Welcome to Brandsville, the home of place branding


I was in Leith a couple of weeks ago. It was cold and windy. And beautiful.

Leith. It used to be a byword for the badlands of Edinburgh. The same Leith that Irvine Welsh showed us in Trainspotting, in all its smacked-up dirty-needles shittiness.

Now, stood outside the elegantly wood-panelled bar that served me pre-match Black Velvets and oysters, I was giddy-enough that I couldn’t help singing The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith – among other things the terraces-chant of Hibs fans and recently voted the best terraces song in football.

How did it shift perceptions, and how can other places – cities, towns, counties, countries – get themselves a bit of that? It starts with thinking of the place as a brand. City planners, local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, tourist organisations, all need to think – and shape – the brand. Somebody, in that mix, needs to own it.

People on the move – travelling, finding new places to live and work – literally want to navigate towards brands that connect with us. The principles are the same for Gillingham as they are for Gillette.

Know your audience.

Yep. Places have audiences. The audience is both (like all brands) internal – the people who live there, and will proudly advocate the brand; and external - people who will buy into it, by visiting, shopping, coming to live. Like all (good) brands you need to appreciate that your audience isn’t everyone – so you’re going to have to pick your audience targets – and expect some critics.

The good burghers of Hamburg reacted with a ‘Not in our name’ campaign, against the efforts to rebrand the city as a creative capital:

“Hardly a week goes by without some tourist mega-event carrying out its "brand-strengthening function." We say: Ouch, this is painful. Stop this shit. We won't be taken for fools. Dear location politicians: we refuse to talk about this city in marketing categories… We think that your "growing city" is actually a segregated city of the 19th century: promenades for the wealthy, tenements for the rabble.”

But if you look at some places, it’s pretty clear that they completely ignore their audience, or don’t know (or care) who they are.

Be distinctive.

Brooklyn. Whaddyaknow? Well, what they do know is that when we all say “I heart NY” we probably think “I heart Manhattan”. So, Brooklyn isn’t trying to be a Manhattan tribute-act. (That was attempted by St. Louis, and they were much ridiculed for their faux-hipster efforts). No, Brooklyn is being Brooklyn. It has its own attitude, and voice. That’s why its signs say Fuhgeddaboudit. And Oy-vey. It’s Brooklyn. Where they serve you a kwafee with your bagel.

Brands create easy navigation (not always as physically as Brooklyn’s signs) based on their distinctiveness.

Make your features into benefits.

The simple process from getting to benefits from features is a series of questions; a ladder of “so what?”, “so, what’s good about that?”, and “so, how does that make someone feel?”

Just because you’re historically the Home of… [something, or someone] – that’s not necessarily the best story you can tell. Facts are just facts, like the mp3 player that used to claim it could hold 10,000 songs. So what? What’s good about that? How does that make someone feel? When the iPod came along with less storage capacity it simply said it was a jukebox in your pocket. Guess which one succeeded.

Chelmsford – the Birthplace of Radio. So what? What’s good about that? At best, you’ve just made yourself meaningful to the people who care about ‘radio’ and ‘birthplaces’. Don’t just list it, elevate it, make it into something good. We want flagpoles that you can raise like a telescopic aerial. We want roundabouts that you can dial like tuning knobs (maybe).

So you’re the Home of Ice Cream Vans? (That’s Crewe, btw). So, what’s good about that? Crewe – we want the nostalgic chimes of Greensleeves to play as we drive over your speedbumps; we want coffees served with Mr Whippy 99s.

Do something with your name.

Hull, Grimsby, Worksop, Slough, Bracknell or Penge. Okay, so places already have a name. And if yours is a crappy one – then you still got to make it work.

There are a couple of choices. You can get past it and make the name itself unimportant, by filling it with other meanings, that make us all ‘blind’ to the name. Carphone Warehouse doesn’t sell carphones, and it isn’t a warehouse. Pizza Express isn’t the fastest pizza. Doesn’t matter, because these brands now mean something else to us.

You can play tunes with it. Oranjeboom was a weird unpronounceable name for a lager. Until they made a song about it.

Have a bit of a laugh. James Corden’s comedy ‘The Wrong Mans’ has a scene where someone has to come up with straplines for Bracknell. He hits on the perfect elevation of Berkshire’s most famous Olympian with: "If you like James Cracknell, you'll love Bracknell."

Own your trolls. Slough – famously crushed by Betjeman - could declare that is free from friendly bombs. That’d pique my curiosity, even if I didn’t know the poem. Or that it’s equidistant between London and Reading. Hmm.

Get a logo.

Places have lots of opportunity to portray themselves visually – and most squander the chance with identities that look like they were created by committees armed with crayons and no talent. Read or listen to this take-down of civic flags in America and appreciate that there are simple rules that should govern this.

The City of Paris recently invested in a visual identity that shows us what good looks like. Simplicity, meaningfulness, and typography with a little joie de vivre.

Keep interesting company.

Every brand association is an opportunity to say something about yourself. When Specsavers sponsor the referees in rugby, we’re all smiling and saying, “yeah, you’re right, they should’ve gone to Specsavers.”

Get the other brands to do your heavy-lifting. Yorkshire Tea is doing a great job at building the Yorkshire brand as well as their own. Heck sausages might need a bit more backing with their attempt at making Sausage World, though.

Every place seems to be twinned with somewhere nowadays, and you rarely see a pairing that adds value to the brand of the city. Except the town of Dull, in Scotland. They are paired with Boring, Oregon.

Create an iconic asset.

Premiership football teams are good. A gallery designed by Frank Gehry seems to work wonders.

Get the Proclaimers to write a song.

Okay, that probably only works if you’re in Scotland. Let’s all move to Leith. The sunshine is incredible.

BlogColin Cather