Your City Is Not a Brand
Corporations are trying to take over our civic identity. Don't let them.
Photo by Dan Hancox
In 2019, everything has its price, its brand, its audience, and its overpaid marketing consultants – including places.
“Place-branding” is a rapidly growing industry, and a practice beloved of property developers, tourist boards and councils. The Local Government Association describes it as a “storytelling tool” used to enhance an area’s competitiveness, and attract interest from investors, property developers and regeneration wonks; all the cool kids. They actually tell councils how to deploy “the tool that you need to successfully tell the story of your place” in nine easy steps.
Place-branding is avowedly not just “a logo and a strapline”, they say. It’s about a strong, optimistic narrative, about authenticity, about a “range of assets” across multimedia. Following a decade of ruinous cuts to their budgets under the Tories, councils are desperately competing with one another to attract new businesses, jobs, investment and tourism. “Those places with a clear sense of identity and a strong, confident story to tell will have a huge advantage in that competition.”
The story they are telling is usually something like this:
In Dudwich we’re dynamic, we’re creative and well-connected – come and build your luxury flats here! We have a rich history, an enterprising present and a sexy future, and we’re definitely not completely fucking desperate for funds after a decade of swingeing Tory austerity. Seriously, everything’s fine. Look, here’s a kid with a balloon! Here are some CGI trees! Here’s a woman in a power-suit drinking a coffee! Here’s an abandoned mine that’s been regenerated into a late-night street food market! Dudwich: come and taste the magic (bring your cheque book).
The unintended side effect of place-branding is that once you’ve turned a town or city into a marketable commodity, other people can start selling it too.
In the last year, three of the world’s biggest global corporations have been using city-branding to sell their wares. Last week HSBC launched a striking liberal-virtue-signalling, global-village, twee-remainer, Giraffe-restaurant-chain-cosmopolitan, Cameroonian-capitalist campaign, titled "We Are Not An Island".
There’s something especially apt about this concoction of badly rendered cliches (pearly queen? Sloane ranger? It’s not 1985) positioned in front of such normal, down-to-earth London places as the MI5 building, and some high-end luxury flats that nobody lives in. The line "open to all" directly echoes City Hall’s own huge place-branding campaign, London Is Open (run by the Mayor’s in-house place-branding agency, London & Partners).
Not content with co-opting the British capital in the name of big capital, HSBC have produced local equivalents dedicated to Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. There’s also a more generic, UK-wide version.
Each piece of city-branding tries to sell HSBC by selling an idea of the city back to its public: using a tried and tested mixture of cobweb-strewn cultural references and co-opted subcultures: Manchester is commended for Pride, chip barms and Oasis; Birmingham for heavy metal, balti and its library; Leeds for the wool trade, Harry Ramsden’s and Kaiser Chiefs. London is where “cup champions” are celebrated (as opposed to “cup winners” which is what people actually say). Each of them screams "we are with you – we are a part of this city too"; in the Birmingham version, this is communicated by the gloriously unwieldy phrase “you’re our home”.
Why are brands using cities to sell their products? Because they have another image they want to correct: global, placeless, depersonalised – circling the globe like the ozone layer. Moving wherever labour is cheapest, wherever regulation is slackest. HSBC has repeatedly been fined billions – BILLIONS – of dollars for tax evasion and other bad financial practice, not to mention sacking 8,000 UK employees and moving their jobs overseas to save some pocket change, or moving 1,000 jobs out of the capital because of Brexit.
In a period of rising nationalisms, big capital finds itself adrift in international waters. Campaigns like this seek to give them the identity they lack, a simulacrum of groundedness, and humanity. So just remember that the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation is as London as jellied chips, or Notting Hill Annual Music Festival. And you better believe it’s as Manchester as a big apple pie.
Tellingly, it’s not just HSBC lunging after the "proud citizen" pound. In February last year, Nike won plaudits and piles of attention for their "Nothing Beats a Londoner" advert; a fun three-minute canter through a different London to the city of postcard cliches. There’s Giggs in Peckham Morley’s, there’s Skepta in the corner shop, there’s J Hus in the barbers – it serves up a London of night-lit astroturf pitches and estate basketball courts. It was popular because it seemed to provide a daring articulation of what London really is, and who Londoners really are.
The advert was praised to the heavens for showing a more authentic London and “highlighting diversity”; as some voices gently pointed out, Asian, Arab and Latin Londoners – not to mention anyone over the age of 35 – were almost invisible.
You don’t have to be a Bill Hicks-quoting dweeb to think the gushing coverage of this Nike video as a news item was grim. This was a Fortune 500 sports brand valued at $29.6 billion using the saleability of black youth culture to make an advert to boost its shareholders’ millions. (Albeit an advert Nike eventually had to pull, amidst rumours they had infringed the trademark of activewear brand "LNDR" with their coinage, "LDNR".)
Evidently feeling they had missed a trick, Adidas’s marketing teams followed suit: "Calling all Londoners" with their own deployment of the idea of the city to sell trainers. And in September, in further evidence their ad execs were doing their lines off the same mood-board as Nike, Adidas held a pop-up launch for a new football boot in a fried chicken shop in Hackney, culminating with a performance by drill rapper Headie One.
On the 20th anniversary of Naomi Klein’s seminal book about branding No Logo, let’s not feign surprise at ad-land’s cynicism: it is their job to co-opt and exploit anything they can – from our deepest neuroses, to underground music and culture, to our entire civic identity. And like all parasites, they’ll keep doing it as long as they have a healthy host body. But let’s at least be a bit more confident in saying: HSBC, Nike, Adidas – we are London, but you are not.