With the paint on the Liverpool 08 logos barely dry, James Pallister talks to the designers working in the growing sector of place-branding.
It hangs from lamp posts, it's sown into flowerbeds, it decorates the gable end of an eight-storey office block adjacent to Lime Street Station, and chances are it's made its way inside a national newspaper ad near you. The Liverpool 08 Capital of Culture logotype gets absolutely everywhere.
The logo has become shorthand for the Capital of Culture's programme of events and, through association, the city centre's regeneration work. Its swirling numbers and abstracted silhouette of Liverpool's cathedrals herald the city's year in the limelight. More than that, they are a high-profile example of the type of rebranding exercise that is gathering pace in cities and regions across the UK.
"Over the past five years places have had to work harder to attract investment," says Steve Nicholas, creative director of Creative Lynx. "Towns have to set themselves apart more than they have in the past." Nicholas, whose Manchester-based agency has worked on rebranding campaigns for Corby, Blackburn and Bedford, is one of the many creatives enlisted by councils and regional development agencies to give their patch a winning edge.
Advertising campaigns extolling the virtues of a location, and logos marketing a city, are nothing new. Think John Hassall's Jolly Fisherman on the 1908 'Skegness is So Bracing' poster for Great Northern Railway, or Milton Glaser's legendary 'I*HEART*NY' from 1977. But branding campaigns of the type shown by Glasgow, Liverpool and Bolton are more complex than just applying the veneer of a snappy marketing campaign.
Place-branding is something new - in fact the phrase was only coined in 2001 by Simon Anholt, former government adviser and managing editor of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Rather than a simple marketing campaign, the ideal place-branding exercise sees a new logo as a visual signifier of a deep-rooted strategic repositioning.
While the 2004 'Glasgow: Scotland with style' campaign focused on bringing tourist revenue to the city, other strategies are meant to attract developers so local authorities can sell their land holdings for as much money as possible - councils often lack the capital to redevelop such sites themselves. For example, Creative Lynx worked for government agency English Partnerships on marketing the 1960s Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield before it was bought by development firm Urban Splash.
Past the fluttering 08 flags outside Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, the creative director of local agency Finch is talking about the Liverpool 08 campaign. Paul Brown arrived after the logo had been designed but made his own modification: a subtle bevel to the lettering that gives the logo more depth.
The brief stated that the brand had to be 'unique and adopt Liverpool's personality' and 'be memorable, flexible and have a long shelf life'. The agency's design comes in 30 colourways, and copywriters and illustrators from Brown's office contributed to strategic phases of the two-year campaign. Recent advertisements in national newspapers are aimed at audiences beyond city boundaries. The montages of illustration and photography that feature in the 'It's Happening in Liverpool' campaigns are small elements from a large master illustration. "Together they are meant to reflect the 'big village' aspect of Liverpool; there's everything in one city," says Brown.
"Some councils expect to be given a snazzy marketing campaign and that's it. They think rebranding a city is about creating a logo. But I think of that as one-third of the job," says Sue Vanden, managing director of Hemisphere, a Manchester-based agency that has worked for Sunderland City Council.
"The idea is to create a story and say, 'We are on the road to somewhere positive. Do you want to join us on the journey?'" she adds. "The logo then becomes the flag that everyone rallies around, the visual marker that you can imbue with the story of what the place is about."
Hemisphere also recently worked on a campaign for Bolton. "We talked to a lot of people about the colours they associate with it," says Vanden. "No consistent one came up, which is rare." Vanden plotted out all the colours, influencing the striped design of the logo. And where does the bold slab serif come from? "The idea we got from people that Bolton was a bit like Morse's old Jag: a bit worn out and seen-better-days, but still a classy, comfortable character."
Citizens are not always the ambassadors of the brand that agencies want. A quick search on Google for 'Scotland with style' reveals an amusing set of photos on Flickr lampooning Glasgow's slogan. An empty bottle of Buckfast skewered on the railings outside a tenement is one image that a Glasgow inhabitant felt was closer to their experience of the city.
Similarly Liverpool has its own off-message citizens. Artist Alex Corina has instigated his own counter-cultural revolution in nearby Garston, and a Liverpudlian family have proudly declared their council flat the headquarters of the 'Crapital of Culture'.
John McFaul, creative director of agency McFaul, acknowledges that campaigns can sometimes feel too corporate: "It's so very 2008, so very advertising." McFaul, a native of Birkenhead, worked on a rebrand of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, as featured in Computer Arts 146, March 2008. The illustrations for hoardings and bus wraps are self-consciously about the region more than the city, yet fit within the branding and colour requirements of the Liverpool 08 campaign.
"The image of some of these places is badly in need of being brought up to date," adds McFaul. "We all know what Liverpool is and what it has been - all about pop music and football - but there's much more. There's a big creative backbone to the city and that needs to be shouted about, and the only way you do that is by rebranding'.
What next for place-branding? Sue Vanden of Hemisphere says, "An interesting challenge for place-branding are cities like Leicester where questions about national and local identity are played out. Bolton has 34 nationalities living within the borough, so how do you make all those people proud of being Boltonian? How we act with places like these will help define who we are as a country as we go forward."
While politicians argue about citizenship tests and British identity, designers and copywriters are busy tackling these problems on a regional level.