How a confident brand can transform perception

Hull

In November 2013, Hull was named UK City of Culture 2017. Many people including locals and the media raised their eyebrows. Once voted one of the worst places to live in the UK, Hull was not a city immediately associated with the word ‘culture’.

But in January this year, this downtrodden city with a bit of an image problem took 12th spot in Lastminute.com’s recommended destinations for 2017. Just above Montreal, Croatia and Japan, was Hull. At number eight in leading travel publishers’ Rough Guide to the Top 10 Cities worldwide, flanked by Vancouver and Amsterdam, was Hull.

In Hull, people celebrated. Winning the UK City of Culture title gave locals the chance to tell their story afresh, and share the City’s unique energy and spirit with the world. This would be the starting point of an unapologetic, perception-shifting programme that would make the UK and wider world take notice.

Under the watchful instruction of CEO and director Martin Green, the man behind London’s 2012 Olympic games ceremonies, a new city brand was to be built from the ground up with the bold objective to ‘Be reckless. Be colourful. Be transformative’. From the outset, Green’s single-minded ambition for the brand set the tone for the brave new narrative that was to come.

A particular challenge with place branding, unlike more traditional corporate branding projects, is to define ‘ownership’ of the direction of a brand. Where a board of directors or brand management team might own a commercial brand, everyone owns a city brand. With a melting pot of demographics, channel preferences and a multitude of stakeholders to please, fear of offending rather than the ambition to inspire positive change can all too quickly result in a design-by-committee, pedestrian output that engages with or pleases no one.

Hull

The answer? Get the locals onside. Get the buy-in of the people, the ones who matter and can help define the beating heart of the brand. And then build momentum. Hull 2017 was built from the ground up through consultation with all facets of the community, schools, businesses, the arts and social welfare groups. Protective of their identity, the people of Hull would need to be on board from the start to share the vision and beliefs for the brand and the City’s transformative year. Equally so, a place brand has to be a true and honest reflection of, and a proud speaker for, its people. Bringing to life the personality, identity and voice of Hull, without appearing insular, was critical.

It’s often said that through the journey of self-discovery comes confidence; being comfortable with what you’ve got or who you are and the experiences that brought you to that point. The journey to uncover that beating heart of what the brand would come to represent revealed an uncompromising sense of fierce civic pride. Of people who were unashamedly ‘Hull’. Amplifying and allowing the brand to take on – not reinvent – the very best of the personality of the people of Hull has enabled a truly distinctive brand to be brought to the market with boldness and clarity, and to talk and behave in a way that is true to itself.

Creating big change is by its nature challenging, but only by having confidence can you create radical transformation

The naturally mischievous streak, personality and distinctive tone of voice captures a unique mix of warmth, wit, spikiness and independence. It feels ‘of’ Hull and its inhabitants, making it one of the strongest elements of the brand. “Everyone back to ours” was the launch slogan, capturing the no bullshit ‘take us as you find us’ spirit of the original stakeholder groups. Often a little uncomfortable, people could love it or hate it. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But apathy would not be an option.

More to the story

To further inform the City’s brand strategy and sense of place, Hull’s rich maritime, arts and literary heritage might have been all too obvious to draw upon. However, in creating the narrative for the City’s future, and to plan for the 2017 legacy, it was also important that the City didn’t dwell on its past. The brand is instead balanced and infused with the sense of what the City wants to become, with clear ambition to create a future for Hull; an identity for future generations.

The brand builds around the sentiment of there being ‘more to the story’ of Hull – its people, places, and most importantly, art and culture. It’s an invitation for people to reconsider and reappraise the City. “Think you know Hull? Think again.”

The story of the branding of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 provides interesting learning for marketers. All too often we’re challenged with the fear of the unknown and it’s easy for clear ambition to be clouded and remain unrealised. Having too much confidence can also be a risk.

Creating big change is by its nature challenging, but only by having confidence can you create radical transformation and positive change. True confidence comes from a united vision and a shared energy. From 70 agencies, Jaywing was chosen to fulfill the Hull 2017 project because of that shared energy and collective vision for what the outcome of the project could and should be.

Critically, it’s how that vision is carried through the journey, with everyone realising the original ambition together. For us, it’s how we got to say “Everyone back to ours. Hull 2017.” 

maria.vardy@jaywing.com

jaywing.com

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