Looking for an identity, what a challenge for cities!


A brief by Elise Baudelet, junior expert in territorial marketing at the CAAC

Everybody knows identity crisis, that moment in a lifetime when you need to (re)define who you are. Cities also know this turning point, and as city branding requires having a strong distinctiveness, they seem to struggle define it.

Place image affects directly urban attractiveness, tourism and business activities. Moreover, it is an important factor for differentiation. Brand identity embodies the territory’s “self-definition” and its positioning. As the brand image reflects the perception of the latter, both concepts are linked. Hence, thoughtful identity design and communication are crucial to avoid a gap between them. Given that stereotypes tend to persist, changing a place image is very difficult.

Therefore, the challenge is to find clear and relevant features; rooted in culture (history, tradition and events, humanism values) as well as in external elements (political, economic, legal environments). Aiming to boost awareness, the brand should not be complex so opting for few easily recognizable cultural and social symbols that add economical and symbolic value. For instance, some Atlantic Arc Cities have chosen to focus on their common history and heritage, tightly linked to the Ocean and the maritime activities (eg: Brest, Gijon…).

Another concern is to include local actors as they are part of what and how the place is. In this context, cities may adopt a sparing elaboration of their identity so as to suit the reality. A focus on the internal and external factors would ease a more efficient relationship with stakeholders, instead of creating an ideal representation of what they wish to be. Indeed, top-down strategy could be less relevant: the elements should be raised from the “bottom”. In addition, direct involvement of stakeholders helps to attain a balance between the desired identity and the actual image.

All in all, a successful branding strategy depends on how the need to (re)define a place is tackled. Therefore, the challenge is to find a self-definition which fits citizens’ perceptions and, at the same time, provides a competitive advantage in benchmarking.

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