“Almost a week after the atrocities in central London, and the bombers were identified as being from the Leeds area… Whereas the events in London, as tragic and as awful as they were, managed to galvanise a sense of resilience among the people of the city, the impact on Leeds was less positive. So how damaging is this to ‘Leeds – the brand’?”…
So begins an article in â??The Drumâ??, Scotlands only real design and marketing magazine, and arguably the worst publication this side of Amstrad Monthly. What follows is a number of Vox Pops from various Marketing and Branding ‘Heads’ – They come out with the usual guff that you get around these kinds of discussions, almost aware that people will think it tasteless to be discussing a city brand in the light of these events, but never the less managing to come out with statements like; “It’s absolutely essential that any branding that is now launched is not glib or superficial … It has to be managed very carefully, but strong brand positioning can combat something like this…” (what?… terrorism? …no doubt Osama is getting precious little sleep these days, worrying about an onslaught of ‘strong brand-positioning’ from the infidel).
Branding of place is a hot topic. From Wolff Olins work with Lichtenstein – (when viewed in isolation a very nice piece of graphic work, but what is going on politically behind initiatives such as these?) – to the recent rebrand of â??Glasgowâ?? – (“Scotland with Style”) – there is an increasing preoccupation, amongst cities, regions and countries, with external presentation and the selling of ‘place’. Glasgow agency â??Graven Imagesâ?? have been looking at this in their autumn mailer – Competitive Place… (How do we choose where to live, work or visit when every place wants to be our favourite destination?). It’s good that they’ve opened this debate, as with more and more consultancies (like Graven Images) being employed to market place, a city’s ability to stand out and say something meaningful will be weakened as these agencies produce more and more homogenised external representations of the modern european cosmopolitan city.
Using the conventional ideas and methodology of branding to develop ‘place’ is to miss the point. We need to look into our cities and ensure that what we’re providing (facilities, social spaces, basic infrastructure) is well designed and matches up to the challenges of the 21st century, and can also entertain diversity and cultural non-conformity. We should think about how design can be used, both strategically at a civic level and spontaneously at a grassroots level, to reshape a place for the better. This can be through architectural interventions, but also through design of services and interactions which build the social fabric of a space in a sensitive and subtle way. And we maybe need to consider not employing the basic principal of shouting louder than everyone else when it comes to communicating what this ‘place’ has to offer. John Thackara touches on this in his book, â??In the Bubbleâ?? when he observes; “At first many (cities) were convinced that snappy communications were the key to success; these places spent lavishly on logo’s slogans and corporate identities … Much of this money is badly spent. There’s a big difference between selling soap and making sense of a locality – many place marketers don’t get it … (but) … some of the people running cities now realise that communication campaigns will not work unless they are accompanied by genuine improvements to the product”
Only by looking at how design can shape the space you’re marketing can anything of real significance be communicated to the outside world, (or the cities own citizens as is more often the case). Perhaps those Leeds agencies should be asking what design can do to help Leeds from the inside out, rather than getting worked up about perceived cracks in the surface gloss.