The Importance of City Branding

May 1, 2009

City branding is an important, often misunderstood concept for cities. Cities in Georgia will be able to set themselves apart from other cities throughout the country and world by choosing a brand that shows the distinct nature of their cities. Although the term, city branding, might be new to some cities in the state of Georgia, it is a concept that should be grasped and thoroughly understood by all cities.

What is city branding?
City branding is often much like the branding that we see in the private sector. It is clearly evident that corporations throughout the world depend heavily on brands in order to entice consumers to purchase their goods and services. Almost anyone would easily be able to identify the bottle that Coca-Cola uses to distribute its product. This is due to the successful brand that Coca-Cola has created. Cities too can create images that set them apart from others, and many cities have been successful in doing this. Consider for a moment the Golden Gate Bridge. Almost anyone in the United States who views this bridge can identify it and also the city to which it leads. Even within Georgia, cities have been able to create brands that allow people, both within and outside the state, to know what city the brand is describing. The city of Savannah has created a shopping and dining district alongside their most recognizable natural resource that draws the attention of many people around the world. The city of Atlanta is distinguished from other cities in the Southeast by its commercial activity and sheer size. Small cities in Georgia have also been able to create successful brands; the city of Madison is well known for its historical downtown area.

How does a city create a brand?
In order for a city to create a successful brand, the leaders thereof must first take stock of both the assets and liabilities that the city possesses. While it is often difficult for a city to remove all of the negative aspects from its limits, it is possible for cities to magnify the good while concealing the bad; the cities that are able to do this, especially within marketing, will be rewarded for this effort. According to Jonathan Gabay, the Founder of Brand Forensics, a European brand consulting company, “Branding a city is not just about the logo but the intricate details — as small as clean streets and as deep as getting a city's residents to feel proud to be brand ambassadors. When citizens are proud, visitors are encouraged to find out what the fuss is all about and then tell the world.” This is true for cities large and small throughout Georgia. The governments closest to the people must ensure that the citizens are satisfied and that expectations are not only met but exceeded. Producing a positive image is essential for cities desiring to promote themselves as a destination for people to live, work, play and visit.

How does a city communicate its brand?
A city that regularly attracts the attention of citizens as well as those outside of the community due to the good that is being accomplished within its boundaries will often be rewarded by the local media. In 2008, the independent consulting firm, Saffron Consultants, completed a study ranking the brands and assets of 72 European cities. In assessing the brands, Saffron used four equally rated factors to rank the cities. One of the factors chosen was media recognition which was determined statistically by counting media references to the city over a set time period. It is vitally important for a city to develop a working relationship with the local media outlets as well as the regional media outlets. Cities should use the media to promote the good things that are happening within their boundaries. Cities that achieve this relationship will be able to spread their brands effectively.

Can branding fail?
Branding can fail. Branding is all about marketing your cities assets to the rest of the state, country and world. It is very important that this process begin by being based on fact rather than fiction. If government officials attempt to manufacture a brand, instead of creating an environment that will promote itself, they are doomed to fail. According to Robert Jones, the consultant director for Wolff Olins, another brand consulting company, “Most great cities have a brand that's developed organically — Paris around romance, or Hong Kong around trade. For many cities, it’s impossible to sum up the brand in a word — they’re multi-dimensional and also changing. So trying to create city brands artificially is a dangerous and, sometimes, presumptuous business.” Before attempting to create a brand, local officials should first ensure that their cities are functioning properly.

What happens if my city does not create a brand?
Branding can be used to help create a positive image of your city. Although a good brand cannot be used to fill a void left by poor management, branding can supplement the good things that are taking place in your city. Without a brand, your city will be less able to shape its own image. The study by Saffron that was cited earlier in this article reveals that many European cities have attributes that people desire but do a poor job of communicating these assets. According to the study, “Bulgaria’s Sofia has many of the assets tourists want from a city but doesn’t have the reputation to match.” The authors continue, “Saffron’s research suggests a handful of old Europe cities, including Antwerp and Lisbon are in a similar position, punching well below their weight. They have many of the qualities people want in a city but are losing out by failing to promote themselves.” In order for cities to avoid this same type of situation, leaders should constantly review the image that they are portraying to the residents and the world. Rampant crime, horrendous traffic, and polluted streams and lakes or even the perceived image of these things can lead to a negative brand for a city that will be difficult to reverse. If left unbranded, people will develop their own image for your city whether good or bad. This choice should be considered very carefully.