Focus on Manchester – City Brand Leaders

Andrew Stevens


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

Here, there is an insane love of football, of music, of celebration.

Eric Cantona, former Manchester United and French International footballer

To fully appreciate the global impact of the Manchester brand, you need to board a long haul flight to Osaka or its triangulated counterpart in the southern hemisphere São Paulo. Just ahead of this month’s landmark referendum on Manchester’s city leadership (not Man City’s leadership of the Premier League) Osaka, itself once dubbed the ‘Manchester of the East’, played host to an Armani-sponsored Factory Records-themed Haçienda festival. Most weekends in downtown São Paulo see lower-key, but equally as venerating, Joy Division and Smiths festival-type events. You can’t really imagine any other English city inspiring such devotion, particularly among audiences who for the most part couldn’t remember it all first time round. It’s publicity that money can’t and certainly didn’t buy – famously no one from the Factory era ever got rich on the back of it.

And yet, if you were to mention the often expressed belief by the key actors of the era that the music and energy around it was the city’s response or riposte to Thatcherism, to any of these avid consumers of the Manchester brand in Japan or Brazil, you’d probably be met by a blank expression. If anything, Manchester’s effortless command of the zeitgest at its early 90s peak, not least England/New Order in the World Cup of that year, was fuelled by external vicarious hedonism and a hardwired knack for marketing in the city’s DNA – James were always said to be a band who sold more branded t-shirts than records. At the time, music industry veteran Rob Dickins summarised the city’s ascendant ethos and appeal in Granada TV’s ebullient documentary Madchester – The Sound of the North as:

An explosion of musical style and self-marketing. It has radio stations, it has the press, it has a TV station. It has all of these things with which to express itself, where a lot of other cities don't. And I think there's a great entrepreneurial skill that comes from Manchester.

Rob Dickins for Granada TV's Madchester

The same still rings true today, even if it’s the city teams’ Premiership hegemony rather than New Order’s ‘World in Motion’, and echoes in the views of Sue Woodward, Manchester’s Creative Media Champion, who summed it up for me as:

Enterprise, ingenuity, endeavour and a dollop of cheeky Northern cockiness.

Sue Woodward Creative Media Champion Manchester and Director of The Sharp Project

To some extent then we can consider Manchester as not only punching above its weight, but also as generating an almost effortless template to which other city brands can only aspire. As Ian Brown of the Stone Roses once remarked, the city has “everything but a beach”. Such self-belief is neither acquired overnight nor incubated on demand. One theory is that the city’s liberal pedigree (the Peterloo Massacre and birthplace of The Guardian newspaper), aligned with its industrial profile, stimulated an automatic projection as antithesis to the capital by which it came to rely on as a focal point internally and externally.

This quaint liberalism later gave way to, or was certainly itself infused by, boosterism – take for instance city property developer Tom Bloxham’s argument that the legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall acted as the genesis of the city’s property boom. Unwittingly perhaps, Factory Records moves in this direction in 1989 by opening its Dry Bar in a hitherto run-down commercial precinct led the way for the redevelopment and rebranding of the Northern Quarter, so Bloxham’s ageing punk posturing may have some validity.

In his recent book on the lynchpins of British indie music, How Soon is Now?, Richard King argues that the self-consciously Mancunian label Factory Communications, which certainly acted as Motown did for Detroit, acquired a remit for Tony Wilson’s aspirations to go beyond vinyl and perform as the de facto Manchester Marketing Board. To do this, Wilson envisaged that Factory would:

...reach beyond the activities of a record company and become a contemporary media organisation; one that would showcase Manchester at its dynamic, metropolitan, best.

Tony Wilson

While Wilson’s myth-making activities such as Factory’s festivals at the GMEX were ultimately unprofitable, Manchester’s International Festival (since 2005) was able under more commercial hands to perhaps act as a global beacon for the city’s cultural offer and talent.

The pop lineage and its enduring legacy have more than comfortably set up a few authors in a Pennine cottage industry of books on the city’s musical heyday. The line “Manchester, so much to answer for” in The Smiths’ ‘Suffer Little Children’ has been recycled in a number of guises, while the era’s pun on Genesis ‘And God Created Manchester’ continues to find its way into any commentary on it. When the Observer’s April Fools gag for 2012 reported that the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder had been appointed by David Cameron as the Coalition’s adviser on social class, I initially took it at face value, despite the occasion.

So is the musical legacy as much a hindrance as a help for the city brand? Not long after the Factory era peaked, the backlash did not take long to foment and many on the city’s creative scene still retain painfully vivid memories of what coincided with Tony Wilson appearing on the cover of Time. One member of 808 State, arguably a beneficiary of the upswing, spoke of his horror at the global pictures of “scallies in flared jeans” which accompanied the city’s temporary hype. Sports brand consultant Gary Aspden, when invited by the Observer to fondly look back 20 years on, told the paper he found the “media cartoon” depiction of the city in the era as gawp-faced twerps in Joe Bloggs “simplistic and irritating”.

More recently, one Guardian critic dismissed the glut of Factory era tribute films such as 24 Hour Party People and Control as mere “auto-hagiography”. An anti-Factory hype blog ‘Fuc51’ acted as the rallying point for those turned off by the smug and ossified cultural establishment in the city and the puritans-turned-promoters among the city council who had come round to the idea of using the bands’ sex and drugs image for its own benefit. Even now, among city firms there’s a certain unease about it – Creative Concern CEO Steve Connor told me:

Reliance on the Factory era is an absolute dead end, for the under 30s, the under 25s particularly, it's not on their radar at all.

Steve Connor CEO of Creative Concern

It can all get a bit wearing, even the Manchester Hilton serves ‘Hand in Glove’ cocktails.

For those lacking exposure to, or diminished equity from any of this, however, it is worth noting that as the former manager of the Happy Mondays pointed out to Richard King in How Soon is Now?, the urban environment and its effect on these acts lent itself to a “a spatial dimension rather than a literal recording”, which goes some way towards explaining both the traction then and the pervasive appeal of it all now. Not for nothing do tourists continue to flock to Salford Lads Club to emulate that Smiths pose from 1986 (or buy expensive flats in the former Haçienda building, for that matter). As King was at pains to point out, the legacy transcends art and guides its place strategy in a way in keeping with the earlier ‘metropolitan’ vision:

Wilson, Gretton and Factory's civic pride is indisputable. Manchester's civil servants, property developers and new creative class busily align themselves with the established Factory narrative that places music and culture at the heart of the city's regeneration.

Richard King

From Freaky Dancing to BRICs

It was the city’s non-conformist paper the Manchester Guardian which was able to marvel amid the Industrial Revolution that “What Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow”. Place branding academic and commentator Keith Dinnie suggests that Manchester and its modern day municipal corporation have an easier mission than most English cities, a task which resides with the Marketing Manchester agency:

“I think its football, music and industrial past make Manchester an easy city to brand. Other cities face a much harder branding task in having to make use of much weaker associations and attributes. And now Manchester has not only Manchester United doing a lot of the de facto branding for the city, through that club’s intense and sophisticated global marketing, but now the city also has Manchester City stepping up as a potential global football brand. With all this pre-existing brand equity, I’d say Manchester’s city branding people have an easy job.”
– Keith Dinnie

Even amid recessionary streamlining of city promotion agencies, Manchester’s tourism information centre is modelled on an Apple store and sees a footfall of 1,000 a day. The agency’s staff speak glowingly not only of the two city football clubs and their twitter-trending global reach, but also the growth of Liam Gallagher’s retail operation Pretty Green outside of its home environs, planting outposts of Manc swagger in the capital and elsewhere across the UK.

“From its origins as the cradle of the industrial revolution, through to the present day, Manchester has always had a ‘can-do’ culture and developed people willing to try something different. So a culture of innovation, the confidence to deliver, a willingness to cooperate, all married to commercial acumen and a focus on results, an excellent university base and through its theatres, festivals, museums etc. a great cultural base to inspire.”
– Ben Waterhouse MD of SellingSolutions Ltd.

The recent ‘City Deal’ signed between the city region and central government saw an emphasis placed on seeking investment from the BRIC countries, particularly India and China, as well as in its Nobel-winning locally developed Graphene technology. To some extent Manchester can lay claim to the BRIC mantle in that city son and Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill was the first to coin the term so readily applied for global fortunes.

For O’Neill, who doubles up as economic adviser to the city region, Manchester needs to concentrate on boosting science and innovation, investing in infrastructure and housing and develop the skills of its youth if it is to compete with the likes of Munich, Amsterdam and Chicago. O’Neill further contends that to be truly globally competitive, Manchester needs to be less dependent on central government in Whitehall for permission to invest and restructure itself. Sue Woodward indeed argues that the city’s entrepreneurial spirit has often been defined in defiance of the capital:

“We have been making successful global content for more than half a century so we are not easily impressed by Emperors in new clothes. We have grown up with the confidence that unlike other cities we don’t compete with London – we support them in selling UK plc.”
– BRIC Godfather Jim O’Neill.

The Origins of Original Modern

“Manchester has fancied itself something rotten for as long as anyone can remember.”
– Stuart Maconie, Pies and Prejudice.

Let it not be said that Manchester is lacking in either self-awareness or chutzpah. Urbis, founded as a ‘museum of the city’ forged amid the post-IRA bombing regeneration project of the city centre, carried the legend “the belly and guts of the nation” carved into the wall of its foyer, attributed to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

The minor detail involved here was that Orwell actually never wrote this about Manchester, but it acquired legs and became a stock phrase to deploy to convey the city’s gritty economic hub role. In a sense, the extent to which it became not only taken to heart, but largely unchallengeable speaks to the gutsy aplomb of the city, which can take licence to one of England’s most venerated authorities on national character and simply invent something for their own convenience. Somehow, the legend has become distinctly Mancunian in itself, a sense of ownership acquired on its own terms.

“The Manchester brand represents a number of things to me, but above everything is a restless energy that keeps the city buzzing even in difficult times.This has been fed by the city fathers’ vision of creating a European city and instilling a real pride in the place. It has iconic football and a real spirit of “must do” that tends to ignore the north south divide and just get on with it, it is a brand that does not feel the world owes it a living it knows it is a dog eat dog world out there and it must fight to get its share of the action. This, for us, feeds the entrepreneurial spirit of the place and defines why it has such a strong creative community, in all its guises.”
– Andrew Stothert, CEO of Brand Vista.

Branding comes with ease to many Mancunians and rests squarely within their concept of self, Professor Cathy Parker of Manchester Met Business School told me in an almost theoretical discussion:

“A city brand is somewhat tautological: a city, by definition, is a brand. So I think in terms of Manchester rather than the Manchester ‘brand’. The problem with thinking of Manchester as a brand is that agencies start seeing the brand as something to own and control. Any corporation protects their brand – after all it is theirs to own and exploit. But Manchester belongs to all of us. To me Manchester means critical reflection and a ‘northern way’. It means a certain amount of confidence in doing things differently.”
– Cathy Parker, Professor of Retail and Marketing Enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University

In spite of the rapid growth of Manchester as birthplace and the engine of the Industrial Revolution, the ‘Original Modern’ brand built around this sense of history and identity did not necessarily enjoy an easy birth. 1997’s patrician-led city marketing slogan ‘We’re up and going’ was rounded on by the so-called ‘McEnroe Group’ (as in ‘You cannot be serious’) of Wilson, Bloxham and designer Peter Saville. To their credit, Marketing Manchester later co-opted their critics by appointing Saville, designer of many of Factory’s iconic sleeves, as the city’s first Creative Director following the successful 2002 Commonwealth Games, in which he remains in post to this day (“to the delight of some and horror of others” he says).

According to Steve Connor, the Original Modern brand was the product of widespread engagement in contrast to earlier efforts:

“While the immediate choice for the civic fathers would have been a conventional media or ad campaign for Original Modern Manchester, we knew that brand building was a broader, more grown-up process that worked through experience, action and word of mouth. We started a series of brand workshops across the city that in the end reached over 400 senior figures from all areas including a number from the creative sector.”
– Steve Connor, CEO of Creative Concern

He adds that for many cities, the logo and slogan rebranding process is something of a “civic flare-gun” deployed in times of distress, while the official Manchester brand has widespread acceptance and a softer, more subtle impact in keeping with the city’s way of doing things. Saville himself contends that “If your place needs a slogan, it has a problem.” defending Original Modern as a brand signifier for Manchester that doesn’t appear on any ‘official merchandise’.

How do you Salford a problem like Manchester?

Manchester city proper is but one of 10 local authorities which form the Greater Manchester city region, including its near neighbour and once rival Salford (“close to Manchester, but not Manchester” was the slogan of the outgoing council leader). Is there any tension between these constituent parts, what Marketing Manchester refers to as “offers within an offer”?

“As for where Manchester starts and stops – then it depends where you are looking from. The concept of nested places means Canal Street can exist within Manchester, Greater Manchester, the North West, the UK and even Europe. Once a year, during Pride, it occupies a different perceptual space then it does on a rainy Monday lunchtime. Places co-pete. They collaborate and compete with other places at the same time. If tensions arise then it’s usually because places are only thinking in terms of competition.”
– Cathy Parker

Salford’s new elected mayoralty, perhaps reflecting its re-emergence around the MediaCity project and Lowry Museum but an anomaly all the same, could, some suggest, see a ‘dual hub’ emerging for the city region and its leadership between Greater Manchester’s ‘twin cities’. Surprisingly however, Manchester did not follow its neighbour down the mayoral path when presented with the opportunity to do so in this month’s referendum.

Even among the most ardent advocates of the mayoral model, the “double act” between the two knights of Manchester city council leader Sir Richard Leese (in post since 1996) and Sir Howard Bernstein as council chief executive, was not to be called into question for what it had already delivered for the city. The usual arguments concerning visibility of city leadership and delivery were simply seen as not applying to Manchester.

The question of whether or not to opt for an elected mayor was largely answered by the fact that Birmingham was so enthusiastically seeking one to ‘catch up’ with Manchester to regain its disputed second city crown. Trying to persuade Mancunians to adopt something which the likes of Doncaster and Middlesbrough had tried in the last chance saloon of urban policy and which Stoke on Trent had ditched like a bad cold, was never likely to fly.

Steve Connor saw it an alien imposition, out of step with the city’s commonly understood ethos, the kind of thing which only appealed to the type of people who write pamphlets in SW1 think tanks:

“In Manchester we’re the type to take to a charismatic leader and then want to tear them down, it’s just how it is here. The feeling here is that we have a collective democracy and any governance change needs to accept and reflect that, so we’re not interested in ideas from outside which go against this. The Manchester brand was also the product of stakeholder enterprise, the collective democracy, so I don’t see where individual leadership comes in here.”
– Steve Connor

And even those of a more pragmatic or supportive bent lacked enthusiasm, such as Ben Waterhouse:

“In principle it could have been a good thing, but the actual powers the mayor would have were yet to be decided. How we could be expected to vote on the concept without knowing what it would mean in reality is beyond me.”
– Ben Waterhouse

Opponents of the elected mayor system cited the city region’s wider and collaborative governance through the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the country’s first. The combined authority, rather like the French agglomerations such as Lille and Lyon, had its roots in the ways of working that followed Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater Manchester County in 1986, whereas the likes of Oldham, Stockport and Wigan acquiesced to undisputed Manchester’s titular lead in all of this. If the Manchester city region does eventually adopt some form of directly elected figurehead, it can at least claim to have pioneered the system itself, rather than have it imposed from London.

The city region’s global projection remains at the forefront of planning for the city authorities, in the form of its investment agencies and economic advisers, but for local business the opportunities to be realised have already progressed beyond planning into something more tangible, possibly as businesses don’t enjoy the certainty of tax revenue. The Peel Group, a significant regional player in transport and distribution through ports and airports, has worked up its £50bn Atlantic Gateway corridor along the waterways from Manchester to Liverpool. For the Atlantic Gateway to even begin to resemble the Pearl River Delta, urban planners contend that Manchester and Liverpool eventually need to adopt city region structures which, as Cathy Parker had it, co-pete as one, with visible leaderships to match and drive the co-branding globally. The challenge of any city regional leader therefore is to reconcile Peel’s economic masterplan with, dare I say it, Tony Wilson’s visionary civic spirit.

Other challenges remain. When discussing the Liverpool city brand in March, the residual stereotypes of Scousers were raised as a concern affecting the city’s image, regardless of the passage of time and brand equity accrued through visible cultural and business events. Does Manchester have similar traits affecting its external perceptions? Steve Connor thinks so:

“There’s an ongoing struggle around the external perceptions of the physicality of the city. We have a transformed city centre, better transport and are sat in a green context, equidistant between three National Parks and yet as Simon Anholt says, the visual brand of any city lags about 10 years behind the reality.”
– Steve Connor

Manchester may no longer be the post-rave culture ‘Gunchester’ it was once depicted as, but the Beeb’s move to Salford was accompanied by no end of (unwarranted) well-heeled staff bickering over local crime levels. Last year’s Boxing Day random shooting of an Indian student in the city generated global coverage of an undeniable crime statistic, however.

Everything’s Gone Green

“We feel that Manchester has always been a stimulating place for creativity – in all its many guises – as it is populated with a lot of young talent who push boundaries, be they musical, digital or artistic. This really feeds an active creative community which is recognized by the city as being a real asset, hence the ‘development’ of creatively orientated sectors within the city. There is a real feeling of excitement around the city’s creative community and we rarely meet members of that community who sit on their hands, there is a real ‘do it’ attitude that we don’t see in other cities, even London at times.”
– Andrew Stothert, Brand Vista.

While Marketing Manchester aren’t quite able to take the day off on account of job done and all boxes ticked, compared to other English cities there’s less scope for a ‘roadmap’ for a better city brand as perhaps the need to consider its future opportunities and how creative businesses can benefit from and contribute to this.

With its grimy industrial heritage, Manchester isn’t yet known for its green city brand but the Low Carbon Hub agreed as part of the City Deal with central government could see genuinely pioneering work and policy emerge. US urbanist Richard Florida’s 2003 ‘Boho Britain’ index saw Manchester crowned as the most creative city in the UK on account of its ethnic diversity, gay population and number of patents applied per head, that is a winning mix of tolerance and scientific innovation.

Taken together, these demonstrate that Manchester could yet achieve global significance as a green and innovative city, as well as the cultural hub it has long been renowned for being, another stage in the cycle of Original Modern. A £650m Airport City development, one of the government’s new Enterprise Zones, will further augment the city regional offer alongside MediaCity. As if to underscore this last point, recent figures by VisitBritain show a 15% increase in global visitors in 2011 on the previous year.

With these opportunities in train, where then could the city’s creative businesses play their part in developing the city brand? Steve Connor feels that they have already had input into the brand building process but could go further in their everyday work:

“Actually, creative businesses could do it a favour by showing the city as it truly is – it’s more of a cultural challenge to perhaps go easy on the stereotypes, less reliance on Shameless and Corrie as depictions of the entire population. We’re the most vibrant city outside of London, so we have to make sure that comes across in everything we do.”
– Steve Connor

To some extent Andrew Stothert agrees, pointing out where firms could enhance the city offer themselves:

“I think that it is fair to say that the creative community already is engaged in developing the city’s brand both in how it helps develop communications, but more importantly what it does and how it has developed leading edge digital offers and social media businesses. The city is already developing the Northern Quarter and the area to the North in order to develop a creative area within the city not unlike Spinningfields and the professional services area. This development comes out of the restlessness of the creative community and the city fathers to keep Manchester well-positioned in global markets. The wonderful thing is that one can get a feeling of history potentially repeating as Manchester seeks a number of different commercial routes to global markets and one of these is its creative industries. It still remembers what made it famous and that is an entrepreneurial spirit, restlessness and never taking ‘no’ for an answer – this to us is still the heart of our great city.”
– Andrew Stothert

Sue Woodward however feels that there’s still work to be done on the brand narrative and where they can add value:

“They need to input into the story of the city – shape the narrative, and ensure that the city bodies set up to sell the brand have the right story, as it and markets emerge and evolve. Having a robust but factually based narrative that original and accurately sells the city locally, nationally and internationally will generate new business/investment. No one knows their own business better than the people who build and run them. They must own that narrative and keep it up to date and informed.”
– Sue Woodward Creative Media Champion Manchester and Director of The Sharp Project

Ben Waterhouse also finds the current brand management arrangements acceptable, but not without scope for improvement and challenge:

“I think they do a very good job, but always to shout louder and further about the strengths that we have in Manchester and the quality of both people and output. A strong city brand pushing the offer is important, but as important is the people that it engages with, so a continued focus on engagement with the right people will lead to more opportunities.”
– Andrew Stothert

Though Tony Wilson and Factory Communications are no longer with us, their vision of the city at its ‘dynamic, metropolitan, best’ didn’t entirely escape the notice of those concerned with its future. Manchester Met Business School and the city council are currently in discussions around creating a ‘Manchester Institute’ to not only map out the future for the brand, but also train up a new generation of creatives to personify it. The brainchild of Cathy Parker and others, she says “We all have the responsibility to make Manchester better, promote the city and enhance its reputation, and the more people that ‘get on the bus’ the better.”

For the time being, the city leadership which ultimately acts as steward for the brand remains wedded to the status quo. If the city council leader does ever pitch up in Osaka or São Paulo himself then their mayors may be excused for probably having never heard of him, though the same would never be said for the city he comes from.

Some of Manchester’s leading brands

  • Kellogg's
  • Astra Zeneca
  • Granada and Mediacity
  • adidas
  • Patak's
  • PG Tips
  • PZ Cussons
  • Umbro
  • Henri Lloyd
  • Brother International
  • Odeon
  • Cooperative Financial Services
  • Guardian News and Media
  • Kwik-Fit
  • Manchester Airport PLC
  • Williams Motor Co.
  • United Cinemas
  • Manchester United Football Club
  • Manchester City Football Club
  • Swinton
  • Robert McBride

Some of Manchester’s leading marketing communications agencies

  • True North
  • Madhouse
  • Delineo
  • Mediaedge CIA
  • Code Computerlove
  • Cheetham Bell JWT
  • McCann Manchester
  • TBWA Manchester
  • BJL
  • Carat
  • Staniforth
  • Momentum
  • gyro
  • Brand Vista
  • MC2
  • Magnetic North
  • Driven
  • Tangerine

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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.