Thought Leadership

Focus on Birmingham – City Brand Leaders

Andrew Stevens

Share


Creativebrief asked Andrew Stevens to take a look at Birmingham and suggest how it might become a better brand.

Birmingham’s name is known everywhere, but its people aren’t and nor is their city, which is in the middle of England and is Middle England. It’s hyperbolically typical of England… at the same time it’s hermetic, an ignored void at the heart of the country.

Jonathan Meades

What is being held against you – cultivate it, it is your essence.

Jean Cocteau

Bright Lights, Big City Plan – Birmingham

Birmingham has the somewhat unenviable mantle of being a national whipping boy, with perennial slights in opinion polls and a solidly mid-table position compared to the economies of other European cities of its size. The ‘Most boring city in Europe’, the ‘Most depressing place to live in the UK’, take your pick. Many also doubt its claim towards being the UK’s second city.

Away from the snobbish gaze of outsiders however, hidden assets and a resilient populace abound. Even as the brickbats continue and Brummies themselves doubtless shrug it all off, a quiet revolution is taking place in its marketing, while government and city council hopes remain high that careful recalibration of its economic offer through a new enterprise zone and master-planning will leads to its emergence as “a genuine alternative to London” to be England’s commercial hub.

For the brickbats, many blame Jane Austen’s Emma and its oft-deployed quote “One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound.” (which has had several recent airings on the Beeb website).

Birmingham’s subsequent prime is fondly recalled as when, in the Victorian era, Joseph Chamberlain established it as the nation’s workshop at the height of Empire and simultaneously, a byword for municipal enterprise and urban planning, inventing the concept of public ownership. Not for nothing was it known as the “Venice of the Midlands” and “city of a thousand trades” in its Industrial Revolution heyday, even without a main river, port or coalfield. A century after his death, Chamberlain still looms large in local civic affairs, lending his name to the city’s main square and more recently a political blog which acts as the watering hole for local politicos.

Fast forward to the 1980s however and its psychologically-important car industry was in tatters, like that of American ‘Motor City’ Detroit never to recover, and its economic profile substantially dented. The Bull Ring became a symbol of ugly and dysfunctional post-war architecture and its housing stock was in an equally sorry state. To many social housing tenants, the council was known as ‘Mother Russia’ – a distant yet domineering bureaucracy.

Unlike Liverpool, which responded to its painful post-industrial reduced circumstances with increased town hall militancy and sabre-rattling at government in London, Birmingham’s city leaders were of a more pragmatic bent and defiantly sought to retain their reputed resilience, graft and self-reliance. It now boasts the country’s largest collection of conference centres outside of the capital, as well as its globally-acclaimed Symphony Hall and Hippodrome theatre (the UK’s busiest).

For many, native and non-native, this is not enough however.  As well as its alleged dowdiness and stodgy character, its claim to be the ‘second city’ is often called into question, almost a chattering class and journalistic pastime. In spite of its recent gains in terms of profile (the 1998 G8 Summit was held in the city), such declarations are largely routine, especially when you consider the widely lauded regeneration profiles of other UK urban centres, as well as Manchester’s hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The city council, for their part, have characteristically got on with the job and last year buried the hatchet with Manchester and pledged to work together on economic issues, not least as the second city question is largely academic when you consider the purse strings and power held by the ‘first’ city.

The second red herring bedevilling the Midlands city is its supposed self-effacing inability to talk itself up, held up by some as endearing humility or perhaps an anti-London tic, or by others as an inferiority complex verging on an almost suicidal lack of self-confidence. For any city in an era of global urban competitiveness to engage in a conscious effort to play down their presence on the UK, never mind the world, stage would indeed be suicidal, were it true (which it isn’t). As sympathetic non-London voices who’ve passed the town hall reception can attest, the city can sometimes seem at war with itself, with its unwieldy fiefdom-riven officialdom.

There’s also more than a grain of truth in claims that the way the world sees Birmingham could be improved outside of the formal branding arena, through soft power leverage, which it arguably lacks. Even acclaimed drama such as adaptations of David Lodge’s ‘Rummidge’ novels and Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club merely act to confirm stereotypes of dreariness and a limp industrial past. Slade and UB40 can probably forget about invites to any marketing events outside the city.

But as many proud natives, born and adopted, argue, to concentrate on the past simply ignores the assets of the present, for instance its vibrant arts scene, non-capital quality of life and strengths in technology and innovation (the UK’s leading ‘Science City’ as designated by government).  Civic hopes also abound in the construction of its £189m new central library, envisaged as a cultural and civic hub housed in an ‘iconic’ building, and the regeneration of the Jewellery Quarter (arguably England’s finest collection of Victorian industrial buildings still in reasonable nick) a la that of the Northern Quarter up the M6 in Manchester.

Birmingham has long fallen down on outside perceptions of its built environment, a victim of the Luftwaffe and the post-war concrete fetish (with heritage-phobic city planner Herbert Manzoni its Robert Moses) – yet in 2008 council workers mistook it for the cityscape of Birmingham, Alabama and sent residents leaflets featuring a Rotunda-less and Deep South skyline.  In truth, this slip-up probably served to bolster the Brummie cock-a-snook mentality and self-deprecating character, which if channelled correctly could at least lend itself toward a more authentic rendering of urban personality (see also ‘warmth and friendliness’ in Newcastle).  The mocking London media may still require some convincing, but in 2012 eyebrows were raised when the New York Times tipped ‘dreary’ old Brum, with its oft-derided nasal-vowelled ‘Noddy Holder’ accent, as a top 20 destination on account of its gastronomic offer.

Brand leadership

Led by necessity, Birmingham has experienced several phases of reinventing itself, not least in the form of city marketing agencies. Fearing the (largely realized) decline in the city’s standing, its business community came together in 1993 to form the Birmingham Marketing Partnership as  a gesture to show the city’s historic “can do” spirit remained undiminished. This has since become Marketing Birmingham, a fully integrated public-private partnership supported by the council and 350 local businesses, working to promote it as a destination for the visitor economy, conferences and inward investment. In 2010 this was joined by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (chaired by John Lewis MD Andy Street), which replaced the West Midlands’ regional development agency (RDA) Advantage West Midlands.

What really marks out the Brummie as a creative thinker is that he acknowledges that there is “No single right answer” to the problem. Indeed if you were to present two Brummies with the same target destination the likelihood that they would take the same route to reach it is so small as to be almost non-existent. The Londoners, by contrast, would all default to the shortest route, since their position at the centre of a road network has caused them lazily to equate directness with speed, hence limiting their capability for creative or original thought. The Londoner consequently has a love of the single metric, such as “shareholder value”, “distance travelled”, “EBITDA” or “price”, while the superior Brummie brain understands that high quality decision making involves complex trade-offs between often irreconcilable factors – comfort, speed, distance, duration – or brand, profit, customer satisfaction, employee loyalty, R&D and so forth – and that, just as no great journey will result from considering one measure, no great company will be created by the narrow pursuit of profit alone.

Rory Sutherland, campaign, March 2010

In spite of Brum’s soi-disant ‘inability’ to engage in self-puffery, substantial town hall spadework was put in to work up branding campaigns, firstly around the somewhat civic jingoist ‘Be Birmingham’ and more recently as the ‘The global city with a local heart’ slogan preferred by the last council administration (2004-2012) which aimed to underscore some kind of undisputed world city punching its weight alongside that trademark earthy humbleness. It may have earned erstwhile council leader Mike Whitby an honorary doctorate from one of the city’s three universities, but overall was considered as lacking traction or wider buy-in off the town hall stationery.

Having to assert you are a ‘global city’ does give the impression of trying too hard to convince and something of the ‘World’s best dad’ coffee mug about it. Unsurprisingly, ahead of his defenestration at the hands of the electorate last May, Whitby spied the 1960s-sounding ‘Britain’s best bet is Birmingham’ as a boosterist alliterative alternative (possibly a throwback to the days of British Leyland assembly lines). Facing an unprecedented fiscal crunch, the new Labour administration under returning council leader Sir Albert Bore has already signalled that it envisages the private sector underwriting the lion’s share of city marketing in future, having already axed the RDA-dependent subsidies which saw the annual party conference circuit visit the city, possibly through a new hotel levy-funded Tourism Business Improvement District (on top of the city’s existing 10 BIDS). However, having co-founded the Eurocities partnership of Europe’s leading urban centres in 1986, its global positioning remains intact, even under the constraints of austerity.

A 2010 report by the city council to evaluate the return on investment for its funding of Marketing Birmingham and to what extent the arms-length agency’s work was joined up with that of the council’s corporate communications considered at length to what extent anyone could at all conceive of a Birmingham ‘brand’. Opinions were mixed, ranging from the need for an ‘iconic’ landmark (e.g. the Guggenheim in Bilbao), through to a belief that the city simply speaks for itself. 

A over-arching piece of local statecraft impacting on the brand however was the ‘Big City Plan’, which since launching in 2008 has attempted to rectify post-war ‘brutalist’ deficiencies in brand character through a renewed cityscape which modifies existing space while developing a new liveability offer around eight district ‘quarters’. Ultimately, it may yet be a redefined urban realm which leads the reinvigoration of the Birmingham brand, rather than time-limited marketing strategies tied to specific city administrations.

A route for Birmingham’s brand?

As we’ve heard, Brummies are not known for their readiness to accept external criticism or even well-intentioned suggestions, regardless of whether most of local private sector concede that things aren’t as good as they should be.

Yet most of Birmingham’s projection issues are beyond its immediate control – witness the abject parochialism which permeates the dealings of its neighbouring councils who prefer to rely on their own suburban identities rather than rally under its city regional aegis (at the height of the Olympics and the UK’s ‘GREAT’ campaign, a bizarre mushy compromise of ‘Greater Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country’ was agreed for ad spots).

It may well be therefore, like in other English city regions, that a mature conversation needs to take place between Birmingham and its conurbation partners as to how best to optimise a brand axis between them.  Perhaps the Greater Birmingham ‘supervisory board’ (another piece of Victoriana) of city region leaders set up this March following Michael Heseltine’s coalition regional roadshow stop-off in the city is the start of that dialogue. 

Birmingham at the centre of HS2 – The Government is proposing to provide the capacity desperately needed across the UK through a new High Speed Rail Network. The new route would initially link London to Birmingham, then on to Manchester and Leeds forming what is known as the Y-Network. Eventually High Speed trains could run to Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

For all its claims of once being the “city of a thousand trades”, work needs to be done on spelling out what Birmingham stands for in this century – with other UK urban centres stealing a march on Brum by defining themselves around culture (Manchester), business (Liverpool), nightlife (Newcastle) and style (Glasgow), it already needs to run just to stand still. With its accelerated connection to London as part of the new High Speed 2 rail system over a decade away, the graft needs putting in now.  Birmingham talks of itself as the peer of world cities such as Chicago, but lacks the Rahm Emanuel-type city boss of its American sister city, though the government have said it can have one if Brummies seize the initiative. And as the critics have noted, even before the first HS2 trains pull into the new Curzon Street station, until it inspires a winning cultural avatar that tells the city’s story and secures some degree of resonance, we’re likely to be mulling over what tired new slogans that men in suits can read from a flipchart for some time yet.

Next Steps

As we’ve often heard, Brummies are not known for their readiness to accept external criticism or even well-intentioned suggestions. Yet most of Birmingham’s projection issues are beyond its immediate control – witness the abject parochialism which permeates the dealings of its neighbouring councils who prefer to rely on their own suburban identities rather than rally under its city regional aegis (at the height of the Olympics and the UK’s ‘GREAT’ campaign, a mushy compromise of ‘Greater Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country’ was agreed for ad spots).  It may well be therefore that a mature conversation needs to take place between Birmingham and its conurbation partners as to how best to optimise the core brand between them.  For all its claims of once being the “city of a thousand trades”, work needs to be done on spelling out what Birmingham stands for in this century.  And as aspiring city father Sion Simon noted, until Birmingham inspires a winning cultural avatar that tells the city’s story and secures global resonance, we’re likely to be mulling over what men in suits can read from a flipchart for some time yet.

Some of Birmingham’s leading brands

  • ATS Euromaster
  • Bird's Custard
  • Birmingham Airport
  • Claire's Europe
  • Dolland & Aitchison
  • Harvester (Restaurants)
  • HP Foods
  • Midland Bank
  • Mitchells & Butlers
  • NEC Group
  • Norton Motorcycle Company
  • O'Neills (Pub Chain)

Some of Birmingham’s leading agencies

  • Cogent Elliot
  • WAA! Total Media
  • Big
  • 383 Project
  • McCann Birmingham

Follow Creativebrief on Twitter or LinkedIn to discover need-to-know marketing trends and analysis.

Guest Author

Andrew Stevens

,

About

Andrew has advised a range of partners and agencies on urban development and place strategy in the UK. In particular he works as a researcher on urban policy. A senior editor of CityMayors.com (since 2004) he has written widely on city branding, as well as for The Guardian, Time Out and others. His books include The Politico’s Guide to Local Government (several editions, in translation) and a chapter in City Branding – Theory and Cases (2010). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Member of the Regional Studies Association, Urban Economics Association and Urban Land Institute.

Related Tags