The thrilling city

One of the pioneers of place branding,  Jeremy Hildreth, explores how creative thinking can transform a city’s image and fortunes

Paris is romantic but do you feel the love in Rangoon? The world’s most famous cities conjure up powerful images, expectations and sensations before we arrive. Like Nike, Apple and Twitter, they are global mega-brands that shape the world’s culture, politics and economy. Almost a third of the planet’s GDP is generated by just 100 of

its 36,000 cities – proof a strong urban identity can bring wealth and influence as well as tourists. So how do you transform a mundane metropolis into a thrilling city?

Creating perfect city brands is more complex than branding running shoes. Commercial brands are created by employees and sold to customers. Cities have a much wider mix of audiences – residents, corporations, tourists, students, migrant workers – all with their own reasons for being there. The quirky side of a city tourists love can drive residents mad. Look at New York cab drivers.

Unlike sneakers, cities are difficult to advertise. What attracts us to places and makes us remember them is what I call ‘remarkability’ – the ability of something to be remarked on. Social media makes these special charac-teristics more important than ever. Cities are the ultimate word-of-mouth product. They must seduce us into singing their praises. Like a good aphrodisiac, city branding makes seduction smoother.

For me, it starts on the street. Kidnap a man, take him to London, remove his blindfold and within five seconds he knows where he is. Surprisingly, few cities make an effort to create that one-of-a-kind sense of place on the most visible and accessible showcase of urban identity: the street. Distinctive monuments, buildings and public spaces give a city landmarkability, unique visual points that shout, “Welcome to London/ New York/ Wherever”. Where would Pisa be without its Leaning Tower?

Landmarkability takes many forms. Well-curated street art can add character to bland sidewalks, and there’s always room for narrative, myth and humour. For example, Mongolia’s capital is famous for its ultra-blue skies. So why not paint city buses sky blue?

That said, metropolitan officials must use their paintbrush with caution. While good organization and decorum are valuable, perfection doesn’t pay. Some of our greatest cities are loud, chaotic and downright rough. Vibe and vibrancy can be a huge asset. A few years back, my agency advised Belgrade to capitalise on its racy reputation by seeking a brand tie-in with Spain’s most dynamic city to become ‘The Barcelona of the Balkans’.

Highlighting what makes a place different is vital. Despite globalisation, not everywhere is the same. Rome and Riga are both home to McDonald’s but the citizens who eat there couldn’t be more diverse. Putting a city’s people, culture and cuisine at the centre of urban identity helps win hearts at home and abroad.

If you’re reading this up a mountain, you may wonder what urban branding has to do with you. Well, within
a few decades, 75% of the world’s population will live in a city. I also believe the metropolis is a microcosm of the modern world. To see how we’re doing as humans, we just need to look at our cities.