Branding a City

Cities around the world are actively competing for visitors, so being able to market a destination effectively has become big business. But marketing a destination effectively is extremely difficult. With most products that come to market, the manufacturer can closely control the composition and behaviour of the product and has some influence on the target audience’s reaction to it. This is much more difficult when the product is a living, breathing place with its own ideas about what it is and what it wants to become. And to compound the difficulty, as well as not being able to closely control the composition or behaviour of the product, cities have pre-existing reputations that will affect the way new information is received.

Considering the difficulty inherent in trying to control the branding of something as complex as a city, it’s little surprise that many campaigns end in failure. There have been some notable successes however…


Paris has a well-established global profile, which has many facets. When the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau were updating the city’s official logo last year, they could have chosen to focus on Paris’ intriguing history, connection with romance or its chic. Instead, they went with a minimalistic approach because to focus on any one aspect of the brand would be to make poor use of the others. This logic also explains the success of other minimalist campaigns like London’s LDN and I Love New York. Not every destination is able to market itself from such a strong position however…


Barcelona didn’t use to have the enormous profile that it has today. The city’s increase in prominence since the 1980s is one of destination branding’s great successes. So how did they achieve it? The answer lies in their following of the ‘place-making’ principle that is also at the heart of other success stories: first create the best city you can, and then tell people about it. When the authorities in Barcelona were creating their strategy, they started by bringing together the city’s many stakeholders and deciding together on what type of place they wanted Barcelona to become. They decided to build, on excellent foundations, a beautiful and dynamic urban environment that plays to its own strengths, which has great infrastructure and great opportunities for all kinds of people. Selling the place is then a simple matter of gaining exposure – in the case of Barcelona this has been achieved by hosting lots of international events, advertising itself carefully and making it as easy as possible for people to visit.


When the city of Barcelona decided to start deliberately shaping its own brand, it was able to capitalise on its rich history and its beautiful Mediterranean environment. When Dubai set about growing its profile internationally during the 1960s, it started with few such advantages – but it did have lots of oil money. The city therefore ploughed its newfound wealth into the desert, reinventing itself as a glittering metropolis, and has been working hard ever since to encourage visitors. It’s now easy to get to via one of the world’s finest airlines, there’s air conditioning everywhere and it’s a thriving, low-tax centre of business. Most of the primary objections to visiting have been deliberately dismantled through modifications to the city itself, which is indeed a powerful strategy.

Nevertheless, Dubai still faces an intriguing challenge; how does ‘the city at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa’ find a way to brand itself that’s broad enough to appeal to all its audiences, but which still says something true about itself? Currently, the city’s marketing material leans heavily on its ease of doing business and on its opulence. Whether this can form the basis of a sustainable brand remains an open question, but for now the city’s visitor numbers certainly look very healthy.

As competition for visitors continues to increase, the incentives for cities to more actively manage their brands also increases. Over the next few years we can expect to see destination marketing becoming more and more noticeable – if we know what we’re looking for. So the next time someone asks where you’re going on your holidays, take a moment to think just how much painstaking work has gone into crafting your answer.



We hope you enjoyed reading some of our thoughts on destination marketing. We regularly blog on subjects ranging from communication to technology to culture, and all kinds of other things in between. Cadence delivers bespoke communication and marketing solutions to some of the biggest names in global business, and offers a range of services that can be tailored to suit any budget. Get in touch on 020 7043 8847 to see what we can do for you. See you next time!

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