The case for the capital: What can place-branding do for London?

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

The case for the capital: What can place-branding do for London?

Edward Glaeser’s 2011 book, Triumph of the City, was a timely analysis of humanity’s greatest invention: the city. The release of Glaeser’s book roughly coincided with the moment when, for the first time in history, the number of people living in cities eclipsed that of rural residents.

By Jonathan McClory

This mass migration is set to continue, with the UN estimating that 66% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. 23 As they grow in size, cities have become even more important economic power-houses. The World Bank estimates that 80% of global GDP is already generated in cities. 24 Swelling with people and buzzing with commerce, the city has indeed triumphed.

In this age of cities, London looks like a notable success story. It vies with New York at the top of league tables of global economic performance, 25 and draws people from around the world to live, to study, to do business. Internationally, London’s reputation is perhaps better than ever, but what should London do to maintain its edge?

As competition for growth in a globalised economy intensifies, many cities are working to attract and retain investment, businesses, talent, and tourists by cultivating and projecting stronger ‘city brands’. City branding is an easy target for cynicism, especially if it is caricatured as an attempt to encapsulate something as complex and multi-faceted as a city in a glib logo, tagline or corporate identity. But that underestimates both the fundamental importance of reputation, and the insights and advantages that rigorous place branding can offer cities, as a legitimate addition to the armoury of municipal management.

Of course, there is nothing new about reputation management for cities. From Classical Athens to Renaissance Florence to modern-day Dubai, cities have always worried about their image and standing relative to their rivals. And they have been concerned not just with their economic and military might, but also with their soft power – the quiet diplomacy undertaken by a city’s parks, museums, galleries, restaurants, streets and people. In a world where the economic centre of gravity is shifting east, where digital communications are leapfrogging national boundaries, and where a proliferation of voices compete for attention, cities cannot afford to neglect reputation.

A well-regarded city will find it easier to attract overseas investment and court new trading partners.

A well-regarded city will find it easier to attract overseas investment and court new trading partners. It will draw students to its universities and welcome more tourists. With a strong global reputation, cities are better placed to influence international events or seize global opportunities to further their own economic and political ends.

Despite the clear importance of image and reputation to a city’s success, however, many people are intuitively wary of the idea that a city should worry about its brand, or spend time and money on branding exercises. The case against place branding is often built around the premise that cities are far too complex to be distilled into a single brand. By the same logic, cities are not products, so they cannot be treated as such. Can branding truly develop identity, differentiation and personality for a whole city?

I would argue that thinking about city brand can help to provide a clear, compelling vision for a city, which in turn can be translated into planning and action, and ultimately communicated intelligently to build a shared positive image in the minds of those who engage (or may engage) with the city. Functioning like an umbrella corporate brand (think Unilever or Virgin), it can project overarching values, whilst conveying specific messages to different market segments: residents, tourists, investors, etc.

When done well, place branding can be a powerful tool for transformation, development, and regeneration. Cities such as Berlin, Barcelona, Turin, Austin, Portland, and Singapore have invested in their brand, and have transformed their international image and reputation over recent years, with profound economic impacts.

But what could a concerted place branding effort possibly offer London – which arguably has the strongest city brand in the world?

London’s current claim to the title as the pre-eminent global city is a strong one, but ‘brand London’ has had a fairly tumultuous and stuttering journey from the end of World War II to the present day. First came the rebuilding of the city during the Marshall Plan years. Then the 1960s provided a cultural boon with Swinging London. But the subsequent decade, and the UK’s turn as the ‘sick man of Europe’, did little for London’s global reputation. During the 70s and 80s London haemorrhaged industry and the population fell. Growth picked up again in the 1990s, and the oft-panned New Labour ‘Cool Britannia’ push does actually serve as a useful marker for London’s turn-around.

The last fifteen years have seen the city build on this momentum. The establishment of a Mayor of London to act as a single ambassador for the city, the scale and diversity of the culture scene, sustained investment, a gastronomic revolution, and a roaring economy (financial crisis excepted) all helped draw capital and people from around the globe.

The success of the 2012 Olympics solidified London’s position as the capital of the world, and further strengthened the city’s global brand – despite a questionable 2012 logo and the strangest mascots ever to grace an Olympic stadium. The Anholt-GFK Roper City Brand Index, 26 which reports a global opinion survey on cities, backed this up, with London finishing top of its rankings in 2013. People have also been voting with their feet, as London broke records for annual number of visitors since hosting the 2012 Games.

But London is not invincible – no city is – and an improved and more consistent approach to place branding could help keep London top of the global league table and head-off some potentially serious threats. After all, reputation takes years to build but only minutes to lose. While there are plenty of small things London could do better in terms of branding, three major issues stand out.

London’s brand is built, above all, on the capital’s internationalism, openness, and diversity.

The first issue is the need to differentiate London from the rest of the UK. The growing divide between London and the UK at large is a well-established media talking point. The interests of the capital are increasingly at odds with the wider political discourse at the national level – particularly the uglier aspects of the immigration and European debates. London’s brand is built, above all, on the capital’s internationalism, openness, and diversity. Its claim to be the pre-eminent global city is built on those attributes – all of which are currently under threat from national political debate.

Yes, it sounds metropolitan elitist, but London is not a sub-brand of the UK; it is a global city, with a distinct international reputation. The city’s leadership should be more effective in nurturing and projecting a London brand that is distinct from the UK, defined primarily by internationalism.

While London will always need to keep an eye on its global reputation, place branding is as much about engaging with residents at home as audiences abroad. Like other world cities, London faces complex problems of inequality and social exclusion, with no easy solution in sight. Boris Johnson has been keen to tout the number of billionaires residing in London, but the city and its brand should belong to all its residents and workers, regardless of socio-economic status. Many commentators have highlighted the increasingly stark contrast between London’s affluent classes, and those being pushed to the margins. Ben Judah, author of a forthcoming book on London, recently wrote, ‘London calls itself the greatest city in the world but it is increasingly a city of displacement, with those losing out numbering in the millions.’ 27

There is undoubtedly a chasm between London’s strong global brand and the way that socially excluded communities experience and perceive the city. Academic research is starting to explore city branding as a positive/negative factor for the economic, social, and cultural environment of communities. Place branding as a means to achieve social inclusion is, admittedly, at an early stage of development, though London’s ‘7 million Londoners, 1 London’ campaign after the July 2005 bombings was deliberately intended to promote community cohesion in the face of terrorist attacks. 28 As a start, London’s leadership should work to understand how socially excluded groups experience the city and perceive its brand, and how a more inclusive London narrative could encourage greater civic participation, community cohesion, economic inclusion, and individual responsibility.

The third issue is the need to push forward the evolution of London’s brand. The city’s global reputation has enjoyed a steady climb from the lows of the 1970s; to maintain this, London’s brand needs to evolve alongside a fast-changing city. 1980s postcards of punk rockers and guardsmen say little about London today.

London’s brand and reputation management is about more than refreshing taglines and commissioning logos; it is a strategic consideration that should be championed from the Mayor’s Office. London needs to research current perceptions (both internal and external), assess the city’s strengths, weaknesses and soft-power assets, and use these to develop a strategy and narrative for the capital’s brand. In shaping a future narrative, London’s leadership will need to consider how to make the city’s brand more clearly distinct from the UK’s, more inclusive for all Londoners, and capable of targeting messages for residents, tourists, businesses and capital markets, without losing overall brand coherence.

Many of London’s reputational gains over the last two decades have been achieved organically, rather than through deliberate strategic thinking. The creation of London & Partners to promote the city as an investment and tourism destination was a step towards protecting those gains. The next Mayor of London should go further, integrating city branding into London’s strategic planning process, and giving it a senior champion in City Hall. And the London Assembly should track London’s progress. London’s reputation is a huge source of strength at present, but the city’s ability to remain a global capital in the future will be built on a commitment to renew and strengthen London’s brand.

  • 23 United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects 2014 revision, 2014
  • 24 see
  • 25 See, for example, Richard Florida, Sorry London: New York is the world’s most economically powerful city,, March 2015
  • 26 London and Sydney knock Paris off ‘best city’ pedestal,, 30 September 2013
  • 27 Ben Judah, Pricing London’s poor out of its centre is a recipe for social strife, Evening Standard, 17 February 2015
  • 28 See