Thought Leadership

Focus on Newcastle – City Brand Leaders

Andrew Stevens


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

Our Brands in the North

Like most British cities facing considerable post-industrial decline, the brand narrative of Newcastle is one of urban renaissance, its poster child, almost. The charged nightlife culture, which enjoys a global reputation, gave its cultural offer a head start, though the authorities are equally as likely to mention it having more theatres per person than any other UK city.

The nightlife and the passion for Newcastle United underscore a leading city brand, but one that is not without its share of challenges. The contemporary city enjoys the same sense of iconic cityscape as it has since its industrial heyday but in modern refreshing forms. Its history is complex and less well understood – though commonly assumed as a leisure brand, the city has played host to Beat poets and forged an underground soul culture. It looks and feels like no other UK urban centre, which simply poses the question: why?

Mr Smith Goes to Newcastle

Like iconic gangster flick Get Carter, the Newcastle of the recent British cultural imagination is often that of TV drama Our Friends in the North, which launched the careers of Daniel Craig and Christopher Eccleston and more or less fictionalised the legend of T. Dan Smith.

The name T. Dan Smith now means little to anyone under the age of 40 in the city and probably less still to anyone but historians and anoraks outside of it. But it was Smith, as one of the country’s first post-war urban visionaries, who in the 1960s sought to make the slum-ridden dirty city the most “outstanding provincial city in the country”, a ‘Brasília of the North’ no less (even going so far as to build a putative regional capital HQ in the new city hall constructed in his image). What Smith lacked however was an Oscar Niemeyer to realise this modernist vision through, leaving as his legacy the kind of brutalist town planning evinced on a smaller scale elsewhere in 60s urban Britain. Through his company Dansmith PR, the ‘working class lad made good’ was able to convince fellow councillors across the country to ‘think big’ and part with town hall funds to construct the kind of concrete shopping centres and housing estates which now routinely grace fist-shaking BBC documentaries and books like Crap Towns.

Even if Smith was bound for jail on account of his municipalist scam later collapsing and drawing the attention of the authorities, city branding as a form of local statecraft, as we now understand it in the modern sense, was born here in Newcastle. T. Dan Smith, like ‘Red Ken’ and Derek Hatton after him, has since become a convenient lefty loudmouth caricature to namedrop for the empty thinking of those who disparage the idea of handing more power to cities, as if local authorities should only concern themselves with emptying bins rather than working up sweeping metropolitan visions for the future.

That Smith became as noted for his ‘Brasília of the North’ ambition as his downfall through corruption speaks to wider ‘Toon Army’ perceptions of the city jarring with any such grandiose notions, which remains one of Ant and Dec, The Likely Lads and the ASBO genesis ‘Rat-boy’. It’s certainly been on something of a branding journey from the era when the Quayside was more associated with the tabloid antics of Paul Gascoigne and Jimmy Five-Bellies, than its current favourable view of the Sage Gateshead and Baltic arts centre complex, spanned by the Millennium Bridge. Yet it’s long been said that Newcastle doesn’t look or feel like an English provincial city. 

From the time when Mike Hodges shot Get Carter among the hills and bridges (viewing its ‘psychotic’ rusting backdrop as more akin to Chicago) to even today where it ranks alone among English cities for actually having an underground metro system, Newcastle possibly owes more to the political spadework put in by T. Dan Smith than it likes to let on. The feel goes deeper too. The city property tycoon and former chairman of Newcastle FC Freddie Shepherd, when not dismissing its women as ‘dogs’, once said that the city had “always been in recession”. These reduced circumstances required a response in the face of such economic hardship, which has actually led to the forging of the varied nightlife offer on which the city brand is often sold to visitor markets.

Rather than the eponymous coals, one of its better known recent exports from the city’s streets is the earthy comic Viz, once sold as photocopies in local pubs and record shops, but now a multi-million pound concern sold in every newsagent and WH Smith. Around the same time as Viz’s leap into the student union-friendly mainstream, a group of city drinkers, fed up with having to trek to Amsterdam for their culture fix, took over the Trent House pub adjacent to the football ground and rebadged it as a soul bar, since becoming the region’s only pub listed as a tourist attraction on account of its legendary free jukebox and 60s decor.

The Trent House then became a full-sized club as the World Headquarters, which remains true to its founders’ vision around ‘Drink beer. Be sincere.’ and a multiracial vibe. Though an emphatic rejection of the city’s lager-lout culture of the era (as personified by Viz’s ‘Sid the Sexist’), these activities forced Newcastle’s club culture to up its game, which saw it become as prominent as Manchester outside of London during the 90s, since recognised by a raft of tourism awards and designations to numerous to list as a poll-topping nightlife city in Europe.

One key asset of Newcastle’s ‘coat-less’ nightlife culture is its Quayside (a classic ‘edge’ marker as defined by Lynch’s The Image of the City), once a bustling dockside market left to the ravages of post-war decline, but turned around thanks in part to the Thatcher era Urban Development Corporation. Outside of the drinking culture there’s an assortment of hidden outposts you’d rarely encounter in other English cities to augment this other worldliness, from the 19th century enlightenment institution ‘the Lit and Phil’ (the largest independent library outside of London) to the medieval city wall Morden Tower, which in the 1960s played host to the leading lights of San Francisco’s Beat poets scene assembled around Allen Ginsberg (both going strong to this day).

As you might imagine from a city famed for its preponderance of drinking establishments, the retail offer has long played a part in not only supplying the crowds but attracting visitors to the region. The central offer around Eldon Square (a T. Dan Smith project and once the UK’s largest covered city centre mall) is further boosted by the surrounding Georgian shopping streets once lauded by Pevsner. This was later augmented by the opening of the MetroCentre across the river in Gateshead in 1986 (also the UK’s largest shopping centre), typifying a kind of new regional confidence during the aspirational 1980s (Nissan opened its UK plant nearby the same year). When Red or Dead’s Wayne Hemingway pitched up on the Tyne to design the award-winning Staiths South Bank housing development for Wimpey Homes, the process from 80s leisure boom to post-millennial regeneration seemed to have come full circle.

What are the challenges facing the Newcastle brand?

Cllr David Faulkner, former leader, deputy leader and culture lead of Newcastle City Council and 2012 Newcastles of the World summit organiser

“It’s about building successful business sectors that can replace what we were previously known for. We will say that Newcastle upon Tyne is an ancient city, with fine architecture, but not as well appreciated as it should be in the UK and elsewhere. It is in a poorer part of the country, with higher than average unemployment, associated with heavy industries of coal mining and shipbuilding, which are now gone. We have replaced them with more diverse industries and a new approach to culture which are at the heart of our tourism effort now. But people still think of the football, the brown ale and old industries. So we have to work hard to change people’s images of Newcastle. We have a strong night-time economy, but this noisy, lively scene presents us with a difficulty in balancing this with the history, heritage and culture messages in our marketing.  We promote our city jointly with Gateshead on the other side of the River Tyne via a marketing agency that the two municipalities of Newcastle and Gateshead, also many private business members, pay for – The Newcastle Gateshead Initiative – this is for tourism, attracting investment, conferences, and big events.”

Dr Andrew Robinson, Chairman French Business Council and French Honorary Consul for the North East

“A major challenge is to ensure that the city is ready for the upswing once the effects of the recession recede, mobilising its current assets and future-facing initiatives. These include its strengths in the low-carbon economy, marine and offshore sectors, commercialisation of research from its universities, maintaining the momentum to further enhance its cultural and tourism appeal and identity.”

Prof. Andy Pike, Professor of Local and Regional Development, Newcastle University

“The narrative the authorities have tried to create is one of culture-led regeneration as a means to bring about some kind of post-industrial transformation for the city, something which you see in the kind of public art in around the Sage, the Baltic and the Angel. I think this has succeeded in creating a new image for the city, but they now recognize there’s a need to broaden this out and develop something in addition to it, which they are trying to do by promoting an elaboration of the city’s appeal in science and technology, something you’re seeing with Science City on the former Newcastle Breweries site. But this is a more complicated task for them, appealing not to stag and hen parties of the past but more sophisticated and discerning audiences such as students who might consider studying in Newcastle, people who might want to live here or internationally mobile scientists who might want to come and do their cutting edge research here.   So there’s a need to communicate this new set of propositions for the brand while handling the traditions and authenticity of the place.”

From the City of Five Bridges to the Angel of the North

The Get Carter legacy goes beyond film rankings and enduring imagery, witness the outcry over the demolition of Gateshead’s ‘Get Carter Car Park’, which towered across the river until 2010, hated by locals but feted by non-resident cineastes (who, like myself, were able to buy a commemorative piece of rubble at £5 a pop, sold by the local council in a special tin). As the film’s director Mike Hodges has often said, the city’s iconic architecture across the river valley speaks in a way that other British urban centres lack in the popular imagination. The Tyne Bridge, often confused with its doppelganger in Sydney, is instantly recognisable and remains in silhouette on the logo of Newcastle Brown Ale, a ‘cult’ product enjoyed the world over.

The other bridges between Newcastle and Gateshead, who no longer function as separate rival neighbours, are equally as impressive and speak to the city’s pivotal role during the industrial revolution – William Armstrong’s Swing Bridge and Robert Stephenson’s High Level Bridge. These days it’s the ‘blinking eye’ Millennium Bridge which carries footfall between Newcastle’s Quayside and Gateshead’s arts quarter which features most prominently in the city’s regeneration narrative rather than trading on past glories. The Sage Gateshead, sponsored by the leading accounting software firm of the same name born here in 1981, has divided opinion as to its local utility and design, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any locals who’d prefer the derelict riverside site it now occupies.

Often held up as Tyneside’s very own example of the ‘Bilbao effect’ starchitecture, the bulbous building (nicknamed the ‘shiny condom’ by Private Eye’s curmudgeonly ‘Piloti’) does however give the river which divides Newcastle from Gateshead a more coherent sense of whole between the two halves, topped off by the Baltic contemporary art centre (a converted flour mill and the first regional host of the Turner Prize). The art element to the Tyneside brand and global positioning crept in around 1998 with ubiquitous public artist Anthony Gormley’s calling card ‘The Angel of the North’, which peers down from a former colliery across the A1 north-south route and is, for all intents and purposes now, the visual representation of the region at home and abroad, even emulated in a Thames Gateway context by the proposed ‘Angel of the South’.

The industrial revolution era bridges may remind Geordies of when the Armstrong works dispatched new ships to the world’s warring navies (the successor site will finally close its doors in 2013, BAE Systems has announced) or when the cranes of Swan Hunter built the (recently decommissioned) HMS Ark Royal at Wallsend yard, but they could be forgiven for having once looked to the future in the form of the locally headquartered Northern Rock and, ahem, Greggs the bakers.

When the full effects of the banking crisis became apparent, it was the City of London most feared for, but actually Newcastle who felt the immediate impact with the spectacular fall of the Rock. The Northern Rock, one of the top UK lenders by the time of its collapse, had long acted as something of a regional institution, led by a Ridley (the local squirearchy). The headlines that followed of ‘dark days’ of job losses weren’t unfamiliar in the city, but it was a knock for local confidence and a reminder of how precarious its economy actually was (ultimately it cost the region £800m in the end).

It’s also notable that Sage, the local success story, is led by a new French chief executive who remains based in Paris. The only other big brand presence in the city is Proctor & Gamble, who since 2000 have based their UK operations arm in Surrey, ending the longstanding headquartering associated with the region. It’s not as if Tyneside doesn’t have some luxury brands to speak of, namely Barbour and Nigel Cabourn, but these are rarely heard of it conjunction with it.

Since the 1970s however, the two biggest employers on Tyneside have been the Inland Revenue and National Insurance, which hardly speaks to most people’s perception of a popular brand. However, though not still produced in the city, Newcastle Brown Ale’s famous blue star and Tyne Bridge acts as something of a de facto recognisable logo for Geordieland (as far as that stretches outside of the city boundaries into Durham and Northumberland), backed up by the fanaticism of the Toon Army at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park. Testimony to that passion and brand alignment was the recent defacing of the new owner’s attempt to rename the stadium the ‘Sports Direct Arena’, with local academics warning that Sports Direct’s brand values are not those of a global football club with 120 years of history.

Is Newcastle a sufficiently international city? What could the authorities be doing better to promote it?

David Faulkner:

“Not compared with the likes of Manchester. However, we are active in the Eurocities network and in EU collaborative projects – URBACT, Creative City Challenge. More so than many larger UK cities. We are slowly but surely revitalising our historic twin city relationships to new agendas. We are now working more closely with the universities – but we can do more. We are starting to recognise opportunities in China – such as the leader’s recent visit and we are now working on the softer international links which can often lead to something harder – such as setting up International Newcastle.”

Andrew Robinson:

“Newcastle is already a diverse, multicultural and internationally-focused city. Its credentials are due in large measure with awareness of its football team, its new cultural vibrancy, iconic architecture, and renown of its universities and research in areas such as ageing and health. With the abolition of the NE regional development agency, and tight funding, the challenge is to create deeper awareness of its attributes in Europe and in key economies like China, where the city recently led a major trade mission, Japan, and the USA, and to consider the creation of a new, distinctive international competition, award, prize or honour to make Newcastle synonymous with excellence in one chosen field.”

Andy Pike:

“I think Newcastle’s changed a lot, especially over the last two decades, it’s definitely more of an internationalised city. There’s been a move away from the stereotypical boozy industrial hedonism of the past and a shift into a bit more cosmopolitan city feel as a result of investment in bars, restaurants and live music, though this is the kind of tilt towards the service economy that most big cities in England have experienced as a result of deindustrialization and uneven transitions towards service dominated economies. Migration flows have also played a big part, from the white Catholic cultures of Eastern Europe through to even Asia and the increased visibility of the Chinese community, which in many senses is student-led. Relative to other northern cities I think it’s long lagged behind in terms of visibility of black and minority ethnic communities, but it has since its culture-led transformation become slightly more cosmopolitan than was the case in the past and this is the success of regeneration, starting with the development of the Quayside and more recently the Ouseborn area, so we’re definitely seeing a more diverse city now with a more pronounced international outlook compared to before.”

Initiating NewcastleGateshead

The legwork behind today’s Newcastle brand falls not only on the city council itself (which this summer hosts the annual ‘Newcastles of the World’ event for co-branded cities) but is shared with its river-facing neighbour Gateshead. For all intents and purposes, Gateshead may have simply been the ‘other side’ to the city’s bridges since its Victorian formation on the northern boundary of Co. Durham, a grimy suburb and poorer relation (designed by “an enemy of the human race” as J.B. Priestley put it), literally a bridge and tunnel crowd.

Since the arrival of the Metro Centre in the 80s and more recently the Sage and Baltic arts centres, the town (which has the formal ambition of becoming a ‘city’ in the near future and only just missed out in the Jubilee Cities contest) has witnessed something of an urban renaissance and led to the formation of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative as the destination marketing body for the Tyneside city region.

The arrangement works well, propelled in part by the strong city offer and the need for on-going economic development in the recession-hit region, though its prominence and success has led some local politicians to propose a Budapest-style merger of the two councils across the river. In truth, by this point in history whereby local councils act among a diverse set of public agencies rather than as the civic institution primus inter pares, who collects the rubbish or issues library fines is neither here nor there – Manchester and Salford exist as twin cities and there’s no reason why NewcastleGateshead can’t just rely on a common place brand either.

When it comes to the Newcastle brand and its leadership, there’s other governance issues to be worked out. It was one of the nine which rejected the elected mayor system in the city mayor referendums held this May, it having long associated the concept of a big city boss as being closer to the ‘dark days’ of T. Dan Smith than the stewardship benefits associated with London’s unrivalled resurgence under its recent leaders. In fact, the name T. Dan Smith was probably aired more times in the run up to the vote than any other time since his death, such is the enduring stain on the city politics from his short reign. Geordies have a history of rejecting London’s plans for them when it deigns to ask their view, for instance the 2004 referendum on a ‘white elephant’ regional assembly. Neither the elected mayor nor the regional assembly gained much traction on the ground, outside of the chattering classes who would have once sold their grandiose visions from inside the Lit and Phil.

The leadership question, for the time being at least, therefore rests on making better use of the current arrangements and the city is trying to assert itself among the membership of the new Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) created to replace the longstanding RDA (Regional Development Agency) ONE North East. ONE North East was often seen as ‘Newcastle writ large’ and it was barely surprising to regional observers that the go ahead councils in the neglected southern part of the region elected to secede as the Tees Valley LEP, shattering what many viewed as a cohesive (by English standards) regional identity. This fate has not been confined to the constituent parts of the former RDA, as the LEP has seen its own share of internal turf-wars among the membership councils, with Sunderland (the end of the Metro line and an under-performing city for decades) questioning Newcastle’s right to lead the partnership. A rare display of unity was achieved in February however, when an alliance of agencies agreed to purchase the ‘Passionate people, passionate places’ branding from the departing RDA. As well as the usual menu of investment priorities for the nascent and comparatively under-resourced partnership is also a hopeful commitment to work on the city region’s image and identity.

As with the usual (some argue predictable) approaches taken by European urban centres seeking long term renewal, alongside heavy emphasis on culture is that of knowledge, with life sciences featuring prominently (as it also does in Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, humans as almost the new raw material of this century’s urban economies). As well as leading stem cell research, the Centre for Life occupies a prominent city centre location on reclaimed land and is part of the Newcastle Science City project which aims to regenerate similar locations between the university and the city centre (including the former main brewery) but has wobbled on funding amid the cuts, not least to the RDA. The authorities hope it will be one of the success stories of the limited finance on offer under the coalition government’s Regional Growth Fund, but the heavy emphasis on the long forgotten ‘Science Cities’ programme of Gordon Brown may lack long term potential (as shown by other cities long since moving on from it).

The authorities may view the investment in the Science City district and branding as meaning it remains the only game in town for its long term hopes and the quarter overlaps with that of the marketed gay village (or ‘Pink Triangle’ as it’s known), though some might cynically point out the potential for brownie points among the Richard Florida tick-box school of urban revival. Though shortlisted for the 2008 European Capital of Culture (losing out to Liverpool), the city was named the greenest in the UK by environmental charity Forum for the Future for its investment in EV charging points and support for Clean Tech firms. However, bidding against Sunderland among others in the contest to host the government’s new Green Investment Bank, the council’s leadership thundered on Twitter that the decision to award Edinburgh the bank’s headquarters was “clearly a pawn to prevent Scottish independence”.

What strengths does Newcastle have over other UK cities? How is it perceived in Europe?

David Faulkner:

“We’re a regional capital seen as a ‘top ten’ UK city despite being only 20th or so in population terms. A longer heritage than most except London and Bristol. A perceived Geordie “character” – adaptability, resilience, friendliness.  Strong universities – and recognised as being very popular with students.  Lively night time scene.  Cultural renaissance.  Collaboration with Gateshead – that’s unusual. Top short break destination.  Compact city – easy to get around.  Gateway to castles, coast, heritage.  Physical location – facing North Sea and offshore opportunities.  The rest of Europe would recognise some of this but still think of ships and coal, Alan Shearer and Newcastle brown ale, first and foremost.”

Andrew Robinson:

“It is a compact, attractive city, with good connectivity, excellent universities, a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene and good access to sea, countryside and other heritage sites and national parks. It has the feel of a large city, without the sprawl and the extremes, and an engaging interplay of lifestyles. In mainland Europe, it is well known in Scandinavia and Ireland as a tourist and shopping destination, whilst in countries like Germany, Benelux, France, Italy and Spain it is better known for its educational, research and cultural assets, with capacity to broaden this appeal and brand as a  European city with flair, energy and engaged leadership.”

Andy Pike:

“Newcastle enjoys a certain level of distinctiveness that other large post-industrial cities, particularly in the north, lack and post-deindustrialisation there’s a need to try and retain that distinctiveness. Most city brand-led regeneration work in cities tends to emphasise a one size fits all approach which leads to more homogenous ways of thinking and results, particularly around getting in so-called ‘starchitects’ to design waterfront ‘iconic’ public buildings. Within Europe I think Newcastle is always likely to remain a second or third tier city but they’re trying to articulate what’s distinctive about the city, which will be their challenge for the future.”

A roadmap for a better Newcastle brand

So how could Newcastle improve its brand? Geordie tact would tell you it shouldn’t have to with the offer it has, underpinned by global recognition and a strong brand partnership. But even the most modest on Tyneside would recognise that there are gaps and clear under-performance. As we’ve already seen, Tyneside and the wider North East has long relied on the public sector, identified as the employer and investor of choice in the post-industrial era, which rightly or wrongly in an era of on-going austerity and cuts requires the kind of master-planning and leadership we’re only just beginning to see in the new policy landscape (even then beset by the kind of squabbling comical to everyone but those affected by its failure). Claims that public sector dependence and (for want of a better term) labourism are hardwired into the city’s DNA does nothing for its self-confidence or external perceptions about the abilities of its people or entrepreneurship.

The squabbling mentioned is part and parcel of the economic geography and its mismatch with the city governance arrangements, Tyneside having grown from two sets of councils along the banks of the Tyne, the border between Co. Durham and Northumberland, a continuous built-up urban area ranked sixth in the UK but with the city proper as only the 16th. Perceptions that Newcastle fails to punch its weight and lags behind the likes of Manchester or even Leeds, will not be addressed while a mature conversation about how to manage the competing array of conurbation-wide political interests is not taking place. Ultimately new arrangements may have to be sought and the conversation started.

It’s not as if Newcastle has to give up any ideas of ‘making things’ either, the area employs 8,000 in the (oft-abused term) creative industries, from fashion to software, many in the Ouseburn district. But it does need to develop a better sense of self, one more all-encompassing than that which relies on comfortable stereotypes and harking back to past glories. For instance, in the way that Mancs can readily point to their city’s ease and way of doing things, what is the essence of Newcastle city living in 2012 or the Newcastle way of doing things which could be explained to overseas investors and markets? In spite of a large central Chinatown, Newcastle also needs to develop more of a welcoming international feel (in spite of the existence of a gay village now, many can attest that the city centre hasn’t always felt so tolerant). These are on the ground actions which could solidify the inner core of the brand which has received so much attention in other areas. In short, Newcastle needs to restore its claim towards being the Brasília of the North once again, even it never held it outside of the projections on an architect’s desk.

Some of the North East’s leading brands

  • Aviva
  • Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Limited
  • AMEC plc
  • The Go Ahead Group plc
  • The Sage Group plc
  • Greggs plc
  • Fenwick Limited
  • Jacques Vert plc
  • Hays Travel
  • Bannatyne Fitness Limited
  • Newcastle United Football Club
  • G4S Utility Services (UK) Limited
  • j Barbour & Sons Limited
  • Sunderland Association Football Club
  • Berghaus Limited
  • Nigel Cabourn

Some of the North East’s leading agencies:

  • Cravens
  • Orange Bus
  • Silverbean
  • Different
  • Drummond Central
  • Guerilla Communications
  • Robson Brown
  • Shout Digital
  • MHW
  • Uniquethinking

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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.