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The style counsel

Since the 70s Birmingham has been the butt of many jokes thanks to concrete eyesores like the old Bullring and spaghetti junction. But modern Birmingham is a different prospect. That said, getting people to buy into the city’s new image has been a tough

Today, the 70’s Birmingham on tape looks about as modern as Ancient Athens. With its shots of a city dominated by slabs of grey concrete, it is a world away from the Birmingham it grew to be. But while the city transformed itself rapidly over the intervening years, (out)dated perceptions were not so quick to change.

Four years ago, Marketing Birmingham started on a drive to change those perceptions. Dave Hodgson, the organisation’s marketing director, recalls the desire he had to give Birmingham the same “buzz” enjoyed by rival cities like Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow at the time. “When we looked into how those cities were perceived, it all revolved around lifestyle,” he says. “It was things about popular culture: it was the music scene, the food, sport, going out; it was, if you like, being in a city and feeling cool; somewhere you wanted to be and be seen.”

With this in mind, Marketing Birmingham concentrated its campaigns on lifestyle areas – food, sport, arts and shopping – acting as hooks to pull people to the city. Two years in, Hodgson says perceptions were shifting and attitudes softening; but although people surveyed said Birmingham was a city they’d like to go to, asked if they actually would, the majority said no. “We’d shifted the perceptions up,” Hodgson says, “but still hadn’t convinced people to visit.”

To act as a clincher, all the individual campaigns were morphed into a bigger, holistic message. “We got all the mini campaigns aiming at the visitbirmingham.com website. That not only became a one-stop shop for all the perception work we were doing, but it told people why and how they should come.”

Hodgson says channelling the campaigns – built by working with Midlands agencies Seal, WAA, KLM, McCann Erickson Birmingham and Brilliant Media – has proved a success. Four years ago Marketing Birmingham was turning over £2.5m; today that figure is £10m. A team of two has swelled to 12 staff working under their marketing director.

But he says the creative has not been about building a Birmingham brand. “I’ve not been precious about it at all, saying this is earth-shattering brand marketing. It’s not; it’s a tourism campaign. It’s aimed at people going on the website and coming to the city. It’s worked.”

So what does he make of cities that have focused more on developing their brands? “I’m not into bashing other cities about what they do and what they don’t do. But you look at cities that have just changed their logo and you think, ‘right, new logo, now what?’ Am I supposed to have changed my mind?”

Hodgson, from the start, underpinned all his campaigns with a big PR push to gain media attention. “What we did was do marketing campaigns aimed at national media but very much backed up with PR – ‘MPR’. We almost [had an approach of] not marketing something unless you could PR it.”

Four years ago Marketing Birmingham’s aim was to get £1m worth of media coverage off “a very small spend” - it brought in just under £2m. This year it has come in at £10.3m of media coverage. “The trick now is to maintain that. PR remains one of our most important tools. If we did £10.3m in media coverage in the last year we want more.”

To gain more, he is taking the Visit Birmingham campaign abroad – and is confident of grabbing the media spotlight overseas. As something of a test, Marketing Birmingham recently held a media trip in Dublin with a return visit to Birmingham which saw 30 Irish journalists visit the city. Back at their desks, Hodgson says “20 odd” of the visiting journalists have already written positive articles about the city. This has then been backed by advertising telling Irish consumers there’s never been a better time to come to Birmingham to spend their Euros.

But although Marketing Birmingham is keen to showcase the value for money of visiting Birmingham during the recession, how is it handling the financial climate itself – and how is the city holding up? “Nobody’s recession proof, people are still frugal about what they’re doing but they’re making choices. What we’re finding is they’re making Birmingham a choice.

“The recession has made us smarter. We’ve spent more money on marketing this year than we did the year before. Looking at my budgets for the forthcoming year, the money is there. We’re spending money on marketing and PR. But instead of doing, as we did in the last year, a big campaign, this year it’s about the mini campaigns. It’s looking at those moments around events in our calendar here and just making them work much harder, really sweating them. And PR’s the best way of sweating it.

“At a time when we’re seeing London’s shopping drop by 20%, Manchester’s dropped by about 15%, Birmingham’s dropped just 5%. So not only has it maintained its number two position in UK shopping, it’s got closer to London’s West End.”

Hodgson says that four years ago, Birmingham was a big secret that people didn’t know about. Now he believes that’s changed. “Hence our strapline of visitbirmingham.com – the word is out. If we were doing this campaign four years ago we’d have said ‘Britain’s best kept secret’. We don’t say that now because of confidence.”

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