For the seasoned traveler the soul of a city is not found in its famous buildings or spectacular views, and even less so for the people who live and work there. Sure enough a Big Ben, an Eiffel tower or a Golden Gate bridge make excellent visual landmarks in our minds, but it takes far more than that to capture our hearts.
The Universal X-Factor for Cities is People.
In some cases nature can play a major role, but the universal X factor is people: Street life. Night life. Sports. Voices. Cuisine. Science. Commerce. Art. Music. Poetry. Meetings. Stories…
Unfortunately most efforts in city branding or destination marketing fail miserably to capture and convey all that. Conversely other cities, like New Orleans or Hong Kong, are better known for their atmosphere and life style than for anything built out of steel or stone. But these urban qualities came naturally and grew organically, long before anybody made any organized attempt of city branding.
Some cities are most widely associated with crime, corruption, social unrest or environmental disaster. In these cases any branding must obviously be preceeded by a major overhaul of its actual ”authentic self”, to paraphrase a certain TV psychologist.
Can cities change their image?
And cities do change. In the 1970s my home town Stockholm was almost as grey, introvert and, well, boring as any city behind the great European divider, the iron curtain. Today this de facto Capital of Scandinavia is an outgoing, lively city with a world class cuisine, an internationally acclaimed music industry and several important knowledge clusters including ITC and life sciences.
One important reason behind this total transformation is globalization. In 2011 nearly 30 percent of Stockholm’s inhabitants were first or second generation immigrants and it certainly shows. In media, in the streets and among a new generation entrepreneurs.
What's in a city's soul?
So how do you catch the soul of a city? And, most important, how do you use it to attract people, investments, talent, new enterprise or whatever you are after?
As in any branding you must start by defining the above mentioned authentic self. The real distinguishing factors that are already there. Values, ideas, skills or artistic expressions that people from near and far would easily recognize and appreciate.
Then you have to decide exactly what you want to achieve: More settlers? Or a different kind of settlers, younger folks perhaps? More jobs? What kind of jobs? More tourists? From where? And find out exactly what it would take to attract these people to your place rather than the next town with similar qualities.
These and other hard facts will to a great extent determine your objectives and strategies. Properly managed the human factors can add the colour and creative energy needed to bring them to life.