What Makes a Great City Brand?


Brian Coane, Partner at The Leith Agency, on how city brands need to be built by their people.


What makes a great city brand? It’s something we often think about at Leith. Not just because we’re based in one of the world’s greatest cities, but because we’ve been lucky enough to work on place and destination projects for some other great cities over the last few years.

It was a question that was on my mind earlier this year as I travelled to the URBACT CityLogo workshop in Dundee. CityLogo is a European Union programme to improve the way cities brand and market themselves. Through workshops, study visits and peer-review it’s helped 10 different cities, including Dundee, create more innovative city branding. And it’s a timely initiative. With more and more cities becoming increasingly savvy about how to sell themselves, it’s getting tougher to enhance the reputation of a city brand.

Dundee itself is currently a metropolitan blank canvas. Gone are the buildings that lined the waterfront: the leisure centre, hotel, offices and even the old station entrance. The ground is being prepared for the next stage of the Dundee waterfront redevelopment project, a £1 billion transformation of the city.

New rules of the game

As competition increases, so the rules of the game are changing. The traditional tools of city branding — big PR and advertising campaigns — have been replaced by digital media. Cities can’t exert the same sort of control over their image as they used to. Guide books have been replaced by websites, supplemented by comments from people who have first-hand experience of the place.

This requires a new approach to communications. Different cities have come at it from different angles, but what was consistently emerging at the CityLogo workshop was that, in the most innovative examples, marketing teams are relinquishing control. As Cesare Torre, director of city promotion in Genoa put it “City branding must be the strategy of the city not of the city administration”.

However, despite this involvement the truth is that many people are fed up with city branding. It can be a liability, particularly, if local people see it as diverting resources from public services. In this context, the cities that generate the greatest level of respect and influence are cities who go further and create their city brands in partnership with their citizens. Using citizen-sourced methods can increase engagement with a place-brand. And there were some inspiring examples on show of cities that are doing just that.

Oslo’s tourism body created its new logo in public, asking people what it should be and putting it to a final vote. Urecht, under the neat banner face of U, hand over moderation of their Facebook page to a different person each week. Denmark has realized that one of the best ways to spread the word (with the obvious exception of Sofie Grabol in a fetching knit) is through enlisting students destined for overseas. The Aarhaus Youth Goodwill Ambassadors are sent off to study abroad equipped with social media training and a how-to guide on promoting Denmark.

If you were being critical you could say that these are just adjustments — giving a greater voice to the people rather than truly letting citizens in on the act. But from We Dundee and Warsaw we saw examples of citizen sourcing techniques being used to involve people in the design and development of more than just branding. We Dundee, which grew out of the city’s bid to become European Capital of Culture, has kept a community engaged to express what they want to see for Dundee in the future.

Warsaw is using citizen sourcing in the design and execution of services, tapping into citizens’ knowledge of their city. Starting with development of civic spaces, moving on to future aspirations for the city and only then looking at the brand identity, it’s an approach that requires commitment to the community and over the longer term. But it’s a trend that fits with the need to involve citizens in city branding to match how people want to portray the place where they live and work.

The Glasgow Story

‘People Make Glasgow’, the strapline for Glasgow was developed with the involvement of over 1,500 people sharing their ideas. Glaswegians are famously passionate about their city whose traditional anthem is even called ‘I belong to Glasgow’. When it comes to our emotions about the group we belong to they can be particularly strong. We are hard wired to be concerned about our group’s fate, which is how we survived in the wild.

These emotions of being part of a group were very evident in Glasgow this year. The support for the Commonwealth Games, held in the city in the summer, was driven by the desire to ensure Glasgow put on a good show to the world. Long before the event itself, speaking to the public there, it seemed the majority were sure it would be a success. There was a confidence that Glasgow would pull it off, whatever the challenges.

‘Bring it on’, the motto we helped Glasgow 2014 develop for the Games, was based on that confidence. It was, as Tim Adams writing in the Observer commented ‘a proper Glaswegian slogan’. Our aim was for the motto to be something the people of the city would say, to feel that it was their motto, but also to reflect how the people of Glasgow wanted their city to be portrayed.


So what makes a great city brand? One that tells the story of its people and whose story can be told by its people. During the We Dundee project they came across a Facebook page set up to promote Dundee. On the surface it looked like it had been created by someone in an official position, but it turned out to be the work of 12 year-old Dundee resident Andrew Batchelor. Proof that the story of Dundee’s development resonates, but also that great cities need to adapt to the new rules of city branding and work with their citizens. So, what did the powers that be in Dundee City Council do when they found out about Andrew’s site? They asked him to become an official Ambassador for the city of course…