City & Gild: Cities are brands too

Craig Wills
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What is the brand of London, how is it being managed, who runs it and are we really capitalising on our greatest national asset?

On landing into Heathrow recently, I was greeted with the same multi-storey billboards for the Tower of London that have been in place for years. But a few smiling Beefeaters stirred little in me by way of pride or clarity about what London is.

Similarly the “‘appy go lucky” grin radiating from a jolly cabbie did little to create any uncliched expectations for what I should expect from this challenging, diverse, creative, passionate beast of a city.
So I searched for an answer, a published call to arms, the rousing cry to get behind. If the Mayor of London is the ultimate overseer then that seemed like a good place to find the answer. What I found at City Hall was a commitment to London as “The best big city in the world”.

One thing is certain: the cry of best sits right up there with “nicest” as a middle-of-the-road call to arms.
Back in the days of the GLC, when centralised decisions were spoon-fed to local London areas, there was at least a clear brand for Greater London. GLA, Mayor and London Assembly notwithstanding, enough of the power base has shifted back to local boroughs and councils to create a set of clearly distinguished zones with different logos and varying levels of council policies on safety, street cleanliness, parking fascism and so forth.

This democratisation to local London postcodes representing the thirty-two London sub-brands contained within the master brand of Greater London has created a strong environment for distinguished local brands. Lewisham, Kensington and Chelsea, Highbury and Islington and others all exude unique styles, providing characterful, distinctive environments in which to live and work and more subtle, unwritten codes that locals just feel and understand.

My concern is that the sum of the localised sub-brand parts does not add up to a bigger brand essence for Greater London. Above the level of local initiatives there seem to be plenty of pleasing words, but most of the ideas could be replicated in any ambitious city in the world. City bikes, check; nature-infused urban walkways, check; the Olympic merry-go-round, check; tall buildings with viewing platforms, check.
In the quest to be best, what can we really own, celebrate and promote before we fall into a trap of global homogeneity?

Craig Wills is the executive strategy director of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,