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While you were designing your city logo, they built an entire city from scratch

02 October 2018

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Adrian Docea gives cities a long overdue wake up call, suggesting they take a leaf out of the private sector to build their brands before it’s too late.

He says: ‘We’re completely out of time. Europe needs to speed up or we will lose the global battle for attracting investors, tourists, students, ‘startupers’ and the best engineers, inventors and creative minds out there. We’re too slow, too conservative, way too relaxed about our future. Meanwhile the whole world is changing.’

While you were designing your city logo, in Asia they were building entire cities from scratch.

Europe needs to start invest strategically in city brands. Not logos. Brands.

In the private sector, companies have been spending billions building their brand. Because they understand that people don’t just buy products, they buy stories. Perception. And the science of managing perception is called Brand Strategy. For all the leading global companies in the world, brand strategy is the foundation of their success. Because brand perception is everything. Research shows that 50% up to 100% of everything we buy is intangible, it’s pure perception. It’s brand.

Less than 1% of all the European cities have a professionally managed brand

So then how come less than 1% of all the European cities have a professionally managed brand? If the brand is the single most important ingredient in the success of every single important organization in the history of the humankind - even before we were calling it branding - how come we completely forgot to build brands for our cities?

A few possible explanations:

1. People often mistake brands for logos

Many cities have contracted a logo design and now they’re happy that their city has a ‘brand’. It’s not a brand. It’s a logo. Creating brands is hundreds of times more complex than designing a logo. Without strategy, your logo means nothing. Your brochures are less effective. Your ad campaigns are less effective. Your online presence is less effective. Without a solid city brand strategy, your city is not protected on the global arena, where thousands of cities are competing for the same precious resources: investors, tourists, students, startupers, engineers, inventors, creative minds. Why would they choose your city? Because it has a pretty logo?

2. The city branding science is new

Many mayors have never met a city brand strategist to discuss how to differentiate their city from other cities. They don’t know how to find that thing that makes their city unique and capture that unique thing in professionally made campaigns, managed by actual professionals in communication. Most cities in Europe don’t even have a marketing department. Out of the few cities that do, the vast majority of them are led by people with no experience leading major brands in the real world. In the private sector, you are considered an expert brand strategist if you have at least 10 years in high level positions with relevant companies and you have managed at least 20 brands. In the public sector, it’s ok to lead the marketing team if you managed 0 major brands in your career but you have participated to fancy workshops and symposiums and graduated from a decent university. Why is that? Is your city less important than a bag of potato chips? Because the potato chips brand gets better marketing talent than your city marketing team does. And that can’t possibly be right.

3. Mayors don’t see their city as a product

They think cities are such complex creatures that city brands can’t be designed using methods that have been tested for decades in the private sector. And they’re right, a city is indeed a complex thing. And you do need experts specialized in city branding. But don’t blame it on complexity. Everything is complex: a global company - often bigger than whole countries - is a complex entity. Even designing personal branding for a celebrity is a complex matter, because humans are complex and it’s difficult to design a brand strategy for a human being. But you can’t postpone building a brand strategy for your city just because a city is a complex thing. Everything is complex. Since when did we stop doing things because it’s difficult, Europe?

Let’s go back to basics: if there’s an audience that needs to know things about your city and you’re trying to reach that audience with the right message, what you’re dealing with is a product. Whether you like how ‘product’ sounds like, your city is a product. Its success or failure depends on how people perceive your product. And brand = perception. So unless you are prepared to treat your product as a brand and manage it strategically and professionally, your city is on its way to lose the battle.

Brand building is necessary for your city to be visible in the international arena

Let’s play a little game: pick 10 random cities in Europe. Normal cities, smaller than 1 million people, not megacities and country capitals - Now Google “visit [name of the city]” and “invest in [name of the city]”. You will realize that most cities use the same cliché phrases and pictures, same online strategies and tools to promote themselves. Moreover, even their slogans are almost identical: “Come to [name of the city], a city for people” (like there are cities out there that were not designed for humans). Or “[Name of the city], more than you expect” or “[Name of the city] is a [wonderful/amazing/fantastic] experience” or “Invest in [name of the city], a great place for business”. Their communication is so mediocre that you will forget what you’ve seen before you even get the chance to share it with another human being.

The human brain is exposed to more than 3000 commercial messages every day. Every. Single. Day. It remembers 1%. Unless your city brand communicates better, smarter, more creatively than 99 other cities, your message will be wiped out from their brain so fast, they won’t even know they’ve ever seen it. Why is that? Why is it so hard to come up with great advertising campaigns, slogans, websites, social media content for your city? Because we don’t treat city branding seriously. Because it is priority #326 on our list. And it’s never important enough to dedicate time, energy, money and hire the right people to do it right.

Brand building is so important that, for many successful global companies out there, it is often the #1 priority. The one thing that can determine their success. Because perception is everything. And brand = perception. And brand strategy = managed perception. And without a professionally managed brand, your city’s reputation is in danger. Don’t forget you’re in competition with thousands other cities from all around the world. And they’re all competing for the same finite resources.

The success story of Alba Iulia (RO)’s branding

Alba Iulia is not even in the top 30 largest cities in Romania but the ancient capital of Transylvania is the first city brand in Romania and one of the first professionally built brand strategies in Europe, the first Smart City in Romania, the only city in South Eastern Europe to be invited in the CityLogo URBACT Network, first city with a long term marketing strategy, first city with a direct partnership with the World Bank and the list goes on. How was that possible? One of the explanations is that 10 years ago Alba Iulia was already working on its brand strategy, a strategic vision that brought consistency across all the initiatives launched by the city.

Discover Transylvania Regions’ brand

The regional brand of Transylvania is most probably the first in the world to be created 100% by private initiative, without any help from public institutions and government. The project attracted private funding and managed to launch a series of initiatives, among them the official travel website, the most complete source of information for tourists interested in Transylvania and the region's most important business conference, that brought together company founders, 7 European embassies and chambers of commerce, start-upers, cultural projects, media. The launching campaign of the regional brand aimed to attract to Transylania the British start-upers unhappy with the Brexit results. The campaign made it to the global media and was covered by The Guardian, Stern, Business Insider, RFI.

The brand of Transylvania is the living proof that you don't need initial public funding, huge teams and a lot of resources to build a local or regional brand. "Build it and they will come": the project is today completely self-sustainable and growing every year."

See your City as a Startup

This is why Europe needs ‘City-as-a-Startup’; a method so simple, so agile, yet so brilliantly effective to help European cities build solid brand strategies. A method designed to help cities find their greatness, tell their story to the world and attract investors, tourists, students, ‘startupers’, engineers, inventors and creative minds. The only downside is that the current ‘City-as-a-Startup’ transfer network led by Alba Iulia can handle up to 7 European cities at the same time and help them build their brands. There are more than 700 other cities in Europe that need help.

Europe, it’s time to get to work and build strong brands for our cities. It’s time to find our greatness.

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