UK: CITIES BID TO MAKE THEIR MARQUE. - Cities have lost their sense of industrial identity. Now some are taking lessons from the growing success of national branding.

by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Cities have lost their sense of industrial identity. Now some are taking lessons from the growing success of national branding.

Time was when every city worth the name would excel in one area of manufacturing: in Leicester it was shoes, in Nottingham lace, in Sheffield steel, and so on. With the shift to the service economy and the growing complexity of manufactured items, these associations no longer make much sense. The cities that made these things have lost some of their identity.

A modern-day substitute for this idea may be the creation of city brands. The Birmingham Marketing Partnership (BMP), set up in 1993, claims to be one of the first coalitions in Europe of public and private resources assembled in order to market a city. It revealed a new identity - a swirling orbit around the name of the city with the tag-line 'Europe's meeting place' - earlier this year. The new marque places Birmingham in the same league as European centres such as Dusseldorf and Milan. Other British cities are likely to adopt similar strategies.

The NEC Group, which represents the National Exhibition Centre, the International Convention Centre and other venues, supports the move. 'Our venues have their own identities,' says John Cole, NEC Group's marketing director, 'but the diversity of our group calls for a consistent unifying theme.' One of NEC Group's venues is the new Symphony Hall, home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, perhaps Birmingham's most admired cultural institution. Under Simon Rattle, however, the orchestra feels it can blow its own trumpet.

Local hotels and restaurants have been among the first to adopt BMP's brand. But the region's biggest industries, such as Rover Group, GKN and Lucas Automotive, see little value in it. One obvious fault is that components for the products these companies manufacture now come from so many places that location brands are likely to be no more than a half-truth at best. 'In the global market, those labels are not helpful,' says Bob Moore, chief executive of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Cadbury also has no plans to use the Birmingham marque on its packaging or in its corporate communications. But its visitor centre, Cadbury World, will carry the new endorsement. Philip Calcutt, BMP's marketing director, expects smaller companies to benefit the most. There are proposals, for example, for the city's jewellery industry to use the new symbol in association with the traditional hallmark of the city.

One reason for the patchy uptake of any city brand lies with the logistics of how the brand is presented to the public. Corporations can decree that all their regional offices and subsidiaries carry the same corporate identity on every occasion. There is no such guarantee with civic or other regional administrations, which generally have no executive control over the local businesses they wish to adopt the brand. Birmingham has taken what precautions it can. Its companion second cities, Lyon and Barcelona, went to local advertising agencies for their symbols. 'Birmingham chose a corporate identity company to ensure that the implementation works,' says Michael Thorley, chief executive of BMP.

In a world of increasing international trade, falling tariffs and more widely travelled consumers, a new idea is coming to the fore. The city as brand may have had its day; the nation as brand is gaining strength. 'National branding has been noticeably on the increase in the past 10 years,' observes David Taylor, director of Scottish Trade International, the government export development agency. The idea is being tried out in a number of countries, some of them, it is perhaps significant to observe, scarcely more populous than cities themselves.

Initial efforts seemed somewhat gauche. Knowing that the label 'Made In Taiwan' was no come-on, that country's trade promotion organisations adopted the slogan, 'It's Very Well Made In Taiwan'.

Other countries have developed more polished programmes. Consider this problem. New Zealand makes some fine wines. But so do the Australians, the Californians and the French, whose wines are better known. How does New Zealand draw attention to its product? Some producers have found an answer, choosing to print wine labels adorned not with a vine to set themselves apart in this market (that would be pointless) but with a fern.

The fern has nothing to do with wine-making but everything to do with New Zealand. It is already an unofficial symbol of the country thanks to its use by the All Blacks rugby team. The New Zealand Tourism Board and Tradenz, the trade development board, have jointly agreed to adopt a spruced-up fern as a 'national brand' that can apply not only to sports teams and wines but to the full range of New Zealand products and services. It is already in use for tourism promotion and on some agricultural exports.

National brands are designed to remind consumers of the country of origin of a product, just as the corporate branding on certain products reminds them who made it. Sending a vague but positive message about a country in this way increases the chances of consumers buying its other goods, provided they carry the brand.

Closer trade links are only one reason why national identity is becoming a logical weapon of competitive advantage. There is also the political motive of acknowledging the increasing mood of nationalism in many countries. Countries such as New Zealand feel the need to escape the shadow of larger countries, in this case Australia. New countries such as Slovenia and Croatia, and 'renewed' countries such as Russia and South Africa, could also gain much from national branding.

National branding generally adopts an alternative symbology to the national flag. One exception is Switzerland, whose flag is protected like a trademark. Swiss public services such as the post office and railways work variations on the white cross on red. So do companies such as Swatch and Swissair, while for Elvia Vie, a Zurich life-insurance company, the benefits are obvious, according to spokesman William Lyner: 'Our country has had a great name in financial security for a very long time.' The national association works at home but also in foreign markets. 'It seems like folklore to us; we are astonished to see how important the stability of Switzerland is in foreign countries.' Any Swiss company that wishes to employ the flag as an element of its identity must apply to an office of federal control in the capital, Bern, showing that it has a history of financial soundness and that it truly operates nationally.

Elsewhere, designers often pay lip-service to national identity, expressing the culture through obvious visual cliches. These have been effective in some cases. Spain's rash of motifs based on the art of Joan Miro, used by the Spanish Tourist Office, Viva Air, La Caixa Bank and others, was highly appropriate while Spain was being welcomed into the community of Europe; such a flamboyant expression of Spanishness was to return the compliment.

Despite appearances, the Miro branding is no more than a happy accident. La Caixa led the way in 1980. 'Miro is a symbol of Catalonia, and of Spain, too,' says Javier Zuloaca, head of information at the Barcelona bank. 'An artistic symbol is appropriate because La Caixa is a non-profit-making bank with profits donated to cultural activities.' Viva Air acted independently when it followed the Spanish Tourist Office in its use of Miro, although both had similar aims. 'It identifies us as Spain and as leisure,' says marketing manager, Nicholas Benvenuto. 'It has been effective but is perhaps now nearing the end of a shortish life.' Fabian Cabedo, marketing director of Madrid-based design consultants, Landor Associates, comments: 'If the Miro thing had been co-ordinated at the beginning, it would have achieved a better, more enduring reflection of Spain,' The New Zealand fern is on altogether more familiar commercial territory, avoiding reference either to national flags or cultural heroes. The natural motif, executed in blue and green, positions New Zealand away from Australia, whose brands often favour parched reds and yellows. It suggests a concern for the environment and is clearly applicable to agricultural products from kiwi-fruit to wool and yet it is not unimaginable in the context of high-tech products or sophisticated service industries.

As in the case of a city brand, the principal hurdle is the implementation of the symbol. The New Zealand Tourism Board and Tradenz aim to put in place a 'strong national umbrella brand which adds value to the marketing of New Zealand origin products'. But it can't guarantee to do this. 'We are not trying to impose it,' explains Sean Murray, regional manager of the New Zealand Tourism Board. 'If we try to impose it, it will fail because people will reject it.' Instead, the brand is only made available to companies that support stated brand values. Aspirants undergo assessment for their quality and environmental management practices. One early user of the New Zealand endorsement is Quality Bakers. Moving from supplying commodity doughs and competing on price into finished items with added value, the company found the brand strategy well suited to its needs. 'The New Zealand Way adopted as a brand that is perceived overseas as quality,' says export manager, Joe Bagrie. And as Steve Ellis, chief executive of outdoor clothing company Sunshine Ellis, says: 'We are as much selling New Zealand as our products. They (the customers) see New Zealand as a clean, green, adventure paradise.' Despite these measures, the difficulty of implementing the national brand is already amply demonstrated. Even the tourism board's own literature betrays evidence of confusion. Other New Zealand organisations, from wineries to sports teams, already have their own ferns. Yet another will be used to brand New Zealand wools from this summer. A rather different curled fern appears on Air New Zealand planes, the koru, a traditional Maori graphic. 'They're not the same ferns,' concedes Murray. 'The New Zealand Way fern is trying to bring in a little more standardisation.' Since its launch in June 1993, licensees of the brand have grown to account for 20% of New Zealand's foreign earnings. The target is one third.

But it is expecting a lot for New Zealand companies to drop existing, well-established brands, whether they are ferns or not. The New Zealand Meat Producers Board is debating about whether to adopt the New Zealand Way fern. 'Our problem is that the New Zealand lamb rosette has had a huge amount of investment in past decades. We have to think hard about how to use them in association,' according to a spokesperson. Aidan Coletta, managing director of Richmond Lonsdale, a major lamb import-export company, is more optimistic, maintaining that the fern would provide an additional trading advantage alongside the rosette.

Margaret Harvey, director of Fine Wines of New Zealand, is responsible for putting the fern on bottles of her Aotea sauvignon blanc. She did so without any knowledge of the New Zealand Way programme, taking the All Blacks' fern as her guide. The name is the Maori word for New Zealand. But she would be happy to bring her fern into line with the New Zealand Way symbol.

Portugal has sought to combine elements of both the Spanish and New Zealand strategies. Following Spain's example, the tourism ministry asked a Portuguese artist to create a mascot. It then hired the London corporate identity consultancy, Wolff Olins, to develop a strategy for tourism promotion. 'What makes Portugal unique is that although it is a Latin country it is not a Mediterranean country,' says Wally Olins. Olins wanted to position Portugal as the 'Mediterranean' country on the Atlantic. The Portuguese ruled out any reference to the Mediterranean, which they felt was irrelevant. They eventually agreed to the tag-line, 'Where Europe meets the Atlantic' to accompany the red and green mascot.

Because ICEP, the client agency responsible for tourism in Portugal, also oversees trade and investment, Wolff Olins separately recommended introducing a related symbol that might appear on Portuguese exports and inward investment literature. However, ICEP chose to adopt the artist's rather folkloric mascot for this purpose as well. 'We thought this was misguided because it was precisely what they should get away from,' says Jane Wentworth, Wolff Olins's communications consultant on the project. A better approach might have been for Portugal to do as New Zealand has done and commission one symbol to serve both purposes from the outset.

In practice, it seems almost unavoidable that national brands have their genesis within tourism promotion. The current Scottish programme, 'Scotland the Brand', began in this way. The idea originated with Derek Reid, the new chief executive of the Scottish Tourist Board. Formerly managing director of Cadbury-Schweppes' food side, Reid was a key player in the management buyout of Cadbury-Typhoo to create Premier Brands. He plans to introduce a new identity for the board and a marketing brand for Scottish tourism products this summer to combat the decline in visitors. Reid is also in discussions with Scottish Enterprise, the regional development agency, about extending the brand to cover trade and investment as well.

The fact that many of Scotland's products, from peaty whiskies to heather-coloured textiles, bear the legacy of the distinctive natural environment argues for the extension of that brand beyond tourism. But the naturalistic element is not always relevant. 'Our challenge is to adopt a symbol or slogan that builds on the existing awareness in a positive way to place things in a modern context,' says Taylor. The Scottish Tourist Board will grant licenses for tourism companies to use the new brand. It remains to be seen whether other Scottish businesses will adopt it. David Grant, director of William Grant and Sons, distillers of Glenfiddich and other Scotch whiskies, points out: 'We spend most of our time differentiating our brands from other brands of Scotch whisky. To apply more generic Scottishism would undo this. But the idea could apply to Scottish products which are not perceived as so typical of Scotland as Scotch whisky is.' However, Andy Neal, UK marketing director for United Distillers, sees some potential for such a brand employed on those products most explicitly associated with Scotland. 'Our Classic Malts range is very much about the geography of the locations. Something working with Scottishness in its best sense would be very good.' But United Distillers' core brand, Bell's, would not benefit because it does not trade heavily on its Scottish origin.

The idea of creating 'identities' for geographic entities is not limited to cities and countries. The German Lander, American states and Canadian provinces, for example, seem more natural repositories of such identities than the larger nations of which they are part. 'It is not a question of size,' says Wally Olins, 'but of how well rooted our ideas are of a place.' At the other end of the scale, the European Commission is presently seeking an identity that will market Europe en bloc to the Americans and Asians. Fiona Gilmore of brand consultants, Springpoint, speculates that this idea could go further. 'How many industries are pursuing the notion of a "Made in Europe" logo to defend themselves from Far East products?' she wonders. Such a label could convey quality but might also have the ethical merit of indicating that the products are created where legislation decrees certain social provisions.

People no longer associate products with cities in the way that they once did. Nor do we yet identify meaningfully around supranational groupings such as the European Union. Nations, on the other hand, retain this power of association.

Yet the nation is perhaps the most ticklish as well as the most powerful unit around which we identify ourselves. Some consultants and their clients believe a national brand is no different from a product brand. Both Derek Reid and Philip Calcutt, for example, say cities and countries are capable of being branded just like chocolate. But nations are not chocolates. Symbols of identity that fail to recognise this and to acknowledge the existence of the genuine underlying sense of cultural identity will soon fail. In a world where people trade and travel more widely and are becoming more adept at observing their differences, the value of a national brand will increasingly depend on its cultural authenticity.

Spain's use of Miro has been a success because his art is authentically Spanish. The fern grows in profusion in New Zealand and has long been the symbol of the All Blacks. Aotea wine thus has an authentic symbol and name. 'I wanted a name that meant something,' says Harvey. The company and its corporate identity may be a useful paradigm but it should not be forgotten that a city or country has a cultural identity richer by far than that of any corporation.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Books for the weekend: Daniel Goleman, Jack Welch, Nelson Mandela

Beaverbrooks CEO Anna Blackburn shares her reading list.

What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with...

Coronavirus communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard...

Leadership lessons: Mervyn Davies, former CEO of Standard Chartered and trade minister

"People talk about pressure – I worked 24 hours a day. There is more pressure...

How to reinvent your career through motherhood and midlife

Pay it Forward podcast: Former Marie Claire editor-in-chief Trish Halpin and BITE managing editor Nicky...