Wednesday, 23 January 2013

London - Fractured Identity or Collection of Neighbourhoods?

Last night I attended a very good seminar on this topic organised by the Citydiplo Group (which stands for City Branding and Diplomacy) at the London School of Economics where I heard three very interesting presentations on place branding by Max Nathan (an LSE research fellow, researcher at NIESR and co-founder of the Centre for Cities), Ian Stephens (of brand consultants Saffron) and Suzanne Hall (LSE lecturer and researcher).

Branding Tech-City London

First up was Max Nathan who focussed on the government's initiative, "Tech City", taking advantage of what has been termed the "Silicon Roundabout" in the Old Street and Shoreditch fringes of the City of London, centred on the roundabout in the picture below, where the government is proposing to establish a new hub in the centre of the roundabout to act as a focal point for and advertisement for the area. 

Photograph courtesy of Bloomberg

An impression of the design for the hub by Architecture 00 is shown below and below that is their concept diagram for the offer of the hub.

A diagrammatic cross-section of some of the kinds of spaces that might be housed in the building
Photograph and diagram courtesy of Architecture 00

Architecture 00 describe the hub as a building providing workshop spaces, exhibition spaces, event-hosting, free work-spaces, education and short, a low-threshold point of entry for everyone – from the international investor to the London teenager who wants the opportunity to turn their idea into a start-up.

Max posed a number of relevant questions about this attempt by the government to re-brand and take advantage of a process of organic growth of a new area:

  1. Will re-branding change perceptions of the area and its offer? Yes, some may now see it as a more formal place rather than a place fostering the organic growth of tech sector businesses.
  2. What is it that is driving change in the area? To date it has been the clustering of small start-up tech ventures who have fed off each other and grown the offer of the area.
  3. Will an attempt at formal planning change the character of the area? Its bound to and may result in peoples' perceptions of the area changing from being one of unplanned opportunity to being one of regulated provision. 
  4. What will be the effect of the government's initiative? Max identified four potential effects;
  • A signalling effect - raising the profile of the area by shining a light on it through the means of a high profile policy initiative.
  • A clustering effect - where more firms and entrepreneurs are attracted to the area.
  • A competition effect - which brings benefits to consumers.
  • A property market effect - where the area becomes more expensive and less accommodating to cash-strapped start-ups.
Max concluded by observing that there are limits to what a late-developing government policy initiative can do for an organic development of an area like this; that the role of local planning policy should be supportive and not directive, to enable the creation of cheap workshop space, and to encourage the creation of local amenities and a vibrant night time economy.

Branding Nine Elms

Photo courtesy of

The second presentation by Ian Stephens of Saffron focused on the role of place branding in the development of proposals for the Nine Elms area in Battersea on the south bank of the river Thames in central London. 

Ian asked the question "Why did the area need a brand?" and answered it by stating that a powerful reason was that few people had ever heard of it beyond the locals, and few investors who the developers wanted to target would have heard of it, especially people from abroad. 

Added to this there was a need to create a sense of momentum around the development and get people engaged with the development of the area. Another powerful reason for creating a new brand to describe the planned development was the need to change existing, negative,  perceptions of the area and the need to create a new community with its own identifiable identity. In short, there was a need for a brand that would tell the story of how the area would develop over time.

Image courtesy of Saffron

From his experience in developing a brand for the area, Ian identified eight principles for place branding, as follows:
  1. Find a Managing Mechanism - As its often difficult to identify who the client is in a place branding initiative where there are lots of different organisations operating with separate agendas and objectives, you need to identify who will lead the process and make decisions.
  2. Identify the Brand Idea driving the development of the place - You need to decide what this is and what you want to say about it in order to differentiate the initiative, especially from close by or competitive developments. And the idea needs to be believable and authentic.
  3. Identify your Audiences - Who do you want to speak to and who is the area for?
  4. Be Coherent - Ensure that you and the stakeholders in the brand speak with one voice.
  5. Decide on a Name - All the better for being one that locates the place as here with "Nine Elms on the South Bank".
  6. Create a Visual Identity for the brand - to provide coherence for all promotion activity and marketing collateral.
  7. Define the Core Brand Experiences - to attract your target investors, residents, businesses and visitors.
  8. Identify powerful Brand Features - features that will exemplify the brand, for example sculptures and public art of new Elms.
For me Ian's principles rang true from my own recent experience of developing a brand strategy for the Cork City Harbour area of the City of Cork in Ireland and i would sum them up as the need to establish what the planned offer and experience of your new place will be as the basis for creating a brand for its development.

The High Street - The Paradox of an Ordinary Brand

The third presentation was from Suzanne Hall, a self-styled “Urban Ethnographer” at the LSE, who has been undertaking work on analysing the development of local high streets in multi-ethnic communities, in particular on Walworth Road and Rye Lane in Peckham, both districts of inner London. 

The title of her presentation was “The Paradox of an Ordinary Brand”. You can read her latest LSE blog on this subject at

Walworth Road East London
Photograph courtesy of

Rye Lane Peckham
Photo courtesy of

She made a number of interesting points which I think are relevant to other London town centres, for example Tooting and Wembley, which I summarise as follows:
  • ·      Two thirds of Londoners now live within 2 to 3 minutes walk of a local high street.
  • ·      High streets are where we can see evidence of major economic, social and cultural change in London.
  • ·      Some high streets are becoming multicultural worlds with inhabitants and traders from all over the world – reflecting our history of empire and the Commonwealth and these streets are indicative of how London is being remade – a form of urban renewal being driven by ordinary citizens, being a form of change that is so ordinary and prosaic that it’s not always obvious and often ignored by planning policy.
  • ·       Place brand analysis can help such changes to become tangible and these places recognised as providers of a range of services that serve multicultural communities.
  • ·      Place brand analysis can celebrate and make more of the complexity that underlies the apparent simplicity of such places, to identify and bring out the rich menu of services and facilities available – e.g. specialist food shops, translation services, money remittance services and arranged marriage services.
  • ·      Place brand analysis can help to identify clusters of complementary offers – shops, facilities and services – that are important magnets for particular communities over a much wider area than those living near the high street. She likened this to bazaars in Istanbul.
  • ·      Place branding can bring coherence to what might at first sight appear as a jumble of ill-assorted and unconnected offers.
  • ·       Current place branding is too concerned with visual and spatial concerns and not enough about the socio-cultural dimension of the offer of places and being inherently geared to property and planning issues and not focussing enough on social and consumer patterns of change.
  •       The regeneration of London’s high streets  requires us to re-imagine them as multi-cultural places, places with very different value systems and to understand where these multicultural traders are from and their trading connections with countries around the world - see her blog for a “map” of these connections for Walworth Road.

By way of further reading she referred the audience to a publication, "High Street London”, prepared for the Greater London Authority by Gort Scott Associates - at , and I can also recommend readers of this blog to visit to a web site about a major London high street  project connecting the route from Aldgate in the City of London to the Olympic Park

The Question Answered

Overall the sentiment of the meeting was that the three presentations had shown that it was impossible to capture all of these and other local brand initiatives in one umbrella brand for London, which was not to say that you cannot develop one for the city , which is what London and Partners are busily engaged upon, simply that it cannot be both extensive and comprehensive and have clarity for consumers. As I said in my contribution to the debate, bastardising a famous quotation by Abraham Lincoln "You cannot tell everyone, everywhere, about all of your offers, all of the time".

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