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A place for identity

For much of my life I have lived in, or close to, the city of Southampton. As a kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s we lived just a short ferry ride from the city centre – close enough for the sound of the foghorns to rattle our windows whenever the sea mist rolled in. I still live close by. It’s a place that I feel I know pretty well and it’s a place that has a lot going for it. Big, but not too big; cultured, but with a gritty, industrial edge and surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England. As the UK’s undisputed maritime gateway, Southampton has always felt cosmopolitan, welcoming and culturally rich.

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Recently, whilst doing some research into city branding, I came across the City of Southampton, City Brand and Identity Guidelines and you’ve guessed it, it didn’t feel like the Southampton that I knew and grew up with. With little reference to the unique history and character of the place, the guidelines seem to lack the essential essence of what makes Southampton, Southampton – in other words it’s identity. The city’s leaders clearly wanted to portray a forward looking, global city; open for business, ripe for investment and primed for students. The guidelines seem to propose a look that would be more appropriate for marketing the commercial port, rather than evoking a city steeped in a maritime heritage. A heritage that extends from the Roman occupation, to the Pilgrim Fathers and the doomed maiden voyage of White Star’s Titanic. But Southampton suffered heavily at the hands of the Luftwaffe in 1940. Huge swathes of the historic old town were lost in a blitz that saw over 2,300 Nazi bombs rain down on the city and with hindsight the 1950′s didn’t represent the best of times, architecturally, to be rebuilding a city. It left Southampton bereft of a tangible link to it’s past. Surely that’s where the opportunity lay with the new visual identity. As a way of bridging the gap between old and new and creating something that illuminated Southampton’s rich heritage in a new and inspiring way. Doing so would surely have engendered a sense of pride in the people of Southampton and really brought the city to life.

My experience of Southampton got me thinking about the differences that exist between the perceptions of a place and the on-the-street reality – between the projected image and the actual identity of a place. Surely, the closer the two are together, the more authentic and differentiated a city’s identity will be, and the more it will resonate with residents, visitors and businesses alike. City branding shouldn’t be about creating something new. It should be about reflecting all of those unique, often nuanced characteristics that make a place special – capturing and amplifying that essence and making it relevant to all audiences. Get that right and it’s a powerful message.

Consider three of the world’s leading metropolises, New York, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Try and think of five characteristics that encapsulate each of those places. It will probably be something along the lines of: New York: modern, vibrant, brash, dynamic, magical; Barcelona: cosmopolitan, laid back, cultured, quirky, arty; Amsterdam: creative, open, tolerant, diverse, human. For global cities like these, the image we have is pretty close to their identity, it’s easy to pinpoint the DNA of that place, and easy to see how that can translate across a multitude of platforms and environments. All three of these cities have visual identities that compliment and amplify the characteristics of the place.

All cities need a strong, well defined image and reputation. For those that are perhaps less well known, the challenge is to identify all of those tangible and intangible elements that are synonymous with that place and to utilise those to their fullest to define and inform the city branding. These can be physical, cultural, historical or geographic features.

The city of Bilbao has seen a huge upturn in it’s fortunes since the 1997 opening of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum, an architectural anchor that draws visitors to the city. Indeed the targeted enhancement of a place through a significant piece of architecture has come to be known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’. Nearly twenty years on and Bilbao is still seeing the positive effects.

Since being named European Capital of Culture in 2008, Liverpool has successfully carved out a cultural identity borne from an enviable and unique mix of pop nostalgia, football and the arts. The city has built a world class reputation, with culture as the driving force for regeneration and tourism. Peter Blake’s Everybody Razzle Dazzle is the perfect example of the cultural driving force behind Liverpool’s success.

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Porto needed a visual identity that could simplify communication with its people and define a clear hierarchy, whilst representing a global city, a city for everyone. The evolving identity is based on the city’s traditional blue tilework and offers a unique visual language that is beautiful and informative in equal measures.

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A great piece of place branding that takes it’s references from geographic themes is FutureBrand’s recent visual identity for Visit Jersey. Taking it’s cues from the fluidity and motion of the tides, the branding aims to reinvigorate the all important tourist industry on the island, through a distinctive and appropriate look.

To be successful all place branding needs to be rooted in the reality and essence of a place. It needs to reflect the spirit and ambitions of it’s people, acknowledge any physical, cultural, historic or geographic influences and be able to adapt to rapid development.

Get it right we’ll create authentic, individual and sustainable places that we’re proud to be associated with. As the sign says “Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas”.