Mission (im)possible: Place Branding a City Built from Scratch

by Valentin Schipfer

Building a city from scratch is not an easy task, but branding a city which still has to be built from scratch is even harder. Will the invented brand really accord to reality? Is it possible to regulate urban atmosphere through a images designed by a marketing agency? Let’s look at an example from hometown Vienna where high sums are being invested in such venturesome ideas. The area’s new name: aspern Vienna’s Urban Lakeside.

During my studies at the Department of Urban Design at TU Vienna I have analyzed the branding process of this new urban centre which is being developed on the former Aspern Airfield. Unlike Tempelhofer Freiheit  in Berlin this former airport will not keep its historical body. In January 2006, a team of architects from Sweden and construction managers from Germany were awarded the contract. In May 2007, their master plan was adopted by the Vienna City Council. The former 2,4 km² airport (roughly equalling 340 soccer pitches) is located in Vienna’s outskirts nestled in between single-family houses and fields. It is the investors’ wish to turn it into a new city quarter with 20.000 residents and 20.000 workplaces until the year 2030. Further, it should become a hub for research, development and education. It is the project’s main idea to make people work and live there. Due to its emotional urban appeal with short distances, well laid-out footpaths and bikeways as well an artificial lake future residents should be attracted.

The former Aspener Airfield.

The former Aspener Airfield.

“Behind the city of tomorrow, there is a strong brand: the name aspern Vienna’s Urban Lakeside with its logo shaped to recall the future ring-road and the slogan The Full Life conveys already today a picture of the living, housing and working spaces of tomorrow. […] The brand is set to speak of what is not yet visible today but will become reality in the future. The plus sign stands for the sum total of all advantages and qualities embodied by aspern. Enterprises investing in the Urban Lakeside will benefit from the brand. For aspern has its very own face, name, clearcut visual presentation and brand value that will create an added plus for investors. The brand is a connecting link that creates identity. aspern is a perfect location for enterprises – and much, much more.” is stated on their website.

Tovatt's and planners' masterplan.

Tovatt’s and planners’ masterplan.

How did they come up with this long-term strategy – or should I rather say “long-term wishes”? You can either have a look at my timeline from a university course (above) or read the following summary of aspern’s one-year branding process. Anyhow, the margin for interpreting the method of branding is larger than ever. It is amazing how much time (and money) is invested for vague outcomes.

The timeline of my poster work.

The timeline of my poster work.

It all started in October 2007 when Wien 3420 AG , the urban development agency of aspern, contacted the marketing agency Brainds in order to entrust them with the branding strategy. Brainds’ CEO told me that in the first moment they had laughed at this utopian idea of branding a city from scratch. However, after a closer look at the masterplan ( – or more likely – at the project sum) they changed their mind. Within one year Brainds was supposed to develop an attractive image for the city in order to last for numerous generations. How should they meet this big challenge?

A 3D rendering of the future city.

A 3D-rendering of the future city.

In the first phase – the phase of analysis – they did not want to rely only upon their own internal opinions of project-related companies but also to collect external opinions. They undertook several expert interviews about the master plan and possible brands with so-called opinion leaders: with CEOs from Austrian industry, curators of museums and theatres, directors of universities and other people in high positions. At this opportunity just a small question: Do these elitist opinions lay a solid foundation for city branding? Does this actually have anything to do with city branding?

Then, as press had already involved itself since the very beginning, a media resonance analysis in Austria’s newspapers was done. Wordings, someway related to aspern, were counted. Besides that a market research proved a high place awareness of the former Aspern Airfield among Vienna’s population. In addition a benchmark study on Hafencity Hamburg’s and Copenhagen’s Ørestad’s branding strategy delivered many, supposedly useful ideas for aspern. The last step of the analysis phase compassed secondary research on Vienna’s demographic development and real estate situation in the Centrope region.

Fictitious scenery.

Fictitious scenery.

In February 2008 another workshop was hold with the urban development project’s main (real estate) players. In the meanwhile Brainds had designed 15 branding options which were reduced to 8 options at this seminar, namely: The Creative City, Cosmopolis – The International City, the Open Source City, City on the Waterfront, The City Lab Vienna, The Energytown, The Child-friendly City and City of work-life balance – apparently a wide range of currently trendy images. Together with the players and the elitist selection of opinion leaders these options were reduced to 3 options in April.

The Creative City, Cosmopolis – The International City and City of work-life balance were designed as posters with fictitious content. Ideas should be made more tangible. At the real estate trade fair REAL Vienna they were presented to the club of elitist opinion leaders. In order to be at least a bit participatory some questionnaires could be filled out by the public at the fair.

The logo.

In July the final phase arrived. The last brand decision had to be taken. Several times in my interviews I got told that the political okay had to be given before the real estate companies could opt. In my eyes, it does not make any difference because in that case the political side is the owners of these companies themselves. City of work-life balance won the selection procedure.

aspern's urban lakeside

aspern’s urban lakeside was filled up last year.

Brainds went one step further and published a so-called brandbook which you can download here. Please have a look at it! Besides many charming images it contains interview questions and answers with fictitious, future residents as: “Q: How do you write in aspern? A: In many languages. And in many ways: e-mails are typed on a Blackberry keypad, business plans are sketched on a notebook keyboard, memos are written by ballpoint pen in a Moleskine diary, love letters are composed by fountain pen on unbleached paper..” Wow, isn’t that beautiful?

This one-year project opens many questions to me? Why have the surrounding neighbourhoods not directly been integrated as opinion leaders? Do these intended images fit in the district’s context? Does this way of branding actually have anything to do with the current city branding’s discourse? As a marketing agency Brainds went very far and probably did a great job. I doubt though whether the brandbook’s expectations will be fulfilled. I also doubt whether you can use it as a companion to regulate the future city’s atmosphere and emotional character. Anyhow, branding a city which still has to be built from scratch is a hard job – not least because its identity will change in the coming decades. It would be interesting to know what branding experts think about it.

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