Great cities are far more than mere products

By Sam Milne

In the wave of activity post-COVID, there's unprecedented interest in what regional cities offer and how they compete with each other.

City of Greater Geelong

"Great cities are far more than mere products: they're too rich and varied for that. Paris is a mass of contradictions that could never be captured by a single advertising campaign. But that is exactly what makes it such a compelling place to visit."

Simon Anholt – leading global advisor on city branding – said this when speaking to Stylus media back in 2012. London had just seen mass civil unrest, and Simon was reflecting on how great cities' branding stayed so resilient through tough times.

City branding has been at the forefront of our minds at Fluid, not just because of our recent experience working with some local committees. But because in the wave of activity post-COVID, there's unprecedented interest in what regional cities offer and how they compete with each other.

The topic of city branding raises an interesting paradox. With great working cities being defined by their diversity, how can someone hope to create a 'brand' logo that can encapsulate the essence of what that city offers? And of course with the need to encapsulate all the different aspects of a city looms the great spectre of the steering committee, each member representing their unique community section.

Corio Bay, Geelong

"You typically have a steering committee where no single person is in charge. And we all know what happens when you try to get a decision out of a committee," says Ian Stephens, the Principal at Saffron Consultants London. But at Fluid, we posit that these committees are a vital and necessary part of the process. The problem is typically the misunderstanding that everything needs to be encapsulated in a single logo, slogan or photo. Your brand is not just your logo. Your brand is the memories your audience associates with you. These can be positive, negative or as Pixar taught us, any combination of joy, fear, anger, disgust or sadness. Far better to have a coherent story to tell journalists and opinion formers. How could Geelong, for example, switch its image from the city of blue-collar workers, woolsheds and industrialism to the clever and creative city of innovation, sustainability and diverse lifestyles?

"Powerful symbols help," says Stephens. Not just visual symbols, but real policies and actions. Like, say Geelong's recent investment in the Advanced Manufacturing Hub, or its creation of the Federal Mills Innovations District, the recognition of the Wadawurrung people, their traditional country and contributions, or the success of the WorkSafe and TAC relocations. These kinds of symbols inevitably attract headlines and online coverage. But there has to be some consistent strategy behind actions; otherwise, you risk them becoming just window dressing.

Buckley Falls Geelong

"The image of a big city (like London) has evolved over many decades, so you can't change it overnight with a marketing campaign. What you can do is draw people's attention to certain facets of the city and sell them the idea of visiting it." Says Anholt, and in this way, city branding is not too dissimilar from traditional marketing, albeit with some unique challenges.

What are the keys to a good marketing strategy? Global leader Mark Ritson recently wrote it comes down to answering three questions. Who are we targeting? What do we stand for? And, how will we achieve this? Ask these questions, and answer them in the right order while remembering it is as much about deciding what you're not doing as what you are and you'll be well on the way.

"So many marketers end up with a strategy that simply tries to do too much. Faced with the three recurring questions of brand strategy, the answer is always the same: Yes. Yes. Yes." Says Ritson. Select targets for messages, and build a campaign the highlights the parts of your brand that appeal to that audience. Then do it again but for a different segment. Build and build until through a combination of short-term and long-term strategies; you've transformed the audience's perceptions.

Finally, if the reality falls short of the marketing, the consumer is unforgiving. You must be able to deliver on those promises. "Staging the World Cup is a gamble for Brazil, because TV viewers around the world may discover some uncomfortable truths about Rio." Said Anholt clairvoyantly back in 2012. "On the other hand, the Sydney Olympics allowed cameras to capture the beauty of a truly fantastic place."

Events like Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup may have been delayed in 2020 but when the cameras are back on, they'll see the vibrant, UNESCO recognised creative and caring community, amongst one of Australia's greatest and most diverse natural and built environments. And that's a greater story worth taking to the world.