City Branding: I’m Loathing It?

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Branding

Does the map precede the territory, or does the territory precede the map? That was Jean-Paul Baudrillard’s rhetorical question in his 1994 book Simulacra and Simulation. This quote is relevant for two reasons: postmodern society is defined by advertising and a replacement of reality with an image of what’s real; and modern states are in a constant search to find their ‘image’ or, more precisely, the image that attracts the right people. However dangerous this may be (we’ll discuss this later), location branding has become increasingly prevalent in modern society. Today we’ll be discussing one of the more interesting location branding projects alongside the inherent dangers that come with identifying a place under such strict characteristics.

The Hague

You’d be forgiven for thinking The Hague was not a city but simply a centre for international morality, such is the power of the brand. The Hague is, in fact, a city in the Netherlands which hosts both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court; those are but two reasons why the city has the moniker ‘The City of Peace and Justice.’ The city often hosts important international events that welcome businesses, NGOs, students and even world leaders. It’s title of ‘City of Peace and Justice’ was cleverly used as leverage for hosting conferences such as 2014’s Nuclear Security Summit.

By combining its impressive history (the International Court of Justice was opened in the Hague in 1945) with modern branding, the Hague has become synonymous with justice; what better place to deliver a message on peace or ethics than the Hague? The brand is so strong, weight is added to an argument, discussion or conference simply by it being delivered from the historic city.

The Hague’s branding project began back in 2006 with the general aims of attracting private investment and tourists, and improving the image of the Hague globally. The plan appears to have worked; a Guardian report said:

“If you’re putting together any sort of convention or event around the theme of justice or security, you won’t think far beyond the Hague as a destination. Last year, this city of less than half a million hosted 135 international conferences, a 50% increase from 2015; on average, a conference lasted four days and drew 279 visitors, each of whom spent €1,200 during their visit.”

The report goes on to mention how Hague officials actively encourage certain organisations to move into the city to bolster their ethical message: “the International Criminal Court obtained its first permanent premises there two years ago.” What other official bodies of justice will the city attract?

The Dangers

National and regional identities are a confusing conglomeration of chance, history and location. Branding, on the other hand, is about neatly packaging an idea into an easily digestible feeling. How could one possibly condense down a nation’s identity?

Let’s look at an example of a country where branding is suffering due to its complicated internal dialogue: the UK. Recent branding campaigns like the Paddington Bear 2 film tie-in from VisitBritain paints a picture of London as full of quintessential parks, marmalade sandwiches and Georgian terraced houses. The reality of London is, in fact, vibrant multiculturalism, areas dominated by council blocks from the 70s, and being sworn at by angry bikers. The branding for places like London could make large sections of the society feel essentially forgotten or unwanted; this feeling of abandonment extends out beyond London’s less polished areas into many of UK’s cities. The result? Arguably the UK’s decision to vote ‘leave’ in the EU referendum. When marginalised through poverty and lack of investment, and abandoned by the country’s perceived identity (through branding), ‘taking back control’ seems to look like a message which speaks to the resentment many areas of the UK feel.   

For leave voters, the argument of ‘taking back control’ was framed around the feeling of oppression; arguably, the vote was more about reclaiming the independent identity taken away by the UK government’s austerity package and lack of investment in former industrial towns that began in the late 70s; Will Davies of the Political Economy Research Centre wrote:

Thatcherism gutted them [areas in the UK that voted ‘leave’ in the EU referendum] with pit-closures and monetarism but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.”

Brexit is one example of a political issue that forms part of a nation’s defining character – in the UK we could now be defined as ‘divided’ due to our near 50/50 split vote in the EU referendum. In terms of branding, ‘divided’ is not such an easy characteristic to work with. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly into the UK’s brand identity.

Essentially, nations are so complex and liquid that it’s extremely difficult to distil that down into a digestible message. Simply, the UK is so much more than Oxbridge, the BBC and the Royal Family. It’s former coal mining towns, Alan Partridge and Bovril.  

Are we, therefore, in a post-branded world? Are consumers beginning to see through the smokescreen of city or nation branding?

Interested in studying an HND in business or travel and tourism? Contact HND Insider today for free, impartial advice from one of our course advisors.

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