There is great value in city associations where practitioners can come together and exchange ideas on common practices, challenges and lessons for the future. ‘Eurocities’ is such an association and the people who have set it up need to be commended. In November 2010, Eurocities published their report on ‘A shared vision on city branding in Europe’ (the report is available through the Eurocities website at: http://www.eurocities.eu). The report consists of 40 examples from city branding practice in Europe. Unfortunately, this is a report that, in my view, takes us many steps back. It takes us back to a time when we didn’t know that cities are complex entities and we didn’t know that branding is more than a logo. It takes us back to a time when we thought that cities can be marketed in the same way as soft drinks or cars and to a time when we thought that even soft drinks and cars base their branding on their logo and slogan. But these times have passed. We always knew that cities are complex; now we also know that cities need a special type of branding; that cities cannot be marketed in the same way as products; that even soft drinks and cars do NOT base their branding on their logo.
The report very briefly mentions several interesting and valid points. It does talk (very briefly) about the role of stakeholders and it does mention (even more briefly) place identity and how that might be the basis of the city brand. The stated intention of the report is to provide examples of good practice (notably and thankfully acknowledging that these are not proven solutions for all cities) and it does include a few examples of decent city branding in the contemporary understanding of the term. Particularly, the example of the city of Tampere on the issue of stakeholders’ involvement is interesting and can serve as a good practice example. In my personal (and perhaps biased?) view the rest of the examples do not serve this intention well. The report, as a whole, clearly focuses on all the wrong points. My problem, of course, is not with the report, which actually is a valuable step towards describing the current practice of city branding in Europe and, therefore, is a very useful report. My problem is with current understanding of city branding by European practitioners (no doubt non-European too but the report is about Europe).
It is obvious that the contributors to the report have not engaged with the knowledge that has been generated. There is no doubt that there is a significant amount of publications – and one would assume of knowledge – on the specificities of place branding, on the difficulties in translating marketing concepts into place marketing concepts, on the identity of places, on images, on methodologies and even on tool-kits of how to go about branding places. These are nowhere to be found in the Eurocities report and, unfortunately, this means that they are nowhere to be found in the practice of place branding. Most of the examples included describe how the logo chosen magically addresses all audiences of the specific city, miraculously makes everyone in the world feel part of the city and astonishingly manages to juggle between all the different facets of the city. The difference between the two examples used in the very first issue (Genova and Karlstad on the need for a brand strategy) is overwhelming. Surely not both can qualify as good examples. Furthermore, the examples do not indicate the lessons outlined.
The example of Zaragoza (the slogan: ‘A challenge – a city’) is used to illustrate a brand that “brings citizens together in a common purpose” (to face the challenge?) and, at the same time, “it attracts business and investment”. I don’t see how.
There is, however, another side of this big problem and it has to do with the people who do understand city branding a bit better, who have done research on it, who have attempted to ask and answer the important questions. If they (we?) don’t speak a language that is comprehensible to practitioners, if they (we?) insist on publishing their opinion in journals that no practitioner will ever read, then what is the point? It is as much their fault that they don’t listen as it is ours that we don’t speak loud enough.