I was looking forward to my long weekend with no work. Every year I take a long holiday during the summer months but this year, however, work engagements prevented me from being away for very long. As I was only taking a few days off, I decided to make the most of them. I thought it best to leave my computer behind (a very bold step for me as I suffer from rapid Mac separation anxiety). I packed my weekend bag and off I went to Amsterdam, a city I had always wanted to visit but had somehow eluded my itinerary until now.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived, besides a unique smell that seems to permeate many areas of the city, was that Amsterdam had done an amazing job at branding itself. While Amsterdam’s branding is not new (they started their branding exercise in 2002) it has had great results and has withstood the test of time. This made me think of some other cities that have had incredible success in their branding. Cities like New York (a pioneer in city Branding with their iconic 1970’s “I Love NY”), Melbourne, and in a very unique way, London (though some argue that the London brand has grown organically rather than it being a planned branding exercise). It is here that my plan to avoid work started to fail. I couldn’t help but think of an impending project of mine involving rebranding a city. And while the project proposal was well on the way at this point and I was very pleased with the results, it made me reconsider what makes for successful city branding.

Have a Clear Objective

When starting a branding or rebranding exercise, you must know what you want to achieve and what results you are seeking from developing a brand strategy. These objectives need to be clear and omnipresent in order to allow the city’s decision making unit to make effective and timely decisions. Are you trying to attract investment? Do you seek to change perceptions of the city? Look at other cities that have successfully achieved goals similar to yours through a branding exercise and use them to benchmark your activities. 

Know your Audience

Who are you talking to? Whilst it would be great to have the whole world as your audience, it would be impossible to craft a brand that appeals to everyone. You must streamline the groups of individuals you want to target and prioritise them based on importance. Investigate what they are looking for and how this group perceives your city. Can your city cater to their needs effectively? Once you have identified your target audience you can decide which is the best channel to reach them and create a more effective strategy.

Know your City

In order to create the ideal “persona” for any city you first must know the city as it exists today. Identify the positive and the negative associations with it, and the way these perceptions have changed historically. What images come to mind when you hear the city’s name? What are the main benefits that the city has to offer your target group? With this information, you will be able to close the gap between how the people perceive this city today and how your ideal city should be perceived. 

Create your Ideal City

Once you have a good grip on the city you are working with, you can decide what the city needs to be for it to achieve your strategic goals. This will be your aspirational brand. What will this city stand for? What will its “persona” be? Keep in mind what sort of experience you want people to have while visiting. Will it be a cultural voyage? Will it be all about business or is this a party town? Your aspirational brand will be a collective of associations that you want people to have when thinking about this location in the future. This is how your target market will view the city and the benefits associated with it. Do keep in mind that this will potentially influence business and community decisions. Your aspirational identity needs to be attainable, sustainable and credible. This will take time to build and might need several stages in its positioning. For objectives that are close to the current reality of the city, a single positioning might be effective, but for objectives that are farther from the current reality, multiple positionings that build off one another might be necessary.

Positioning, Positioning, Positioning

Your positioning is the path your brand will follow from its current state to it’s ideal incarnation, like a sort of branding cocoon. Basically this will be a single or a collective of promises and/or benefits that the city you are working with needs to own. Your positioning should be relevant, credible, unique and sustainable. It is a core promise that will shape all communications. Don’t forget that changing perceptions in a community or a group of people will take time, so ensure that you consider the time-scale factor. What will the new positioning mean for your target audience and what messages will be in place that will affect their perception and behaviour towards this particular city? This will shape your USPs, and whilst some USPs are universal, keep your target audience in mind as some of these propositions will need to be created specifically for them and their unique needs. 

Make a Promise and Make it Happen

Once your positioning is in place, you need to make it happen for the people who matter. When thinking of touch-points where your target audience may come into contact with your brand, exhaust all possibilities; prioritise your them based on high impact and possible ROI; categorise them as pre-visit, during and post-visit touch-points. While it would be great to be able to expand your brand to every touchpoint it will probably be impossible due to budgetary constraints, so once they have been identified choose them wisely. Be sure to execute those with the highest impact, best chance of ROI, best exemplify your USPs, expedite your promise fulfilment and have the best cost/benefit relationship.

Make Sure you can Blow your Own Trumpet

The success of your branding exercise can only be gauged if there are parameters for measuring it. These will have to be in place and most importantly be realistic and include a reasonable time scale. Make sure all key players agree on a definition for success and that consistent metrics are used to measure it. Also factor in some degree of flexibility. This will allow you and the decision making unit some space should you need to shift focus at any point in order to maximise your impact and budget effectiveness.

Unless you’ve lived in a specific place or have a specific reason to have in depth knowledge of a city, you probably only think of a location based on a handful of qualities. These qualities merge to create a promise and tell a story. It is this narrative that will ultimately influence you to “buy” into the city’s brand (This could mean visiting, relocating there or organising your next event at their convention centre). Just like any product, cities today have to fight for their place in the market. The stronger their brand is, the easier it will be for them to attract people and investments. 

I kept thinking about branding throughout my trip.  This didn’t detract from my holiday, but rather enhanced it. Upon my return I was not only refreshed, but I was also inspired. Seeing good branding at work opened my mind and allowed us to add some new ideas to our presentation that have made us very happy and will have a positive impact on our proposal.