Practices of city branding have evolved in parallel with what researchers have termed the “entrepreneurial” city – a city that is transformed and marketed with the purpose of succeeding in inter-urban competition for capital, visitors and skilled people. This outward orientation of western cities emerged as a response to the crisis of the Keynesian economic model and Fordist mode of production from the 1970s onwards.
The entrepreneurial strategies and branding practices of cities have come in several overlapping waves. Early city branding endeavors were attempts to apply the principles of product and corporate branding to cities. As a result, city branding came to be understood as the management of mental images held by residents, visitors, and company representatives.
From the early 1990s onwards, the development of cities was increasingly tied to the idea of globalization as the prevailing condition of world. This was a period when brand managers focused on attracting mega-events and constructing prominent cultural infrastructures, a process that is sometimes referred to as “Guggenheimization.”
City branding as an open-ended process
Recently, new conceptualizations of city branding have challenged – and partly replaced – earlier approaches to city branding. For instance, the construction of Helsinki’s new eye-catching public library Oodi coincided with a trend that highlights the importance of urban culture and pop-up urbanism in city branding. Helsinki’s brand concept focuses on “people, action and encounters with impact,” fostering the city’s existing strengths and reworking its urban governance structures. Helsinki’s branding exercise constitutes the city as a platform and enabler of cross-sectorial collaboration and “bold experiments.” At the same time, it contributes to the production of self-directed and responsible urban subjects, who implement the brand concept through their own actions.
The case of Helsinki shows that city branding is emerging as an open-ended process in which different actors and assets come together to create future visions and foster comprehensive urban development. This understanding of city branding points to the convergence of city branding and strategic spatial planning, both of which focus on the management of spatial change.
New city branding practices promise increasingly inclusive urban development, but they also reinforce the entrepreneurialization of cities through the capitalization of urban culture and responsibilization of individuals. In order to facilitate the development of truly “bottom-up” city brands, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of urban realities. It must thus be ensured that the aims and logic of city branding are transparent and inclusive.
The text is based on Jokela’s research article that was recently published in Urban Studies