Brand building, city building

A place’s brand is the reputation it has, or the mental associations it conjures up, among its different audiences. It has a fundamental impact on people’s predisposition to everything the place says, does or proposes and becomes a key element in decision-making. A great brand entails a major competitive edge.

© Sagar Forniés

“We have a great brand and we should make the most of it”, “Barcelona is a global brand”, “We have to make the brand work for our companies”, “Barcelona attracts many tourists because it has a very strong brand”, etc. These are some of the phrases often uttered by our municipal and business leaders, the media and more. However, what does having a great brand or saying that the Barcelona Brand is very strong mean? And ultimately, what use is it to us?

One of the major problems involved when we talk about the city as a brand is the actual term “brand”, which emerged from marketing and is usually linked to the production and business setting, and therefore to a more or less mercantilist view. Moreover, the word is often associated with the verbal and visual expressions of a product, organisation or country, often in relation to a media or promotional campaign. Nevertheless, the debate’s intensity tapers off when it comes to the brand of a city in terms of its image or reputation because everyone understands the importance of a good reputation for a person, a product or a company.

The brand of a city (region, country or destination) is little more than its image or reputation or the mental associations it generates among its different audiences. It has a fundamental impact on people’s predisposition to everything the place says, does or proposes, and becomes a key element in decision-making. A great brand delivers a major competitive advantage in attracting tourists, professionals, talent, events, international organisations, investments and clients, and therefore a greater capacity to generate revenue and jobs.

That said, how has Barcelona managed to generate an image that attracts more than 7.5 million tourists to the city each year? One that has made it the main cruise destination of Europe and the Mediterranean and one of the favourite cities in the world for the organisation of international scientific and business conferences, making many students from all over want to come and study here and for it to be regarded as a business favourite in many international rankings? Does it boil down to the result of well-designed and well-executed marketing and communication campaigns? What is it that has ultimately garnered Barcelona the image and reputation it has today?

A city’s image is the result of a combination of factors and elements that make up its distinctive identity, as well as the actions and initiatives undertaken over time by its different public and private players and by its citizens, inside and outside. The on-going transformation of Barcelona, with two key moments in its recent history (the first one, the Olympic Games of 1992, and the second one, the conversion of the industrial district of Poblenou, the former “Catalan Manchester”, now known as the innovation district, 22@) has enabled it to offer its inhabitants a better quality of life and has also increased its appeal to visitors. This transformation continues today with constant change and renewal plans, new investments, facilities and services and key projects, such as Barcelona as the world mobile capital.

In the same way, programmes were implemented to encourage citizen participation and to afford the city and its values projection through culture and events. These were spearheaded by the companies and brands of products and services and other institutions (just think of the weight of brands such as Futbol Club Barcelona), by the citizens themselves and by organisations created deliberately for this purpose, such as the Turisme de Barcelona Consortium and various initiatives of the City Council, from the Economic Promotion and the Culture Institute of Barcelona (ICUB) through to Sports and Communication, with campaigns such as “Barcelona, posa’t guapa” and more recently “Barcelona Inspira”. These efforts have made an enormous contribution to the transformation and projection of Barcelona as a modern, advanced, cosmopolitan, open, creative and inspiring city boasting a high quality of life. The construction and projection of a city image is the responsibility and the work of all.

Still, we must not forget that Barcelona is also the result of its history, culture, traditions and values, and other aspects related to its geographical location – namely, the sea, the climate, gastronomy and the Mediterranean lifestyle – all of them part of its identity and which, combined with other factors, have made it one of the most attractive places to live, study and work.

Unresolved issues

Recent brand perception studies conducted by the Barcelona City Council show that Barcelona has a great image as a tourist destination, one of the cities with the highest quality of life, is associated with values such as creativity and is regarded – even incipiently – as an innovation hub that offers quality education, particularly in terms of business schools. Nevertheless, its position or estimation as a preferred business destination is not that great, despite what many international rankings would seem to suggest.

This is Barcelona’s main unresolved issue: besides being a tourist city and a leader in the organisation of congresses and events of all kinds, it has yet to become a reference in the areas of economics, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. This is why the City Council, with the help of the leading business organisations, has chosen to create an agency, Barcelona Growth, which is working to position Barcelona as a destination of choice for talent and business. To this end, a number of factors need to be improved: greater facilities for entrepreneurs, creators, innovation and talent, promotion of connectivity and language fluency, etc. In other words, the idea is to make it a truly business-friendly/open-for-business city. All this is related to the ability to change reality; it is not simply a matter of communication.

This aspect is crucial for the generation of quality employment and for the creation of opportunities for young people and entrepreneurs, as well as for attracting inter­national talent, which, let it not be forgotten, always looks for places that offer the best opportunities in an inspiring environment and with excellent quality of life for themselves and their families, all of which Barcelona is in a position to offer.

Similarly, special attention has to be paid to the growing tensions sparked by the success of tourism in certain areas of the city, which run the risk of becoming veritable urban theme parks, expelling residents and traditional shops and losing their identity and authenticity, which are ultimately the essence of their appeal to visitors and residents.

A city must be conceived in a balanced fashion so as to, on the one hand, serve its citizens through public services and a suitable design of its spaces, and on the other hand,  attract increasingly more tourists, visitors and events. Quality of life, urban space, services and social cohesion are values that we should never lose sight of. We must always have a clear vision of what kind of city model we want, since building brands and building cities form part of the same equation.

In his opening speech for the latest Festivities of La Mercè, the chef Ferran Adrià, one of the most eminent ambassadors of the Barcelona and Catalonia brands in the world, gifted us with a recipe we should take good note of. Passion, memory and respect for the past, ethics and honesty, freedom, risk, ambition and generosity are values that should always govern our leaders’ actions; not so much in the pursuit of success, as Ferran Adrià himself said, but rather in the pursuit of happiness.

Juan Carlos Belloso

Expert in region image and competitiveness. Director of Future Places

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