The Business of Cities: Rebranding for Urban Markets

Emily MoirAuthors: Greg Clark and Emily Moir

In the last blog of this series, we explored the fundamental role that cities play in business innovation, as identified in the Business of Cities essay. In this post we consider how businesses are rebranding for city markets and consumers.

The growing importance of the city as a marketplace for companies is driving businesses to boost their engagement with cities. Companies are moving fast to align their products, services and operations to the rhythm and needs of cities in general and the distinctive competitive advantages of individual cities.  As companies look to make the most of new city-based opportunities, many are rebranding their products and services under broad ‘city’ themed brands.

Big City Brands
Try googling ‘Smart Cities’ and IBM pops up; ‘Networked Cities’ – Ericsson is the number one hit; ‘Global Cities’ and you will come across the US consultancy, AT Kearney. The world’s biggest businesses are developing big city brands. Often, their city-brand identity displays a certain correlation to the sector in which these businesses operate.  Engineering firms such as Siemens, Arup and GE tend to adopt brands focused on sustainability and resilience, because their products and services centre around how cities can be designed to minimise and withstand environmental and economic shocks. On the other hand, technology firms such as Cisco, Ericsson and Hitachi have developed brands based on smart cities and networking. These companies typically sell the promise of enhanced city systems, which use data and technology to achieve integrated management and inter-operability.

A global cities brand is often adopted by advisory firms, such as banks (JP Morgan) and consultancies (AT Kearney). The ‘global cities’ label implies a commitment to grasping the processes of globalisation and understanding its impact all over the world.  Meanwhile sectors as diverse as real estate (Grosvenor), technology (Phillips) and the media (Monocle) have embraced the broad theme of liveability for their city-based branding.

Of course, some businesses have adopted more ‘niche’ city brands or organising ideas. Rogers and Partners, the London based architecture practice, ground their work on an underlying principle of ‘compact cities’. PwC has developed city offerings, including an annual benchmarking survey, based around the theme of ‘Cities of Opportunity’, whilst the cement and aggregates giant LaFarge has stuck to its construction roots with its brand and tagline – ‘Building Better Cities’.

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City Engagement
The cross-sectoral appeal of city brands reflects the changing demands of markets and consumers. But city brands are also useful marketing tools for businesses. They associate their firms with the ‘buzz’ around cities, and the values of openness, productivity and ambition that are attached to urban living. They organize ideas which can tie together the breadth of a company’s products and services: cities bring together customers concerned with the realms of climate change, sustainability, competitiveness, infrastructure, health, logistics and/or place-making. Philips, for example, has offerings in areas as diverse as lighting, healthcare and renewable energy. All are covered by its ‘Livable Cities’ brand.

Companies are building and growing their city brands by engaging wholeheartedly in the wider cities space. They are carrying out and sponsoring research on urban issues, often in collaboration with academic or cultural institutions. One example is BMW, which teamed up with the Guggenheim Foundation to create a mobile laboratory that travelled to New York, Berlin and Mumbai between 2011 and 2013, looking to explore people’s relationship with cities and public space. Other companies are contributing to dialogue about the future of cities:  the architecture firm Gensler has launched a ‘City Vision 2050’ initiative as part of its GenslerOnCities sub-brand, to analyse and assess challenges and opportunities facing the City of London. Similarly, JP Morgan, through its Global Cities Initiative (run jointly with the Brookings Institute), is hosting a series of fora each year between 2012 and 2017 on the subject of future economic growth in metropolitan areas.

Beyond Business
Some global businesses are even furthering their brands and reputation in the cities space by investing in ‘signature’ city initiatives. These range from city awards and competitions (such as Bombardier’s YouCity competition, which challenges students to develop a vision for the future of urban mobility), to benchmarking reports or indexes such as AT Kearney’s Global Cities Index. Other companies are sponsoring city-run projects and building urban-focused centres of excellence, like Siemens’ ‘The Crystal’ – a centre for ‘dialogue, learning and discovery about the world’s cities in London’s Victoria Docks. This type of involvement with cities does not come cheap – The Crystal cost Siemens around £30m to build, whilst Citigroup are paying $41m for a five year sponsorship of New York’s bike sharing scheme.  But the very scale of these investments indicates the value that companies are beginning to attach to their association with cities – the value of a strong cities brand.


About the Author

Greg Clark has spent more than two decades putting his passion for cities to good use, by advising and mentoring global cities, firms and institutions. He has worked with over 100 cities around the world and holds senior advisory roles at international bodies including the OECD, Brookings Institution, ULI, and the Future Cities Catapult. A prolific author, Greg has published ten books to date on cities and investment practices, with three more in the pipeline for 2016-17. And as Chairman of The Business of Cities research and intelligence group, Greg leads a small high calibre team that advises and reports on global trends and changes in cities. In his academic life Greg is Hon Prof of City Leadership at UCL and co-chairman of the UCL City Leadership initiative, Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University, and Global Fellow at LSE Cities. He has received international awards for his work from cities as far afield as Barcelona, Brisbane, London, and Toronto and in 2016, Greg was honoured by HM Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE for his services to city and regional economic development. Meanwhile, outside of the day jobs, Greg is an avid tennis player, wine enthusiast, and lifelong follower of Arsenal FC.

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