Book Review: Branding Cities

Edited By: Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Eleonore Kofman, and Catherine Kevin (Routledge, 2012)

Can a city be described in just a few words? Paris as the City of Love or Rome as the Eternal City.  While history has bestowed these cities with their unique nicknames, more recently it has been city governments that have actively developed unique city brands.  In 2005, the City of Toronto undertook an extensive exercise in branding the city as ‘Toronto Unlimited’.  Likewise, Berlin developed the ‘Be Berlin’ brand in 2008 to capture the potential of the city as a creative metropolis at the centre of Europe.  Yet branding a city is no easy process and the results can have unanticipated outcomes, as described in the book Branding Cities, edited by Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Eleonore Kofman, and Catherine Kevin.

But why do cities brand themselves in the first place?  The case of Toronto in 2005 is common to many western cities.  The aim was to promote the city as a major global tourist and business destination.  In a world in which cities are competing and not nation-states, the onus rests with city leaders to create a distinct brand that can be easily digested by investors.  This may sound paradoxical, but the city brand is rarely for the city-dwellers themselves.  Whether it is ‘Toronto Unlimited’ or Vancouver’s ‘Green City’, the emphasis is often on inward investment; jobs and money to boost the city balance sheet.

In Branding Cities, Paul Kennedy describes the case of Manchester and how it has successfully leveraged its industrial heritage to forge a new urban renaissance.  Since the mid-1990s the city has undergone large-scale regeneration and is the UK poster child for Richard Florida’s theory on creative cities.  The Manchester brand has attempted to capture the creativity and cosmopolitanism of the ‘original industrial city’ of the early nineteenth century.  As a result, the city is now home to a host of digital and media companies, with the BBC recently relocating a number of departments to MediaCityUK.

Diversity and cosmopolitanism are other frequent themes stressed in city branding.  Yet as outlined in the book, when city branding draws on these two concepts—as Manchester and many others do—there is an inherent tension at work.  If a brand is meant to signify something unique, how can a message about cosmopolitanism, which by definition stresses the global above the local, capture the unique qualities of place?  The danger is that the brand becomes detached from reality. This raises some interesting questions about cities which trumpet their diverse populations as an economic and cultural strength, but have strained relationships with certain ethnic groups.

The case of London is a good example.  Many commentators believe that London successfully won the rights to host the 2012 Olympics over Paris because it stressed the diversity of its population.  In his pitch to win the Games, Mayor Ken Livingstone described London as, ‘a city in which 300 languages are spoken every day and those who speak them live happily side-by-side’.  Fast forward to the summer of 2011 and this harmony was less evident as riots engulfed the city.  Though the issue of race in these disturbances was a complex one, the riots were sparked by a police shooting in the predominantly black area of Tottenham which has a history of strained relationships with a predominantly white police force.

London is not alone in developing a brand that has stressed cosmopolitanism and diversity.  Following their 1998 World Cup victory, the French soccer team were held up as an example of the country’s strong ‘cultural mosaic’, with the squad containing a number of players with roots in various parts of Africa.  Yet, 2005 saw a series of riots in the banlieues of Paris and other cities as the frustrations of mostly North African youths boiled over against the police and government.  Suddenly the French brand of social integration was no more.

The disconnect between the brand and the reality should come as no surprise.  Those fans of TV drama Mad Men will understand that creating a brand for Jaguar cars can be achieved in a matter of a few whisky-fuelled hours in an office.  But creating a distinct brand for a city or country is much harder and will never be able to capture the messiness of city life.

Vancouver is no exception in this sense.  Significant efforts have been made to brand the city as a combination of liveable, green, and sustainable.  This was on display most recently when a trade delegation visited London as part of the Olympic Games to woo European investors in the ‘green and creative sectors’.  But with housing affordability, or lack of it, recognized as a key challenge for Vancouver, it is pertinent to ask who exactly the ‘Liveable City’ is being branded for.  For many local residents the brand that most resonates is the ‘Unliveable City’, or in more light-hearted moments the ‘Rain City’.

Thankfully the essays in Branding Cities bring a critical perspective to this topic and do more than just describe the attempts of various cities to develop attractive brands.  Though a little too European in outlook, the collection makes us recognize the tensions within city brands and the need to challenge the messages that our city leaders are developing.

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Chris Quigley is a qualified urban planner who has recently moved to Vancouver after time spent as a planning consultant in London, UK. He has a wide ranging interest in contemporary cities and regions, in particular planning policy, architecture and city branding. His personal blog explores international episodes of urbanism and can be found at www.musingsofanurbanist.blogspot.com.

One comment

  1. Thank you for the well-written review. I wonder how different community groups and a diverse spectrum of individuals (of all ages, races, and ethnicities) were engaged in the branding activities of some of the cities described in the book. Are there instances where the people, not the local government, were effective in branding their city? I guess I might just have to read the book.

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