Thought Leadership

Focus on Liverpool – City Brand Leaders

Andrew Stevens


Creativebrief asked Andrew Stevens to speak to experts on Liverpool and suggest how it might become a better brand.

Brand on the Run

You probably think you already know all you need to about Liverpool. The Beatles, the football and maybe Derek Hatton. And that’s the problem being grappled with by the city’s marketers, its reputation, brand alignment and the tensions to resolve between trading on the past and visioning a future. The announcement last month that Liverpool is to be equipped with a new city boss in the form of an elected mayor from this May and a powerful new investment agency backed with significant government resources has propelled it to the upper reaches of England’s cities league. Already people are talking about Liverpool as becoming a regional powerhouse again and a worthy candidate as centre of gravity to rebalance the country’s economy away from London and towards The North.

The political aspect is integral to the marketing, you can’t escape that. On a visit to Liverpool in 2003, Tony Blair described the city as once being “a byword for political extremism and unemployment”. Even his Home Secretary Jack Straw got into hot water in 1999 claiming that its inhabitants were “always up to something”, leading the city’s then leader to complain of a “constant drip-drip of stereotypes”. The Blair quote is now defiantly carved into a slab on display in Liverpool’s recently opened city museum, not far along from the inevitable Cilla Black-themed pop quiz and a blown-up shot of the cast from Boys from the Blackstuff. Taken together it tends to leave a residual impression.

Boris Johnson’s Spectator said far worse things about the city in 2004, but again the uncharitable summation of its perceived tendency towards victimhood chimed with some externally. These days however, people are more inclined to speak of the new mayor as a ‘Boris Johnson for Liverpool’, eyeing up the London city chief’s global clout and promotional resources, not to mention soft power with government to lever funding of transport and policing. Bear in mind that before Blair showed up with his Urban Task Force under Richard Rogers in tow, UK government had been largely inclined towards writing off the big cities and prioritising growth in such places as Peterborough and Reading.

Things are happening in Liverpool

The Global Entrepreneurship Congress 2012 kicks off later this month.

The Congress will celebrate enterprise and inspire those with the ‘can-do’ spirit to turn their dreams into an ambitious reality. Hosted by Liverpool Vision, Global Entrepreneurship Week and The Kauffman Foundation, the Congress will be a powerhouse of business brilliance that inspires people, excites potential and celebrates passion with the aim of “unleashing the will to win”. On 13th March, entrepreneurs and aspiring business leaders will experience an inspiring journey through sessions of speeches, panel discussions and debates centred on three themes that explore the concept of winning in business.

The Liverpool Brand

I consider city branding as a distinct but value added urban branch of political communications, although there’s a certain tendency and logic among the marketing profession to claim it as entirely their own – any agency that can market Citroens can form a team to market cities tends to be the industry thinking. Though as recent Superbowl half-time ads for Chrysler have shown us, car makes and city brands can occasionally sit alongside each other quite nicely. Equally however, place marketing can often be quite content to live in its own vacuum and comfort zone, the staid preserve of local authority PROs.

But what is the Liverpool city brand? The Liver Birds atop the dockside offices at the Pier Head may be as recognisable to many as Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, but symbolism alone rarely translates into investment or tourist spend.

Research in 2011 by Manchester-based agency Brand Vista found that the city overall had a positive brand alignment with its own inhabitants, who have bought in to the city vision resulting from staging the European Capital of Culture in 2008, but external audiences still perceive the Liverpool offer as being largely about football and The Beatles.

Some in the city scoff at the notion that either of these facets are nothing but a gift, but anecdotally brand managers have accepted that trading on the past is no roadmap for the future and in any case, neither crop up in visitor surveys as the top city traits. More worryingly perhaps, research for VisitBritain using the 2010 GfK Anholt Nation Brand Index Survey showed Beatles-related tourism playing negatively compared to other UK city offers in key Asian markets, although US and Latin American enthusiasm for the Fab Four remained as strong as ever.

Clearly Liverpool isn’t just about football, The Beatles and Scousers in shellsuits. I suppose being pigeon-holed for something is better than not being evoking anything at all, heard much about Bristol since its brief 90s interlude as the capital of trip-hop? Liverpool is the largest centre for asset wealth management in the UK outside of London, although once you leave London then the scope for that becomes vastly reduced.

Creative businesses in Liverpool speak of its Baltic Triangle mounting a challenge to the regional dominance of the emerging MediaCity complex in Salford and becoming a Scouse Shoreditch, though on the day I visited it resembled a wind-swept industrial estate with a couple of skateboarders. Early days yet, perhaps.

But speak to any 80s era computer geek and they’ll fondly remember Psygnosis’ roots in the city (now Sony-owned) and the legacy continues to this day in the form of the Liverpool Software City International Event. Football and The Beatles aren’t to everyone’s taste, but software development clustering can generate a creative city image to trade on globally.

It’s Liverpool (or is it?)

It would be remiss to write anything on branding Liverpool without considering the brand value accrued from its hosting of the 2008 European Capital of Culture. There’s often an element of scepticism as to the worth of such state-run festivals, especially during these more EU-bashing times, but research by Liverpool’s two main universities in 2011 found that staging the event had led to an appreciable rise in positive coverage and perceptions of the city and its cultural offer, which had for the first time outweighed its unenviable tendency towards stereotypes.

Liverpool’s brand journey certainly didn’t stop there, being the only UK city to have a pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, telling its story of urban renaissance while forging new links with China on the back of its status as Europe’s oldest Chinatown.

The question of ‘Who speaks for Liverpool?’ currently rests not with a Derek Hatton-like loudmouth figure at the city council but a plethora of agencies, beginning with Liverpool Vision as investment champions for the city proper (i.e. its archaic boundaries) and The Mersey Partnership, whose remit for economic development covers the six local authorities which consist of the former county of Merseyside.

In recent years, like in neighbouring Manchester, there’s been a mature conversation taking place about the need of peripheral boroughs to perhaps swallow their civic pride and allow the brand of the core city to spearhead external recognition of the city region, although some pockets of resistance remain among the more parochial and envy-ridden elements of municipaldom.

The campaign mounted by Liverpool Vision on behalf of the city (but also for the region by proxy) is ‘it’s liverpool’, though this is more a prospectus around its offers than a tagline for wider use. Wit and warmth doesn’t need a slogan when it’s in abundance and a focal selling point. Liverpool Vision itself is headed up by Max Steinberg and Mike Taylor, both voluble presences on the UK city investment scene and steeped in the city’s investment profile through past affiliations.

Managed decline or decline of management?

In the pre-Christmas news lull, journalists pounced on the release of 30 year old cabinet documents suggesting that in the wake of the 1981 riots which hit the city, the then Tory government was inclined towards pursuing a strategy of “managed decline” for Liverpool, that is simply allowing it to disappear off the map over time rather than bother to seek its revival.

The “managed decline” meme was naturally seized on to portray the Thatcher government as acting uncaringly against the interests of Labour voting cities, but the 1981 report’s author Michael Heseltine was also responsible for a handy piece of urban analysis of Liverpool’s economic conditions in late 2011 Rebalancing Britain: Policy or Slogan, though that report was mostly ignored in the media. Written alongside former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, a Liverpool lad himself, the report made good use of Hezza’s stint as Minister for Liverpool in the early 80s in order to guide today’s economy shapers in the form of the city region’s newly created Local Enterprise Partnership.

Interestingly for a government department commissioned report there was a whole section appraising Liverpool’s “unique” global brand itself, noting the city is the sixth biggest visitor destination in the UK and is emerging as a leader in conference tourism to boot through its new convention centre.

Saffron’s 2008 City Brand Barometer, which asserted Liverpool punches above its weight among European cities, bears this out. For Heseltine and Leahy, where the city falls down is in coordination of brand activities and under-exploitation of opportunities, as well as failure to tackle “residual stereotypes and outdated associations with the worst aspects of urban decline”.

Helpfully they chart the city’s offer as:

  • UNESCO World Heritage status with world-famous architecture, including two cathedrals
  • a regenerated and compact city centre with a strong retail and restaurant offer
  • the greatest concentration of museums and galleries outside of London
  • a vibrant musical history, from the Philharmonic to the Beatles sporting excellence, including Liverpool and Everton FCs, Aintree racecourse
  • adjacent beaches, wetlands and classic seaside towns

We’ll hear more from Hezza and Leahy later. But big cities need big shoulders to carry them and big voices to be heard, especially when they’re lower down the branding pile. Post-industrial cities ripe for regeneration like Liverpool were firmly among New Labour’s city mayoral firmament in early 2000s, but an unsympathetic city council resisted introducing the model for as long as possible.

A campaign for an elected mayor for Liverpool bubbled under for years, led by BBC journalist Liam Fogarty. A change of council control and a change of government saw it go first in the queue to receive the big city powers on offer, we’re talking Chicago under Rahm Emmanuel rather than ribbon-cutting at fetes here. The mayoral campaigners, for their part, claim the council’s decision to opt for an elected city chief without a referendum alongside the likes of Manchester and Birmingham has deprived people of a say and legitimacy for the office.

In truth, such statements are only ever born of frustration at the stealing of thunder and rather than Fogarty himself it looks like current council leader Labour’s Joe Anderson (big on shoulders and voice, as it happens) is the likely shoo-in come May. I last saw Big Joe opening the city’s ‘embassy’ in London, a civic enterprise emulated from a chance encounter between a local finance firm and the Isle of Man in the big smoke. Of course, the race will be accompanied by the usual smattering of party hacks and colourful independents.

More realistic competition for Labour may yet come from Phil Redmond, long established as a spokesperson for the city, and perhaps Derek Hatton might be tempted to give up the reality TV gigs and his own communications agency. Either way, the election marks the first realistic prospect of a Mr Liverpool to lead the city since Hezza did his turn in the early 80s. Mayor of Liverpool, I could do that – as Yosser from Boys from the Blackstuff might say.

A roadmap for a better Liverpool brand

Like any corporate brand, city brands need city leaders capable and convincing enough of articulating the vision behind them and levering in the resources to not only bring it about but act on addressing any defects in the brand character.

You may have noticed Boris Johnson recently ploughing resources into transport and policing in the capital, both of which frequently crop up among global surveys as demerits of living in or relocating to the UK. Where then should Liverpool start? Again, quite helpfully Heseltine and Leahy’s 2011 report suggests a roadmap:

  • creation of a single unified marketing and investment body for the city region
  • a unified branding campaign for Liverpool and the five other Merseyside authorities, showcasing diverse offers within one city region offer
  • increasing inward investment promotion spend to levels done by Birmingham and Manchester
  • ensuring the Atlantic Gateway is seen as a national priority by UKTI and Government
  • better use of the ‘Liverpolitan’ Diaspora as brand advocates and network
  • UK Government commitment to the Green Investment Bank being based in the city, as the obvious choice on the back of its banking historical profile
  • UK Government commitment to seek an International Expo for the city to cement the above

Of course, it could go much further and any new city leader will find an in-box of challenges awaiting them. If that person is current leader Joe Anderson then it will be to identify how best to realise the opportunities afforded by the new Football Quarter quickly become embedded into the city offer externally rather than coupled with the recent city centre revival becoming just another short-lived ‘stadia and Starbucks’ cookie-cutter regeneration plan (but without giving the impression of over-reliance on football).

Despite the presence of a worked up and communally accepted city brand template, the brand could do with refreshing and the brand advocates pool draw on city names recognisable outside the city. Beyond the city region, Liverpool needs to be more assertive among UK Core Cities, especially with Manchester just down the M62, and it could promote itself better as a western seaboard destination for those visiting Dublin. There are plans to cooperate with Belfast on wind energy manufacturing (due to a lack of available land on Merseyside), so why not co-branding among these port cities?

If Scouse stereotypes really are to be believed as warmth and turning on the charm amid economic turmoil and reduced circumstances, like Liverpool FC and The Beatles, they’re not a bad place to start. VisitBritain have already begun pushing ’50 years since ‘Love Me Do’ was released’ slots into the 2012 programme.

And if Scousers really are “always up to something” then perhaps this innate energy can be channelled into more focused brand advocacy and strategic resilience. While Blair might have touched on the city’s more unfortunate traits in his handy phrasing, he did end by saying “Thanks to the people of Liverpool, the future of the city looks good”.

Some of Liverpool’s top brands

  • Matalan Plc
  • Unilever
  • Everton Football Club
  • Liverpool Football Club
  • Cream nightclub
  • Littlewoods
  • John West
  • TJ Hughes
  • Princes
  • Johnsons the Cleaners
  • Speedy Hire

Some of Liverpool’s top agencies

  • Kaleidoscope
  • Clarity Creation
  • PH
  • Bell Pottinger North
  • Kenyon Fraser
  • Aurora Media
  • Milky Tea
  • Rippleffect
  • Amaze
  • Glow New Media
  • Tokyo
  • Lucid

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Guest Author

Andrew Stevens



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 (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.

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