We exist today as slaves to the dominion of global consumerism, largely due to the effectiveness of product branding. Recently the transition towards the knowledge based economy has witnessed a surge in urban branding. Branding in this sense is occupied with ‘selling the city’, through burning a master urban narrative into the mind of consumers. It is a process of creating an evocative urban imagery, with a spatial logic, by means of selective storytelling. What remains to be seen is whether a city can be represented in this manner, with social & spatial justice for all?
> Urban Mind Control
Urban branding is a form of collective impression management, whereby selective storytelling attempts to re-imagine the city. In essence, urban branding is concerned with coercing potential visitors and inhabitants alike to view and understand the city in a predefined manner – it is a form of urban control – but who has the right to represent the city? The political authorities? The commuters? The workers? The inhabitants? Clearly the process of branding must involve a bottom-up approach in order to avoid issues of social injustice, and also to promote opportunities for private enterprise within a city’s economy. The generic population does not exist, and this should be viewed as the city’s greatest commodity – its diversity.
> Inside-out Urban Narratives
Traditional place marketing takes the point of departure from consumer needs and desires; in effect working outside-in. Urban branding, however, works inside-out, starting instead at the level of identities and a common value base of a place. Branding does present some difficulties not present in marketing or advertising. Firstly, the sheer numbers and diversity of potential stakeholders in the brand is staggering within a city. Secondly, to negotiate a common value base within this diversity of consumers is problematic at best. And to this volatile mixture add the sensitive issue of historical and traditional continuity. Urban branding is a complex undertaking, and once begun carries the future success of the city on its shoulders, or the burden of future failures.
> Brand Terrorism?
In urban branding, locations are conceptualised as attributes within the urban narrative. It is important to note that urban branding is not a single-minded tool for capital gain. There is also the crucial issue of population demographics, meaning who will live the brand? Who is the brand aiming for? On the flip side, who is it not aiming to attract? Social exclusivity is an important factor when assessing the success of any branding initiative. In extreme cases of social exclusion, brand resistance can occur. This can take the form of popular public protests, or even rival brands being articulated within the city.
> Brand Logic?
Urban branding is to be seen as part of a wider objective of urban governments. Their aim is a re-orientation towards more flexible forms of market principles within public policy. In this sense, the contemporary city is re-conceptualised as the resultant entity from the appropriation of public space by social agents, through socio-spatial practices and identification process, such as the creation of ‘place images’. It can be seen that urban branding imposes spatial logic over the city via both the virtual and physical manipulation of public space – through the use of logos, slogans, landmarks and architecture.
> Brand Wars?
Urban branding is also utilised as a tool for inter-city competition. Industrial contracts, infrastructural projects and cultural events are all contested in the new globalised world. The urban brand is a crucial component in not only the image projection of a city, but also in mobilising the population towards achieving the particular objective. In the same way that companies compete for a slice of the market, cities do likewise; this results in some cities achieving great success and others being discarded, thereby creating an urban hierarchy. The outcome of these ‘city wars’ is highly dependent upon the success of its urban branding policies, both at the local and global scales.