Building a strong city identity | MIPIM-World Blog

In the first blog of this month series of blogs covering city branding, the concept of city identity and the need to build a lasting, powerful, attractive, relevant and competitive identity for cities and places in general was clearly stated as one of the main challenges city leaders face today.

Today, it is accepted by an increasingly number of city leaders that there is a strong link or correlation between having a strong and powerful city image and reputation and the success of the place in attracting and retaining investment, talent, entrepreneurs, students, visitors and tourists, professional, cultural and sports events and organizations, etc.

The same as it is for people and organizations, having a strong and positive image and reputation is key for places. A positive and strong city identity and image can be a powerful competitive asset and tool for cities in an increasingly global and competitive market where all places – cities, regions and countries and destinations, are competing against each other for the often scarce and increasingly mobile resources and to position themselves as attractive places to visit, live, study, work or invest. Moreover setting a clear and shared city (brand) identity and vision can help to focus all the strategies, efforts, investments, actions and communications to be done by the different city stakeholders around this common identity and purpose and a key for citizen identification and for their commitment with their place and a source of pride for them.

There are three key concepts we have to understand when we talk about city branding and city brand building. These concepts are city identity, city image and city positioning.

City identity refers to what a city really is, to its essence, to the reality of the place. It has to do with the unique set of attributes and values that define and characterize the city and that differentiate it from other places, most of them linked to its unique physical, cultural and historical characteristics and values which are usually the most important differentiating aspects for places. City image refers to how the city is seen or perceived by its different target markets and audiences, to the mental associations that people has with a certain city or place.

It is important to differentiate among this two concepts, since there is usually a gap between the city identity (the reality of the place) and the city image (the perception we have or that exists about that place) which usually tends to be a negative factor, since the city image is often behind the reality of the place, due to either the lack of knowledge about the place or to clichés and stereotypes that are associated with it, or to time, since the reality of a city may have changed rapidly over time while the change on the image or perception about that place may take much longer.

The concept of city positioning, on the other hand, refers to the unique, differentiated, relevant and credible value proposition (brand promise) that the city is doing or offering to its different target audiences that makes it an attractive place to live, visit, study, work or live for them.

It is the fact of having and building a clear and distinctive city brand identity and a strong, relevant and credible city brand positioning that will make the city successful in its efforts of attracting and retaining citizens, visitors, tourists, talent, entrepreneurs, investors, events, etc.

If we think about large global leading metropolis such as London or New York, the image we have about them is pretty close to their identity and positioning (value proposition). Concepts such as global cities, financial centres, business capitals, international ‘hubs’ or diverse, multicultural, cosmopolitan, dynamic, vibrant, inspiring, creative capitals come easily to our minds.

The same happens with other well known and positioned city brands such as Barcelona, very much linked to concepts such as cosmopolitan, modern, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, progressive, European, Mediterranean, human city and to specific assets such as architecture (specially linked to Modernism), culture, gastronomy, Mediterranean lifestyle or quality of life; Berlin, a city associated to attributes that are part of the city identity such as city of change, cultural city, green capital or to values such as open, free, tolerant, diverse, creative, inspiring and trend setting, or Copenhagen, associated with concepts such as an open, creative and sustainable city with a high quality of life, and a city that wants to be known as the ‘eco-city of the world’.

Many other (re) emerging cities are on their way to build a clear identity and value proposition while other cities and places just live with the frustration of not being known or being perceived incorrectly by the rest of the world, which can become an obstacle or barrier for their competitiveness and economic and social development. This is the case of many cities in Europe, Asia, Latin America or Africa or of some cities, for example, in the Russian Federation, places that most of us may have never heard about before unless we have been there or we have had any specific relationship with them, and that most of the time are still associated with clichés and stereotypes of the countries or geographical areas they belong to or related to their past, and that struggle to be known and positioned in a way that better reflect the news and true reality and the aspirations of the place.

When building the identity and positioning of a place, the first thing we have to do is to understand what are the elements that characterize the place and make it unique and attractive, what are its unique strengths and competitive advantages and how the place is perceived among its main target markets and audiences, including the own citizens. The second thing we have to do is to understand and define the future shared vision and aspirations that the city stakeholders have about their place. Only after having gone through this process are we were able to establish the right strategy to build the desired image and positioning of the place, a strategy that will require a long term view and the continued and coordinated effort and commitment from all city stakeholders to make it real.

As mentioned before, the city brand identity and positioning has to be built upon a set of characteristics and values of the place which refer to aspects such as the city’s geographical position and its unique physical resources and natural environment – including climate, landscape, etc., to the uniqueness of the local culture and traditions, to the city’s history and cultural heritage and assets – including language, literature, music, sports, arts, food and drink, etc., to the physical assets and city icons, to the urban design and architecture of the place, to its economic structure and competitive sectors and strengths, to its political and educational system, religion and values, to the character of the citizens, etc., characteristics and values that differentiate the place and make it attractive and relevant to its citizens and target audiences.


When London recently worked on a city brand identity exercise city brand identity and attributes such as ‘quirky’, connected, evolved, surprising, enlightened and inspirational, contemporary, open and diverse, vibrant and confident, excellent, rewarding and surprising were defined and also a clear and consistent brand vision and positioning was stated as to make London the best big city in the world (‘my mission to make this the best big city in the world’ ‘ … a city where the creativity, vibrancy, innovation and entrepreneurial talents of Londoners can be developed and nourished – truly making this the best city in the world’Boris Johnson, Major of London) offering its inhabitants, businesses, trading partners and visitors more choices and opportunities than most other places in the world.  The recent opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games held in London this summer are a good example of how a city (and country) identity can be clearly expressed and communicated.

City brand identity and positioning development and building has to be rooted in the reality and the essence of the place. It has to be honest and represent the true reality, spirit and aspirations of the city and its citizens and can not be the result of a more or less successful advertising, marketing or branding campaign developed by a more or less creative agency or the result of a rapid and intense urban development and physical transformation of the place. Here is when the concepts of authenticity, differentiation and sustainability come into play and become a major concern for rapidly emerged or re-emerged cities where this rapid development and growth has been done at the expense or with the risk of loss of their authenticity and identity.

As we mentioned at the very beginning of this blog, setting a clear and shared city (brand) identity, vision and positioning based on its unique and true attributes, competitive advantages and aspirations will help to focus all the strategies, efforts, investments, actions and communications to be done by the different city stakeholders and also to enhance citizen identification and their commitment with their place becoming source of pride for them and a key competitive tool for places in this increasingly competitive world.

Written by Juan Carlos Belloso, Founder of Futureplaces

Top image credit: Photobank gallery

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