UN's World Cities Day: How would you brand your city?

Chitra Narayanan New Delhi | Updated on October 31, 2019

Chandigarh among the Indian Cities has, by far, the most organised approach to branding. File Photo   -  The Hindu

On World Cities Day, brand and marketing experts weigh in on the positioning our metros should take

Today is World Cities Day, a day marked by the United Nations every year to address the challenges of urbanisation with the broad theme of Better City, Better Life. This year’s theme is innovations and a better life for future generations.

While the focus of the UN is on sustainability, it’s worth looking at how innovative cities of the world have been when it comes to branding and marketing themselves. After all it’s a brand that create aspirations, a sense of belonging and uplifts people’s moods. City branding that encompasses the history, lifestyle, culture, diversity and infrastructure of a town can go a long way in rejuvenating a metro.

Plural Paris

This is just what the world’s romance capital Paris had in mind when it unveiled a new visual and brand identity that celebrated its welcoming spirit. The modern single stroke logo created by branding agency Carre Noir represents a nautical nave and the identity is of a city having a rendezvous with itself. The branding and imagery created is of a proud, beautiful, plural city. The brief given to the agency by the city administration was that it should encompass the services, people and heritage of the city and it does so admirably.

Austrian capital Vienna has always positioned itself as the world’s music capital and next year it wants the world’s ears as it pays tribute to Beethoven on his 250th anniversary.

But it’s probably New York’s rebranding of the city with the iconic I ❤ NY logo in the late 1970s that is a case study in city branding and how it could turn the fortunes of a place around. Much later, Amsterdam, too, managed to change its image of a sex and drugs city with its I am sterdam campaign.

Indian cities have rarely invested in branding. This could be because unlike some of the world’s metros, where the Mayor is the single point lead with huge executive powers, cities here are mere appendages to State governments, opines business and marketing strategist Lloyd Mathias.

City Beautiful

However, there have been exceptions. As brand consultant Giraj Sharma puts it: “Chandigarh among the Indian Cities has, by far, the most organised approach to branding — it has a symbol, the open hand that’s promoted on the lines of Singapore’s Lion Head.”

When Le Corbusier, the French architect who planned Chandigarh, conceived the idea of the Open Hand logo he did so with the idea of peace and harmony through an exchange of open and free ideas.

“The Brand Positioning of Chandigarh as ‘City Beautiful’ is used pretty well too,” points out Sharma. Indeed, the city and its denizens take pride in the well-planned roads and infrastructure, modern layout and strive to maintain its image as a clean, beautiful town.

A few years ago, the UP government, under then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, set out on an ambitious branding exercise for Agra through a competition, Meraagra. It was part of a larger project called Addressing Agra and brought together many stakeholders in the city in a bid to improve the infrastructure, looks, sense of belonging and identity of the city. The graphic design competition coordinated by the Noida-based institute Design Village and sponsored by the Embassy of the Netherlands invited citizens to present their view of Agra. The result: a spruced up city — well, at least, near the Taj Mahal — wearing the identity ‘City of Love’ proudly. Some fabulous visual identities were offered to the city in the over 7,000 entries it received, including one that is a tree of life with a canopy that has the Taj’s outline.

See some of the finalists here:

Sadly, none of the big metros has tried any such branding interventions — mostly, they have earned sobriquets organically. Mumbai began being called Maximum City after Suketu Mehta’s book while Kolkata got the City of Joy tag after Dominique Lapierre’s novel. Do they deserve these tags?

Maximum no More

Veteran ad man and active Mumbaikar Ramesh Narayan’s wry take on city is that it is a place where “Maximum taxes are collected and minimum upkeep of infrastructure returned.”

Narayan eloquently points out the paradox of the city. “Mumbai has the highest skyscrapers and the most squalid slums; it is the richest municipality yet does not show the money spent on it, has the greatest population density yet has the lowest voter turnout. It has the best work ethic and yet the highest number of deaths en route to work.”

So what should Mumbai’s identity be? “Resilient? Accepting? Apathetic? Or just enlightened!!!!??” he exclaims!

Lloyd Mathias, who grew up in Mumbai, feels that it has lost a lot of its *Maximum City* sheen over the past few decades with hordes of corporates moving headquarters outside the city. “The appalling civic infrastructure combined with the most expensive real estate — both commercial and residential — plus at least 5-6 days lost every monsoon, have triggered this migration,” he says.

He feels his new home Gurgaon deserves the “corporate capital” tag more now. “Swanky new glass towers at lease rentals a fraction of Mumbai’s have resulted in sizeable talent migration both domestic and international giving ‘new Gurgaon’ the label of *millennium city* and a cosmopolitanism atop its rustic Haryanvi origins,” he says.

“The spurt of startups has fuelled this over the past few years; quality infrastructure; six Golf courses; and active civic participation by the likes of IAmGurgaon have made the city an interesting option for corporates,” he feels.

Never say Die city

Kolkata, for its residents, has hardly been a city of joy. It is in fact one of the cities red lighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as going to witness rising heat waves. Sandip Ghose, chief operating officer at MP Birla group, who grew up in the city, feels that Kolkata’s past is its present, while it lives in the search of a future. He feels Kolkata’s biggest industry today is “nostalgia’.

Although compared to other megapolises the city’s history is relatively short — just over 300 years, it has been a chequered one. “From a cluster of three villages it became the seat of the British Raj — though more of a Trading Capital as the headquarters of the East India company. It was home to the Indian renaissance — in art, culture, literature. The birthplace of the Indian freedom movement in its more active and revolutionary form. The seat of education. From Box-wallah culture it went to the other extreme of having Communist rule for over 30 years — deconstructing the old establishments,” he says.

Now with the decline of industry, education, etc, it is becoming a nondescript trading centre, he rues. “Thus, in short, it is very difficult to brand Calcutta — except for its people,” says Ghose. “They talk of the “spirit of Bombay”. The term is more appropriate for the people of Calcutta — with its spirit of “never say die”, he feels. Ghose also points to Eric Weiner’s Book Geography of Genius where he talks about cities that inspire creativity. Kolkata does that with its chaos. So, the city could well reclaim the “creative” tag.

Capital class

Chennai has a lot going for it in terms of history and distinct culture. But on its 375th anniversary, it was a corporate group — the Murugappa group — that tried to give the city an identity with its catchy Madras Song that captured the unique character of the city. More can easily be done.

Meanwhile, if any city in India needs branding, it is National Capital Delhi, which is getting rather notorious for its air pollution. Giraj Sharma, who runs a blog called State of Delhi, laments that Delhi has no such approach to it’s branding. And that could be because it has so much history that Branding Delhi will be a difficult proposition indeed.

However, that should not be the excuse of not branding a city. If given a chance — I would brand Delhi as the ’City with a Heart’ — taking a leaf from ‘Dilli Hai Dilwalon Ki’! That’s what the good Old Delhi used to be and for all you know, this branding may just become the rallying point of Delhi becoming a better city!

And that actually sums up pretty well why branding is really necessary for a city to raise its standards. If Chandigarh ‘s City Beautiful line could motivate its citizens to keep the place clean, then by giving a quality to our other cities we actually may elevate them.

We owe it to our cities. What do you think?

Published on October 31, 2019

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