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Urban branding: what makes it successful?

June 23 | 2023

Territorial branding is a relatively new trend that began to develop actively in the 2000s. Cities, like companies, are competing for audiences and investments, so they also need a well-thought-out spectacular identity.

To create an identity for a city, you need to consider many factors - history, people, expectations. In this article, designers with experience in this field talk about their approaches and strategies.

How to create a brand that unites an entire city? Making a locality economically and culturally attractive with a visual identity is not an easy task. It must meet a number of seemingly contradictory requirements: it must be clear but delicate, universal but unique, evoke a sense of belonging but have a global appeal, and most importantly, it must stand the test of time.

The emotional aspect is particularly important here. In a recent campaign to rebrand New York City, designer Graham Clifford took the iconic I ❤ NY symbol, designed by Milton Glaser in the '70s, and made small changes to it - a different pronoun, a sans serif font and a three-dimensional heart - that drew strong reactions around the world. Many called the result a failure, while others supported the inclusive message and updated design.

Is there a recipe for creating a successful city brand? Marketing specialist Maryam Banikarim believes it's all about purpose. "It's important to be clear about what purpose you are solving and for whom." The goal of rebranding New York City was to instill a sense of pride in the residents and encourage them to do socially useful actions, such as volunteering.

"It's about 'we,' not 'I,'" she clarifies. "No one is trying to replace the original mark, the new logo will be used alongside it and unite New Yorkers. Whether you like it or not, do something for your city."
Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch, New Zealand (Ōtautahi), (Copyright © Christchurch, 2023)
Christchurch, New Zealand (Ōtautahi), (Copyright © Christchurch, 2023)
In his book, City Branding: Theory and Case Studies, Keith Dinney argues that a strong brand should define a clear set of attributes that "effectively express the unique character of a city". This was the approach behind the rebranding of the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.

According to Jeremy Feinblatt, vice president of strategy at Resonance Consultancy, after the 2011 earthquake damaged much of the city's infrastructure, it needed to "find its new identity." Together with economic development agency ChristchurchNZ, they developed a new concept aimed at attracting tourists and investors to Christchurch.

Jeremy and his team stayed in the city for a while to understand its 'soul' and conducted a series of surveys where thousands of businesses, residents and visitors gave their perceptions of Christchurch. The researchers concluded that they were looking at a garden city that is great for both work and leisure. As a result, they formulated the following value proposition: 'Christchurch is a playground for people'. Jeremy calls this process 'from logic to magic'.

According to Matt Kitto of McCarthy, the studio that designed Christchurch's visual identity, the new identity fulfills the most important requirement - it reflects the community that lives in the city. The studio consulted with indigenous people to ensure that the city's cultural and historical heritage was embodied in the new branding.
Christchurch, New Zealand (Ōtautahi), (Copyright © Christchurch, 2023)
The double lines of the new logo are a reference to the traditional Maori art of woodcarving, as well as a symbolic representation of the banks of the Avon River, which runs through the historic center of the city.

It is certainly easier for local designers to create an identity that fully reflects the city's culture. However, looking from the outside has its advantages. According to Jeremy of Resonance Studios, which is based in Canada but brands tourist destinations around the world, it allows for impartiality. "If you're designing your city's identity, your perception is influenced by personal biases and emotions."
Nusantara, Indonesia
Yes, drawing on a locality's history during rebranding is an effective solution, but what if the city is just being built? The Indonesian Association of Graphic Designers (ADGI) is helping the government create an identity for Nusantara, the new city where the capital is planned to move from Jakarta. Scheduled to open next year, city planners and architects have already designed the landscape, but the city is still under construction.
The winning visual identity design for Nusantara (Copyright © Aulia Akbar from ADGI Bandung Chapter, 2023)
Diaz Hensuk, a member of ADGI's board of advisors, says the hardest part is starting from scratch. "There's no culture yet, no people," he says. "We need to create our own image through design." The company has developed a concept that positions Nusantara as a "home for all," which meets the government's declared goals of achieving economic equality, inclusiveness and decentralization for the country, by shifting the focus away from the dominant island of Java.

The association invited local designers to participate in the creation of the logo and submit their own variations. A total of 500 entries were sent in, from which 5 finalists were carefully selected and the winner, Aulia Akbar, was decided by popular vote. His logo is called "Pohon Hayat Nusantara" (Tree of Life Nusantara) and was inspired by the diversity of Indonesian flora.

According to ADGI Communications Director Primo Rizki, the aim of the contest was to "create a sense of ownership by allowing people to contribute to the development of Nusantara. It's like an election - democratizing design through voting." According to Jeremy from Resonance Consultancy, working together with local people is essential: "Your brand should align with the values of the community and reflect its reality."
The winning visual identity design for Nusantara (Copyright © Aulia Akbar from ADGI Bandung Chapter, 2023)
The winning visual identity design for Nusantara (Copyright © Aulia Akbar from ADGI Bandung Chapter, 2023)
Oslo, Norway
Oslo’s rebranded city seal (Copyright © Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna), 2019)
Oslo’s rebranded city seal (Copyright © Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna), 2019)
Oslo’s rebranded city seal (Copyright © Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna), 2019)
Another key element of city branding is recognizability. "It should seem familiar, but not too obvious," says Mark Ligeti, lead designer at Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna), the agency that rebranded Oslo.

The city seal (Oslo's coat of arms), which depicts St. Hallvard, the city's patron saint, had remained unchanged since its introduction in 1924. Mark and his team decided to update the symbol, making it modern and minimalistic, but still recognizable - and more usable in an urban environment.

"Less detail, more clarity" was their strategy. When choosing colors and fonts, they were inspired by the city. The brand's blue and green hues symbolize different elements of the city, from streetcars and fjords to Oslo's parks, while the custom Oslo Sans font is inspired by street signs.
Oslo Sans font
Madrid, Spain
Presentation of Madrid's new identity (Copyright © Point of Reference Studio, 2018)
Madrid-based studio Point of Reference used a similar approach to rebrand their hometown. According to creative director Jeffrey Ludlow, they chose a fresh but familiar color palette that evokes the terracotta roofs and brickwork of the Spanish capital.

"When creating a symbol for a city that needs to win love, you have to start with what people already love and know," he adds. Madrid's new identity was designed as part of a competition announced by the City Council, but all entries were eventually rejected. The design studio decided to draw attention to its project by publishing it online.
Madrid's new identity (Copyright © Point of Reference Studio, 2018)
Madrid's new identity (Copyright © Point of Reference Studio, 2018)
New York, USA
Since the WE ❤ NYC campaign was aimed at residents rather than tourists, choosing a local team was a must, says Maryam Banikarim. "What matters here is attitude and knowledge of the city, and this is not available from outside. You need people who understand the nuances of the place."

It was local insights that formed the basis for custom emoji symbolizing New York's five boroughs, posters created by local artists, and a series of witty sayings that reflect the worldview of New Yorkers, such as: "We get more done by 8 a.m. than Boston does in a day."
WE ❤ NYC campaign (Copyright © New York State Department of Economic Development, 2023)
WE ❤ NYC campaign (Copyright © New York State Department of Economic Development, 2023)
Maryam reached out to the local creative community to capture a wide range of opinions, but the involvement of multiple stakeholders with competing views can cause tensions. "The challenge is what to do with all that feedback," says Mark Ligety. "It's hard to balance other people's expectations with your own intuition."

"There's a huge burden on the designers' shoulders - they have to develop a brand that will epitomize the city 10 or 20 years down the road.... it's a lot of stress for the team," notes Matt of McCarthy Studio.

According to ADGI's Primo, the pressure is just as great, if not greater, in the case of a brand new city. "Nusantara as a new capital city has to represent the whole culture and people of Indonesia," he says. "The visual identity should be all-encompassing."
Emoji created as part of the WE ❤ NYC campaign (Copyright © New York State Department of Economic Development, 2023)
Designers realize that it's impossible to please everyone, but reactions - both positive and negative - can make a difference. Despite the cacophony of polar opinions, Maryam believes the WE ❤ NYC campaign was successful because it achieved its goals: after 3.2 billion people saw the new branding in the first 48 hours, more than 4,500 residents expressed a desire to do something socially useful.

"It's not just about creating an iconic sign. You need to tell the story of a place, and that's first and foremost the people who live there, travel there and call it home," Matt adds.

A city's brand is more than just a logo or slogan, it's a promise of value to residents, visitors, and investors. And if done right, it can make a significant contribution to heritage and visual culture. As Mariam says, "Great design evokes emotion, it starts a dialog and makes the world a better place."
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