Cities on the radar screen

Cities are now a media event and city-branding is the process by which media attention is secured. Like a voracious beast, the media needs feeding, and cities are part of the feeding frenzy. There is a persistent tendency for place-marketing literature to focus on clich├ęs, to represent places as culturally homogeneous and not to show their diversity or distinctiveness, promoting a similar, bland mix of facilities and attractions for every area. Cities are now being treated like any other product, such as a car, computer or breakfast cereal, and similar techniques are applied to their marketing. Something as complex as a place cannot be marketed in one-dimensional terms like an insurance policy. The identities of cities being peddled, especially in tourism literature, are at best partial and at worst fictitious, usually only accentuating hypothetical posi tives rather than reflecting better realities. The very creativity that has made places vital is lacking in the practice and literature being used to promote 'places'. Further, promotional messages from different agencies are rarely aligned. There is often a conflict between the inward-investment promotional literature, which usually projects a breezy forward-looking tone, official tourism material, which can be backward-looking, and streetwise magazines, which project being at the cutting edge of style. For instance, a survey of 77 brochures of British cities showed the pages of brochures to be crowded with images of the past. Eighty-five per cent of the sample had a heritage theme for the cover - people in historic costume, knights in armour, gentle country peasants and local fisherfolk enjoying a pipe at dusk with their dog on the quay-side.26 This precisely at the moment when Britain is seeking to project itself as 'cool', creative and innovative and when cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol have an underground gutsiness that defines their identity. This would not be a problem if the images had been balanced with others, but generally they are not. Clearly a city is an amalgam of personalities, but brochures lack a sense of authenticity or reality. The underlying criticism is that they depict a truncated, often sanitized experience. It is a short cut, perhaps telling an artificial story that creates an unfulfillable desire.

The globalization process is a daily reality for large cities to deal with and, with competitive intensity increasing, it is hard for cities to create a sharp focus for themselves. In a crowded media landscape, branding a place is about claiming territory in people's imagination. It needs to be sharp, memorable and work on different registers of consciousness at the same time. It has to be alive, it needs energy and it has to play the fashion game. The difficulty is making the old seem relevant, new and vital. An article on the 'sexiness' of cities felt that Paris or Venice were such well-worn names that they did not trigger the imagination to the same degree as before and that Stockholm exuded now a stronger sexy feel.27 To create brand symbols of desirability, every aspect from manufacturing vigour and research capacity to architecture and sex is used in city-branding.

Cities are continually trying to broaden their appeal and change perceived images they consider false. Frankfurt once had the undesirable image of being a city of 'Marxists, murderers and millionaires', which led to a long-term campaign to invest heavily in cultural facilities to project the city as more sophisticated and build a series of high-profile museums including Richard Meier's Museum of Decorative Arts and Hans Hollein's Museum of Modern Art. Dubai is intensely trying to broaden its appeal, beyond shopping, as a leisure and knowledge centre. Amsterdam seeks to reflect its creativity to make the city part of the life choice of creative people around the world. The trendspotters are on the look-out for which city is high on the hip register. The hippest clubs and street scenes in the world are in continual flux. One day Miami, the next Ibiza, then London, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Berlin, New York. Even Singapore emerged briefly as Asia's gay hub. Then for the aficionados there is the 'I heard it through the grapevine' tendency: Moscow, Beirut, Warsaw and Tel Aviv. The challenge for city-marketers is to reflect the associational richness of a city and to find simple ways of playing on these registers and layers of interest.

Selling urban identity and the individuals within a city as a commodity is problematic given the differences between outsider and insider perceptions. When people do not participate in the story that is being sold about them, it creates resistance. A more culturally attuned approach to city-marketing takes a far broader perspective. It reflects and looks at the good and bad, it has honesty, it acknowledges conflict in cities. There is a danger of always falling into the fashion trap. For instance, behind the rise of favela chic in Brazil was a counter-branding strategy alluding to the gangs, graffiti and poverty as something truly authentic.

I was personally involved in a strategic set of meetings with government officials in Johannesburg in autumn 2000 when South Africa was discussing its branding as a tourism destination. The meeting began with old-style marketing messages: sun, sand, lions. Stepping back from these core brands, the group realized that South Africa's history of conflict was perhaps its best-known feature and that the country's journey of self-discovery could be reflected in tourism by inviting the visitor to take part in their own self-discovery.

These alternative approaches seek to pick up on local flavour and look at a bigger palette. Rather than seeing city-marketing as a narrow discipline, more integrated and multidisciplinary approaches should be used, cutting across the public and private sectors and involving a wider variety of insights, such as those of artists, historians, environmentalists, community representatives, urban geographers and psychologists. Most importantly, involve too a wider range of people who actually live in places to help form the marketing messages.

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