The City as a Brand

The Brand Challenge (A chapter from the book)

By JT Singh and Jeremy Hildreth

How many cities can you name? How many cities mean something to you?What are your associations with the cities you that you know about, or know of? Are your associations mental or visceral? What sounds, flavours, and mind’s-eye images do they include? Are they promises of an imagined experience you might have, or recollected impressions from actual past exposure?

Do you have a sense of the people in a certain city, and what their lives are like there? Do you know someone there personally? Or maybe you live there yourself, or have lived there. What does (or might) it feel like to be in one these cities you’re aware of? What happens to you there? What landmarks would you see? What experiences would you have? What food would you eat? What moods and emotions would the city subject you to? Tranquility? Overstimulation? Boredom? Frustration? Elation?

Of cities you don’t know firsthand, how much have you heard or read about them? Were these snippets intriguing, or off-putting to you? Foreign-seeming, or familiar? How much do you respect these cities? Which ones would you like to visit, to live in, to work or do business in, go to school in, or even run away to for awhile (for a city can be an object of fantasy…or not)? Why do you think you feel one way about City A and another way about City B?

The realm explored by questions like these: that’s the realm of city brands, or what we usually prefer to call urban identity. Before we explore this realm, let’s define two central terms: city brand, and city branding. Significantly, when we say Rome has a stronger city brand than Rangoon, Rochester, or Riga, all we are saying is that that Rome means more to more people around the world (the city’s outsiders; we’ll discuss the relevance of outsiders and insiders shortly). Simply put, a city with a stronger urban identity is more evocative and conjures more associations – and more positive, generally (but not always), and more specific ones – in people’s hearts and minds.

City branding – as an active verb – is the craft of shaping the meanings and associations people have with cities for the purposes increasing quality of life or fostering economic development.


“Brand” and “branding” are words that come from commerce. We are used to using them in that context. So it is worthwhile to spend a minute comparing the ways in which brand and branding operate differently in the context of urbanism.

To begin with, compared to corporations or products, cities can sustain very mixed and complex brand images. Corporations, if their reputations become too tarnished, may go out of business or chopped up and sold off in parts. But cities can and do persist for decades with tremendous black marks on their reputations. Cities, more than corporations, can be well-regarded and prosperous in one aspect while being condemned or poorly regarded in others; Rio de Janeiro is an almost exaggerated example of this kind of reputational dichotomy, being, in modern times, nearly as widely known for its flaws as for its strengths. And unlike commercial businesses, cities never entirely lose their “customer base”: even when they go bankrupt, like Detroit, they do not just fall off the map; people may move away from a place (or resist moving to it), but hardly ever does a city’s population disappear entirely.

When it comes to brand and reputation management, cities and companies are utterly distinct beasts. A city can’t decide, in the way that a firm does, to focus on one line of business, to stand for something philosophically or commercially, to adopt a certain personality or to position itself neatly according to market research. Any big gestalt idea that does circulate about a city – Paris and romance, for example – emerges over a long period of time; such seemingly simplistic “positionings” really cannot, for practical reasons, be artificially constructed or shamelessly promoted (and for moral reasons should not be, anyway).

At the heart of the matter is the fact that the ability to alter corporate identity is concentrated in the hands of the company’s management. By contrast, the power to influence urban identity is distributed among many actors: mayors and city councils, urban planners, architects, property developers, transportation authorities, neighbourhood associations, airport administrators, tourism and investment promoters, major employers, exporters, universities…and even individual citizens.

To us, the distributed responsibility for urban identity is exciting. The fact that any number of actors, working in concert or independently, can choose to grapple with the issues of urban identity without asking anyone else for permission means that good ideas and transformative initiatives can come from many sources, and that these activities can be as a grand and ambitious as the actor can manage.

An paramount example: Las Vegas, Nevada is home to a corporation that is currently rising to the occasion in grabbing the mantle of urban identity shaping. The Downtown Project is a $350 million programme led (and chiefly funded) by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappo’s, an outrageously successful American mail order shoe company. In 2011, Hsieh was looking to move his growing company away from its foundations in Las Vegas, to somewhere where Hsieh could create a self-contained compound for employees like the ones made famous by Facebook, Apple and Google.

Brilliantly, however, Hsieh decided he preferred to try to create the benefits of these within an existing urban environment. He purchased blocks and blocks of real estate at the downtrodden end of the Las Vegas strip, and got to work, heavily influenced by Edward Glaeser’s ideas about the value of density and community. Hsieh believes: “If you bring entrepreneurial and creative people from diverse backgrounds and networks together into a community that has a bias to share and collaborate, the magic will happen on its own….[and] rather than maximizing short-term return on investment, we maximize long-term return on community.”

We applaud Tsieh’s efforts, and hasten to add that any city actor who wishes to take effective deliberate action to develop a city’s urban identity or “brand” must take cognizance of a few realities intrinsic to cities.

To read the remaining 25 pages, you can email us to request the PDF. If we like you (please provide a compelling reason), we will be more than happy to send it over 😉