How cities are challenging nation branding
There is an obvious distinction between national identity and nation branding; the former being organic, fluid and long-term, while the latter being managed, contrived and often short-term. Where national identity is an ever-evolving narrative stretching from a country’s history and origins right up to its contemporary culture, nation branding is rather fixed and deliberate, usually seeking to leverage only specific aspects of national identity for a particular outcome. In both cases the result is an articulation of differentiation.
But while each convey similar themes, nation branding often embraces the most stereotypical cliches to present a pre-packaged experience or a set of simple value propositions targeting the international business community. The intent is to primarily boost tourism and inward investment. In short, national identity is cultural whereas nation branding is commercial. Yet, even though they are very much intertwined, the nuances of national identity are far more complex and deep.
For example, when you consider France what do you think? Of course, the answer will be individual but will most likely include the Eiffel Tower, Paris, romance, its cultural contribution to the world, Asterix, red lipstick, multiculturalism, croissants, perfume, corruption, cycling, revolution, Citroen, fashion, national pride, Les Misérables, rugby, the French tricolour, among many, many other aspects. It is an aggregation of numerous things which have been promoted, experienced or exposed to over many years. But something interesting is happening.
In recent years, some cities have attracted far more attention when it comes to national identity. Just consider Sydney, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Istanbul, New York, Rio, Dubai, Berlin, Seoul, Dublin, Shanghai, etc. While they are still associated with their native country, these cities have successfully managed to merge national identity with deliberate place branding. And it feels incredibly intentional because not all of them are capital cities, which one might assume would be an obvious explanation for this development. Instead, cities are acutely aware of the significant value in positioning themselves in a particular way on a national and international platform. So much so, it’s not far fetched to entertain the idea that cities are eclipsing countries, in terms of international recognition—and branding. And it’s interesting to note that all of this is happening in an organic and managed way.
City brands have been developing naturally over a very long time due to their contribution to society on multiple levels. But they have also been strategic in deliberately differentiating themselves and, as a result, many have benefited from the admiration and attention of visitors and onlookers alike. This is often bolstered by the values cities espouse and uphold as a community. The difference now is that some are also beginning to consider themselves as independent.
For anyone sceptical of this claim consider Brexit. As soon as the referendum results were announced London seriously (and vocally) began wondering if the city could somehow remain in Europe—independent of the rest of Britain: a city with its own identity and its own brand; a city with its own set of values (cultural and commercial), which appeared inconsistent with the rest of Britain. For a long time London has positioned itself as a cultural, financial and commercial powerhouse and has always understood the value of this positioning. Like other major cities, through deliberate means and determined focus, London has been developing an independent brand which is recognised the world over. But through the lens of the UK’s newly emerging national identity, it remains to be seen whether Brexit will threaten brand London.
The rise of cities as independent brands is likely to intensify and collectively continue, due to their generally shared philosophies, approaches and strategies. As nationalism takes hold, significant cities remain global hubs—the anthesis of the more inward protectionism promoted by nationalism. Obviously, cities have their own issues and concerns, and none escape serious social problems, but they have increasingly become beacons of progressive thinking awash with open values that embrace diversity, optimism and opportunity. And the most successful cities have combined commercial imperatives with cultural values, delivered through a balance of organic and managed means. This attracts like-minded people, which in turn further highlights the widening gulf between nationalism and ‘citism’.
In this environment, it’s becoming apparent that successful cities continue to be more dynamic; more agile; more sensitive to heritage, values and individual rights; more aware of economic imperatives; more conscious of the future; and more open to foreign ideas. Cities have always been a microcosm of national identity mixed with nation branding, but as the world becomes ever more divisive, we can learn a lot from the rise of the independent city.