City branding: making the invisible visible

A branding initative for sustainable cultural tourism

Labelisation date : 02/06/2017

  • Alba Iulia , Romania

  • Size of city : 63 536 inhabitants

  • Contact

    Nicolaie Moldovan

    City Manager


The Alba Iulia (RO) practice gives voice to a challenge faced by many small or medium-sized cities from Europe: how to gain visibility in a changing economic context while promoting its cultural heritage? Strong with a rich history and a complex inheritance (a citadel, historic sites and medieval library) that were left to ruins, Alba Iulia built an integrated branding approach, directly linked with the city’s strategic planning process. By strategic positioning and valorization of its assets and strengthening its local identity, the city (73 000 inhabitants) managed to position itself as a reference for investors, tourists and citizens alike. It thus managed to attract important funding for the renovation of the citadel (60 million €), increases its population by 10 000 inhabitants in five years, due to working opportunities, and the number of tourists by 65% during the same period.   

The solutions offered by the good practice

Building the identity goes back to seven years ago, when a local strategic planner to one of the largest advertising companies in the world created pro bono the visual expression of the city’s identity and slogan. Next was the launch of a branding manual with a set of rules for using the city brand, aiming to maintain a strategic brand consistency and addressed to the local economic actors beyond the touristic purpose of a branding manual.

Alba Iulia became the first Romanian city to have a professional city branding&brand manual and a pro-made marketing strategy. Alba Iulia is also the first city in Romania to launch a complete touristic tool: a touristic guide, a mobile app, an official blog, an Instagram and Twitter page, targeting different types of audiences.

After gaining visibility at national level we decided not to remain Romania`s best kept secret destination and we went across borders, being awarded the title of European Destination of Excellence. The city has managed to stay in the middle of events and be different, which explains our brand positioning: The Other Capital.

Alba Iulia tells a story about city branding, the story of an old city, having a multicultural past, becoming the symbol of unification, the fall into disgrace, irrelevance and decay, and the city’s impressive return right after the country joined the EU, building on European support and solidarity to build a new future, starting with the city's cultural heritage. Alba Iulia is now one of Eastern Europe's most impressive success stories.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Positioning the city as a place for investors, tourists and citizens reflects an integrated approach between these target groups. A place for investments is attractive for investors, creating jobs and reducing poverty; a place for tourists and citizens includes green spaces, the protection of environment, an attractive place to visit and to live in, efficient public services. An efficient communication on the tourism potential of the city, both on the historical and the contemporary side, reveals the potential that the city has for development.

The branding strategy of Alba Iulia is integrated in the national context, as the spiritual capital of Romania, and into the regional context, with a bottom-up approach at city level. To some extent, Europe validated Alba Iulia’s efforts when it won the title of European Destination of Excellence and was awarded by Europa Nostra mention of the jury. Alba Iulia started to strengthen its local, national and international pride.

In this equation, several stakeholders were involved, from the executive public servants, elected representatives and local artists, as well as civil society and the community who had the chance to vote themselves on the local identity.

Given the above-mentioned points, the approach is in line with the URBACT principles. From the very beginning of designing the brand strategy to the implementation phase, all the relevant stakeholders were and continue to be involved, ensuring integration at the local, regional, national and international level.

Based on a participatory approach

The logo was launched shortly after the citizens of the city became the “owners’’ of the citadel, a forbidden place which was in the custody of the army and closed to the public until then. The logo in the shape of the citadel represented, for the citizens, a first door to understanding and feeling the largest fortress in Romania.

The participation of locals in city branding is reflected by two interesting successful initiatives. In 2009, The Big Hug from Alba Iulia gathered 100,000 people to set the world record for the biggest human hug around the citadel. “The Great Appearance” is an innovative type of marketing event, which was planned by a local photographer and Alba Iulia Municipality. It consisted of the largest photo-image ever realised for the promotion of a city in Romania formed by 1,000 photo-portraits of the inhabitants of Alba Iulia. The giant poster was and is still used in the campaigns organised by the local administration.

An important number of citizens living in Alba Iulia Municipality had the chance to take part in the creation of the logo of the city. Other participatory examples came from local economic actors who decided to link their traditional products with the logo of the city. Both The Citadel Wine as well as The Starshaped Bread of the Citadel are using the branding identity regulated by the branding manual. Alba Iulia transforms dreams into plans, plans into actions, actions into results, together with stakeholders.

What difference has it made?

The city where the future was born is engaging its visitors in this process of the redefinition of the city, changing them from passive tourists into key stakeholders of the reconstruction. Visitors become living witnesses of this change, a dynamic process to which they belong. They don’t receive something "ready-made", but they become part of the transformation, having the feeling of explorers in a new space that redefines itself from its internal resources brought to the surface, as well as from its otherness, mirroring in the eyes of Europe.

Arriving in Alba Iulia, tourists have a list of actions and events they can attend and where they can be involved, depending on their profile. Moreover, in recent years Alba Iulia has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of tourists. The growth was organic and constant. The investments in the last few years in tourism and professional marketing strategy had a real impact on the social, cultural and economic level. A set of indicators reflects the change:

  • Visitors at the museum: 91,608 in 2013, 128,958 in 2014, 154,700 in 2015, 167,200 in 2016;
  • Overnights: 59,210 in 2011, 78,336 in 2014, 114,446 in 2015;
  • Accommodation capacity: 612 in 2009, 941 in 2014, 1,186 in 2009. Another indicator is the increased number of residents: 63,536 in 2011 and 73,937 in 2015. The events organised each year are attracting more and more audience, making Alba Iulia one of the top five Romanian cities for cultural vitality.

Why should other European cities use it?

Public sector representatives have a narrow view of branding (perceived as logo planning) or do not understand the purpose and process of branding at all. It is difficult to make all relevant stakeholders understand that they do have a role in the development of the city brand. This has led to conceptual ambiguity and varying understandings of the objectives and the potential means to achieve them.

In this regard, the results achieved by Alba Iulia as well as the tools developed could be transferred to other cities around Europe. The example is easy to transfer to other small and mid-sized cities in Europe.

It is now time for Alba Iulia, “The Capital of Unification", to say “Thank you Europe” for providing the chance to restore the largest citadel in Romania and to transform it into our brand new city identity. Now is the time to give Europe something back: a symbol of togetherness. We will tell Europe the story of “The Citadel of Unification”, saved and reborn through European unity, made visible through an integrated approach, in an URBACT style. It is easy to adapt and to transfer.

If Alba Iulia Municipality’s strength was its cultural heritage and historic value, for other cities the branding element could be focused on youth, on investors, on technology. The principles to follow are the same.