’s confident of its success. “Why shouldn’t Wythenshawe rebrand to tackle some of its misconceptions? Place branding shouldn’t just be the preserve of rich cities.”

England’s Stanton says challenging perceptions was imperative in cracking the Leeds branding. “We knew Leeds wouldn’t attract the investment it wanted if it had a stereotypical image. The city today isn’t about belligerent Arthur Scargill types, cobbles or rolling dales. We acknowledge you might still be able to see some of these things from your office window, but it’s also about the young professional in the city, who in Leeds have a good place to work and live.”

Where place branding goes wrong, according to Stanton – and where he says his agency often has to come round with a metaphorical bucket to ‘mop things up’ – is when a city peddles its very generic features. “Why do towns and cities try to sell things that aren’t unique? ‘We’ve got great motorway links’ they say. Well, who hasn’t? ‘We’re near an airport, we’ve got industrial space, a bit of greenery’. Great. Now tell me something that’s different. Just having a message that says ‘we’re friendly people, you’ll enjoy living here’, supersedes talk of motorways or green space.”

With so many pitfalls, not to mention a parochial local media, political crossfire and angry natives to tackle, why would any agency take on a place branding job?

“It’s very stimulating creatively, it’s something you can become personally involved with and passionate about. Ultimately you’re trying to do something very positively for a place,” says Creative Concern’s Connor. As well as Wythenshawe, his agency has worked with design guru Peter Saville to craft an identity for Manchester and Pennine Lancashire. Connor’s passion for the jobs he works on is exuded in his blog: “When people get overly obsessed by logos or straplines they’ve lost the essence of what good place branding is all about: you must become the brand you want to be.”

Given the amount of flak he had to take and his pledge not to do another place branding exercise, would John Lyle pass up the Nottinghamshire task if he had his time again? “No, I’d do it again. That might sound ridiculous but we still feel we’d be the best at it. We know Nottingham, and you need to have a real sense of locality to pull one of these jobs off.

“I’m as proud of this city as any resident so I wouldn’t want to see anyone else doing it.”

If there’s any consolation to be taken from the bulging mailbags of the Evening Post or The Chronicle, at least people are talking about, and taking some interest in, design. The letters might be signed by Livid of Leeds, Misled of Manchester or Narked of Nottingham who don’t like place branding, but right now, towns and cities can’t get enough of it.

An Agencycalleden Tony Stanton Feature

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