EUKN interview with Mr Miguel Rivas

18 March 2015

The idea of city branding is as old as the hills. In ancient times the historian Livy was well famed for his promotional history of the development of Rome. A city well aligned as the command post and emblem of an empire. By today’s standards city branding is an increasing necessity for all European cities. As a means of national and global competition, cities must attract people, resources and business. The EUKN interviewed Miguel Rivas, lead expert for URBACT’s CityLogo to understand why and what European cities are implementing to generate a leading position and how they can add approaches to push this position even further.


EUKN: In a world of global competition, City Branding is a critical component of urban management and how European cities are presenting and positioning themselves on the global market. There is, however, no unique approach to city branding. What are the major approaches adopted by cities in Europe?

MR: Yes it´s true city branding is relevant more than ever. Everybody increasingly agrees that it is much more than simply a logo and motto. However, generally speaking, what we are seeing is a field still under the influence of an overly conventional marketing approach and campaign logic. The prevailing role of branding and advertising agencies still pushes in that direction. As a result, one can see many short-sighted city brand practices, which automatically adopt concepts and techniques from commercial branding, ending only in circumstantial results, low appropriation by the citizenship and local stakeholders and ultimately no long-term impact.

In comparison, a growing number of city brand strategies across Europe are mostly working away from the spotlight. The focus here is on building an updated, unifying narrative of the city, and to create a shared working area for the diverse entities in the city targeting and interacting with different audiences, e.g. visitors, investors, knowledge, residents. The two approaches are clearly distinguishable. On the one hand, short-sighted views dominated by both the rhetoric of commercial branding and the urgency of the short-term. On the other hand sound practices, for which brand is just a metaphor when applied to cities and places. As Simon Anholt said some years ago, the true aim of place branding is basically about building up competitive local identities and aligning more efficiently all the communication efforts of the city.

Of course in the meantime, different aims and circumstances can be recognised. For instance, months ago, Genoa´s seeking for a city logo reached its peak with a campaign targeting citizens and local stakeholders. However, such momentum was envisaged by the City Council not only for getting acceptance around the new visual identity, but also to raise awareness for the need of more strategic communication for the Italian city. The campaign that focused on an internal audience, was smartly used by the city’s promotion team as the “big bang” to set the basis for sound city branding. They conceded something tangible at the very beginning, a new logo, which ignited the city´s collective ambitions and created favourable conditions, including political backing.


EUKN: City branding is very much connected to cities regeneration. Many cities retrospect in order to design original branding campaigns but many others move away from their past (especially in the case of industrial cities) to create a whole new identity. How was your experience regarding these two approaches at the CityLogo project?

MR: Cities change and their identities must be rethought accordingly. For example, the contemporary rise of city branding was associated to big-scale changes in all UK´s core cities, aimed at shaping a new post-industrial economic pattern. Dundee, in Scotland, still see themselves as a “competent, underestimated city in transition”, and since 2010 have embarked in a systematic attempt of re-branding and re-positioning. In the Netherlands, Eindhoven´s impressive transition from a company town to a knowledge and creative economy has been accompanied from the beginning by a relevant communications strategy. So, during transition periods the communications dimension is of special importance.

There are also cities, like Oslo for instance, that have joined prosperity for a long time and host a good handful of assets and unique values, but feel their capacity to “buzz” is still low. For example, according to the EU Regional Competitiveness Index 2013, only a few would know that Utrecht used to rank as the most competitive region in Europe, ahead of London, Ile de France or Stockholm. For these kind of places, city branding or strategic communication is a relevant matter. Indeed, most of them are now at the innovation frontline regarding this field.

However, urban identities are not something that one can fabricate in the brand laboratory. In both cases mentioned above, a competitive identity should be fed with the best of the local background, along with the city´s assets and on-going flagship projects. Furthermore, since a city brand is not only a portrait but also a path into the future, we should also put into the cocktail shaker processes emerging in the city, expectations from the local stakeholders and even desires by the ordinary people.


EUKN: Because of the common history and similar cultures shared by many European cities and also many shared development goals and objectives, we often come across very similar messages and concepts in cities’ branding and marketing campaigns. How can European cities develop a competitive brand while avoiding redundancy and preserving their local identities?

MR: Lack of differentiation is certainly one of the most common gaps in city branding. It has to do with an uncritical adoption of what supposedly the “standard modern city” should be: smart, creative, lively streets everywhere…  and I suspect that this is a direct consequence of leaving the city brand content only in the hands of brand agencies.  To avoid this, we should consider narrative as the first and most fundamental aspect when branding and marketing the city, and such narrative must come from an honest introspection projected into the future with healthy optimism. This has much to do with local strategic planning, and I can hardly understand effective city branding without uniting with the former. In fact, in small- and medium-sized towns, city branding has the potential to take over the role of strategic planning from years ago.  One of the reasons is that compelling city narratives (duly translated into core messages with impact, etc.,) have more power of seduction, of attracting willingness and collusion from different groups, than the traditional way of doing local strategic planning  (tree of objectives, actions, measures, budget, calendars etc.,).

Another issue I would like to stress, which is related to your question, is how a city can brand itself on the basis of really distinctive features. In my experience I have found that uniqueness does not emerge only by identifying a number of city assets and values, but from the combination among them. Thus, Rotterdam is producing unique stories and subsequent positioning by means of combining its status as world port city with being an innovative centre in architecture design. That particular ecology of different assets, linked by specific crossovers, is what makes a city more distinctive.


EUKN: Most cities already have institutions in charge of their communications and business relations (e.g. chamber of commerce, visitor’s office…) that are traditionally responsible for representing and “branding” their cities. In the case of Zurich we saw how several agencies are working on promoting the city yet how their efforts are not always converging. What then is the expected role of these institutions within an integrated city branding approach?

MR: Integrated city branding does not substitute the diverse sector-oriented city marketing practices. You know, the type of Invest in X and Visit Y style agencies. On the contrary, its reason of being is just to give support to the operations carried out by the teams and entities in the city interacting day-to-day with tourists and visitors, investors, international talent, etc. This is an important assumption. From a content perspective, the added value of integrated city branding is building up into a unifying narrative for the city, in the sense of providing both overarching and additional side arguments to be picked up by the sector-focused marketers, like people working in destination marketing, cultural events, inward investment… but also in the Mayor´s cabinet, local private companies open to the world and entities like universities, airports, technology parks, and so on. Therefore, giving more consistency to the variety of thematically oriented storytelling about the city.

From a governance perspective, integrated city branding comes to provide one single “control centre” to the city´s interaction with the outer world, which in turn allows the management of purely cross-cutting issues like city image, positioning, attractiveness or reputation. It´s basically an organisational challenge, to which there is often no need for newly constituted bodies or structures. For instance, the city of Utrecht, via the lead partner of the CityLogo project, is now addressing urban branding as a coalition-based process, very horizontally and involving a small group of key entities. In Zurich, the co-operation around integrated city branding is by now a formal agreement between the City and the Canton of Zurich, Zurich Tourism and the Greater Zurich Area, which is the body in charge of inward investment attraction.

Therefore, existing platforms or specialised marketing organisations focused on concrete target groups should actively collaborate in those processes of coordination and alignment. They might certainly keep a vital role, within a new win-win context, where synergies can be now fully exploited and the range of city´s messages will gain in consistency.


EUKN: From your experience at the CityLogo project, is city branding a participatory process? What is the role of residents? How does their mental image/ map/ perception of their cities contribute in building a city brand?

MR: In city branding, residents have a double role: as target group and stakeholder. Regarding the former, place branding is a very political issue. For instance, it can be a useful tool to socialise big urban projects among the local population or emerging dynamics that need to be installed in the collective imagination. Under the stakeholder perspective, if we address the field as a cohesive force and no longer as a matter of just logos and tag lines, then the resident´s voice is fairly important, but also the voice from the local entities and firms. That is why social media based tools are called in to play a major role in tomorrow´s place branding, for the simple reason that it is a rapid channel to increase engagement, interaction and co-creation with the city´s diverse target groups, notably its own residents.

Making the most of the local crowd is definitively the new frontier in city branding for two reasons. Firstly, it increases authenticity, since it´s more credible if third parties also talk about the city than just “official storytelling” delivered by dedicated agencies and teams. By this, I mean spontaneous talks, not just classical testimonials within official promotional materials (for example, in the city of Nantes, bloggers are now at the heart of the tourism office’s digital strategy). And secondly, because these tools, suitably curated, can be a solution in updating and keeping fresh the range of city stories on a permanent basis.

There is a growing active citizenship and civil society, digitally educated, able to personalise and share city experiences, which is opening new exciting opportunities in many aspects of urban development. In this context, perhaps the term “city brand” should be set aside, and instead promoting others, like strategic communication maybe. Out of the professional circles, we have often noticed that ordinary people feel uncomfortable with the term, perhaps as reaction to an excess of corporatisation of daily life – even now the ultimate trend is to talk about “personal branding”, what´s next?


EUKN: In addition to traditional PR and communication tools, a city’s online presence is a determining component of its brand and influences the perceptions and expectations of both businesses and people regarding what it has to offer. How is the role of the Internet (website, social media…) in building a city brand addressed by the CityLogo project?

MR: Certainly, the digital shift has taken a deep impact in city branding and marketing, to a point that now there is no significant distinction between promotional strategies off-line and on-line, as both are intertwined. Today, urban identities must be equally constructed at the digital level, and the experience of place starts in front of the computer screen.

To my view, understanding the different angles of the digital shift is fairly important to make the most of it. So, as marketing is interaction, new digital media allows the city to easily reach far-located target audiences and “open conversations” with them through a kind of two-way communication. As said, thanks to the digital shift, new tools have emerged adding new dimensions and enriching the experience of place in real time by both visitors and locals. Furthermore, digital media enable refined and much better cost-efficiency tools to monitor and measure the impact of actions and initiatives around a city brand strategy –the so called social media listening tools.  Nowadays, most innovative Destination Management Organisations are re-designing themselves, also from an organisational perspective, by means of the digital driver. That´s the case of VisitOslo, an agency that is radically improving its competence in digital communications and is aware of any innovation in the field, just in order to increase “Oslo´s digital footprint”. Its mission has been recently re-formulated as “influencing the visitor’s experience in Oslo before, during and after visiting”.

However, I would like to point out that addressing the question of communication channels & actions in today´s city branding and marketing is not only a matter of migrating to digital-based initiatives. The challenge for cities is to make a choice on their particular mix of different tools, which may include all-time formulas like advertising, PR, ambassador networks, singular events… but now duly revisited, along with others coming from a wider concept of what communication action can be. For instance, promoting a new generation of visitor centres, like in Bologna or Turin, this time not only focused on where to eat and sleep, but on showcasing the contemporary city throughout its flagship projects and ongoing emergent dynamics, targeting the local population as well.


Miguel Rivas is partner of Grupo TASO. He is an urban geographer and MBA with an extensive background at the frontline in spatial economic development and innovative urban policies, in a variety of positions. Miguel is providing leading expertise to several large-scale projects on integrated city branding, through which he is locally supporting cities like Oslo, Warsaw, Dublin, Genoa and Vilnius.


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