Helen Palmer: No logos; No straplines; No slogans! Just culture

  • Helen Palmer:
  • No logos. No straplines. No slogans! Just culture
  • From the Archives Open Manifesto #7: Kevin Finn in conversation with cultural tourism expert Helen Palmer as they explore how culture defines (and brands) cities and nations

Kevin Finn:  Can you briefly define cultural tourism?

Helen Palmer:  [Laughs] That’s a challenge in itself—not to mention describing it “briefly.” The way that we [Creative Tourist] look at cultural tourism; it’s about positioning a destination off the back of its cultural offer. The importance is that people are making decisions to visit a destination, based on their perception of that place’s cultural offer.

That’s not to say that the rest of the destination offer isn’t important as well. Of course, it is. But it’s the culture that leads the decision-making. It’s also fundamentally about increasing the number of visitors and increasing the visitors’ spend—and about changing perceptions of your place. That’s how we address cultural tourism.

There is a school of thought in academia, which focuses on engagement with local cultures, which is how they define cultural tourism in a very quick, brief way. That’s important, too. But when you’re working in the sector, it is ultimately about more visitors and visitor spend.

When we talk about the culture of a place—a destination—can it be manufactured, or is it important to start with the truth; something that’s existing?

It has to be authentic. It has to be real, so that people’s experiences match or exceed their expectations. If you try and manufacture something your visitors will see straight through it. It simply won’t meet their expectations; they’ll be disappointed, and they will tell more people.

It has to be rooted in the place, the culture of the place. The history of that place is really important, as well as whatever the contemporary offer is.

Lets say we’re talking about a city—though it could be a place—it seems to me it’s in their self‑interest to foster cultural tourism: lifestyle and culture, but in economic terms, as you pointed out. How do you convince local government, or a city council, to embrace this in a holistic and a long‑term way, because it does have to be holistic and long‑term.

Yes, that’s right. I’ll give you an example of what happened in Manchester. There’s a Chief Executive and a Leader [who held these roles at the time of this interview]. The Leader is an elected member, and the Chief Executive is a staff position and it’s the most senior staff position in a local authority.

The Leader would describe himself as a cultural attender. The Chief Executive would describe himself as quite the opposite. What he has really grasped and understood, over the last 10 years—particularly, I’d say over the last six or seven years—is the role of culture in the perception of place, and how important that is in relation to all aspects of a city, whether that’s about opportunities for local people, local residents or whether that’s about people who are working in the city, but also about inward investment.

For lack of a better phrase there are soft elements which businesses look for in choosing places to invest in, and those elements are intangibles. They’ll have a list of requirements or interests—for example access to a skilled workforce and good transport infrastructure, those kinds of things. But their perception of the place and its culture could be a defining factor for them in choosing to invest.

That could be influenced by what they are thinking with regards activities their family can do there—if their family moves there—right through to what their employees or people visiting them can do if they’re based in that particular location.

It’s quite interesting, when you see local authorities deciding on spec to build some kind of business park in the middle of nowhere. That approach is perceived as quite out‑dated thinking now. Unless it’s something where you might have a cluster of businesses already signed up to move in, that’s a different matter. But building something on spec, when you’re miles away from anything, that’s quite difficult now.

That’s culture, at its broadest sense, and it includes what we refer to as the wrap‑around: the restaurants, the bars, the shopping, etc. All of those other aspects are just as important as whether they think there’s a good concert hall or good galleries, or theaters, or whatever.

When dealing with councils, you have to constantly plug away at it. But we also took part in Simon Anholt’s City Brand Index, which is an international research project. Cities are ranked based on six factors. They ask panels of people in different countries what their perceptions are of those places. It was really illuminating for senior people in Manchester because it gave them an opportunity to see how people perceive the city—including referencing other cities that are doing very well.

Actually, Australian cities did very well, as did Canadian cities. Obviously, a lot had to do with good weather, particularly in Australia—maybe not so much in Canada. Also, safety and a good place to live, a good place to raise children. All those sorts of things. There might be deep‑rooted perceptions about the New World, as it were.

It’s really interesting, when you talk to people about their different perceptions of places. That was a long‑winded answer, so I don’t know if I’ve answered the question…

You have! While you were talking, a thought occurred to me about the City Brand Index. I assume it’s a really good tool when speaking with local governments and city councils in the event of any push‑back around investing in cultural tourism. It proves you’re not making it up, not trying to push an agenda. It states: “Here’s an opportunity, and it’s in your interest to at least consider it.” By the sounds of it, there is a lot of work around cultural tourism already happening, and which you can leverage. But are there many successful models out there? Or, is it at a stage where it’s still developing?

It’s really funny. As I mentioned in my talk [at the State Library of Queensland, Brisbane], I’ve been technically doing cultural tourism for over 20 years. But it’s only in the last few years that it has actually been called cultural tourism. I think major cities—like London, Paris, New York—are perceived as cultural destinations because of the wealth and breadth of their cultural assets. They get a lot of visitors off the back of their cultural heritage, in particular.

Major cities—like London, Paris, New York—are perceived as cultural destinations because of the wealth and breadth of their cultural assets. They get a lot of visitors off the back of their cultural heritage, in particular.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing a good job on cultural tourism, but they are way ahead of the game, in terms of people’s perceptions, the number of visits, and visitor spend. They are always going to do very well on that score.

For other places, it’s been a bit of a wake‑up call in recent years. Those of us who work ‘with’ the public sector, and those who work ‘in’ the public sector, will know that you go through trends, the latest things people need to look at. We’ve gone through a long period of local engagement in the arts in the UK: local audience development, focusing on those immediate audiences. Particularly the museums and galleries world has been funded as such, those with box offices and a pressure to sell tickets. But there hasn’t been a focus on how to generate visits from tourists. Historically, the two worlds haven’t worked together very much, unless it’s been around a major event, for example like a Commonwealth Games, or an Olympics. It tends to only happen at that level of major event—and quite often sporting events.

The cultural aspect gets tacked on, as was the case with Cultureshock, which is a cultural programme I worked on for Manchester’s 2002 Commonwealth Games. Yorkshire had the Grand Depart for the cycling tour, which was a great success. Those types of occasions are almost forcing the two sectors to work together. But on a day‑to‑day basis, they don’t have a lot to do with each other.

But because it’s now a priority for the Arts Council England and Visit England, the cultural sector’s had to wake up to this. In saying that, I’m not sure that the tourism sector has particularly woken up yet. There are public sector tourism agencies, but the commercial tourism sector doesn’t see a lot of return.

I’m not talking about high volumes of people outside of capital cities. As you said, Kevin, it’s a long‑term approach. I’d like to think that Manchester’s an exemplar case study with the work that we do with Creative Tourist. In many ways Visit England and Visit Britain have validated that. But we’re just a few years ahead of the game. We’ve been doing work in that area, specifically with Creative Tourist, for about six or seven years now.

In terms of wider examples, I’m not sure that I would say that there are too many of them. I think I mentioned—it might have been in the Brisbane talk or the one that I did in Rockhampton—that there are other ways to approach it.

For example, the French city of Nantes is working with a performance‑based organization. They’ve created these really quirky films to show Nantes in a very different way. They’re actually embracing this and using it in the official tourism promotions. I think we’ll see some more good examples in a few years time, when things have bedded in and more people are taking it forward by doing different things.

Of course, when you look internationally there are some interesting examples. But what often happens is that they’re funded for a particular period of time. Then the funding runs out and you just watch them slide back, or people move on, or they focus on the next thing they need to get funding for.

That’s the danger. People lose enthusiasm and move on to the next big thing. I do worry that might happen, because it does take a lot of commitment.

There may be another danger. I read in a recent report from Deloitte that they estimate the Sydney Opera House will be worth AUS$4.6 billion Australian to the Australian economy over the next 40 years. That’s taking into account everything from land value, ticket sales, right through to its contribution to the national identity. I’d argue that’s…

I’d love to see that matrix of how they worked that out!

It was reported in the Independent and I think the newspaper was a bit suspicious of the report. But I’d argue that’s cultural tourism at work, probably at its peak, because it’s a large‑scale example. However, in those large‑scale examples, is there a danger that it could actually decrease investment in other avenues, simply because it’s a big‑ticket item? Is it possible for other cities and places, which don’t have a high‑profile landmark, to foster cultural tourism effectively?

The thing is cultural tourism is not about one venue. Yes, it might be the flagship, but it’s actually about the rest of the city offer. Sydney has a wealth of quality cultural aspects, and not just buildings—whether that’s festivals and events, as well as places like the Carriageworks, etc. It’s important to remember this is not based around one specific venue or attraction.

The thing is cultural tourism is not about one venue. Yes, it might be the flagship, but it’s actually about the rest of the city offer.

Of course, you might use one venue as a hook but it’s actually also about the content. There’s also a difference between a first time visitor to Sydney: The Sydney Opera House will be on the list, and they tick it off. But it might simply be they stand outside and take a photograph—and not even go in and see anything.

That comment was also mentioned in the article: a high percentage of tourists said the Sydney Opera House was in the top two or three things that they would want to visit and see. I guess my question uses Sydney as an example, but isn’t there a danger for other places, too, where city leaders might say: “Oh, we’ve got that covered because of our landmark building. So the cultural tourism thing? That box is ticked. We need to move onto something else”? In your experience, have you come across that kind of thinking where city leaders believe it is just a one-ticket item and then they’re done, moving on to something else?

We certainly went through a period in this country around about the millennium where major capital projects were funded in lots of places up and down the country. There was a sense of: “All right, we’ve got our big flagship,” Obviously, Gateshead has got The Baltic, The Sage and The Angel of the North by Antony Gormley. There are a lot of major, major, capital investments. But what’s been really interesting, is that people have realized it’s not necessarily enough on it’s own—that they have to work in partnership.

Partly this is a result of education about what tourism really means, that it’s not just about buildings, per se. It’s about content. As I’ve said in my talks, it’s about getting under the skin of a destination. So, if you’re a first time visitor, of course there will be certain things that you want to tick off and you say: “Well, I’ve done that. I‘ve seen that.” But it’s actually about getting to know a place and feeling confident to step through the door of those flagship venues. It’s also about seeing and doing things you possibly wouldn’t have thought that you would do.

The smaller scale, intimate, experiences are often programmed specifically with the visitor in mind, but actually have a benefit for locals, as well. Policy makers need to be educated, particularly to avoid thinking it’s about having one big shiny thing. The focus needs to be around what’s going to keep people coming back? And that applies to locals, as well as visitors.

It’s interesting: you frequently mention the notion of perception. When marketing cultural tourism in a city or a place, you’re belief is: No logos; No strap lines; No slogans.

It sounds like you’re suspicious of branding programs. But perception and branding have a very close link. How important is branding in all of this? In your opinion, how can you brand a city or a place?

I am a consultant, so I’m dealing with this all the time. I work with lots of clients and creative design agencies to develop identities. I’ve spent over 20 years doing that. My point about destinations and branding is—and I don’t know if it’s the same in other places, but in the UK—in the ‘90s and naughties, we went through a period where local authorities, in particular, believed that the route forward was to create a new logo for their place. This is the misunderstanding between the local authority profile and the profile of the place—and getting mixed up between the two. They believed they just needed a strap line. Frankly, I believe towns and cities up and down the country were hoodwinked by a lot of design agencies who saw this as a market opportunity suggesting to everyone and anyone: “Oh, you need a new identity.”

These design agencies would do a little bit of quasi‑research to find out about the essence of the place. Then they’d come up with some naff logo and strap line. I could reel off numerous examples. We went through it for Manchester in the ‘90s and got really lambasted for it—and rightly so. I think pretty much every city and major town in the UK went through this process, and some are still doing it.

Frankly, I believe towns and cities up and down the country were hoodwinked by a lot of design agencies who saw this as a market opportunity suggesting to everyone and anyone: “Oh, you need a new identity.”

It’s meaningless. Just because Leeds has a strap line that says, “Leeds. Live it. Love it.” What does that mean? How is that relevant to a local resident or a visitor with the associated logo? Edinburgh had the Incredinburgh debacle resulting in the head of Marketing Edinburgh losing their job. You can see it’s a bugbear of mine: “Suffolk, a curious county,” or “the curious county.” I mean it’s all nonsense.

That’s my frustration. I had a long conversation with Peter Saville about this and he has always said that good places don’t need strap lines. Places like Paris and London. It’s also interesting when everybody refers to New York with the I (heart) NY logo. People have misunderstood what that was originally set out to do. The I (heart) model is now used for every place, including Manchester. It’s seems like it’s everywhere and for every city!

Of course I (heart) NY logo was really about getting local people to love their local city and collectively do something to change it because it had gone downhill—so far that locals were scared of going out at night. Never mind visitors weren’t going to New York. That was a very, very different approach but it gets used as this example by everyone, and at will.

(In Open Manifesto #4) I spoke with Milton Glaser, who designed the I (heart) NY logo. And Paula Sheer from Pentagram, also did a review on the logo (in Open Manifesto #5). As you point out, the misconception is that the I (heart) NY logo was for Manhattan and New York City, but it was actually for New York State. It was designed for the tourism board—for the entire state—but it has since been co‑opted by New York City. Actually probably co‑opted by Manhattan, ever since it has been associated to NYC, as opposed to NY state. And it has been co‑opted by cities around the world.

But the I (heart) NY logo really represents an attitude—a lived statement. It’s an invitation to adopt a community feeling about a particular space or place. And the I (heart) NY attitude has become vernacular. In and of itself, it is, perhaps, a logo. Perhaps you could even call it a brand identity, but it is gone beyond that because it is more about a universal feeling and an emotion. That’s how I interpret what you’re saying, in terms of ‘no logos and no slogans.’ It doesn’t necessarily have to be a manufactured stamp.

Yeah, it’s that challenge where you’re trying to encapsulate the essence of a place in a single strap line because it’s never going to be fully representative. It’s always then going to be the result of generalisations. Actually, if you use it on another city, or town, or place, it probably would apply just as well. Slogans don’t have that unique aspect to them. We’ve just ended up with lots and lots of naff statements that are associated with towns and cities.

But you also get it with rural counties. And it’s a lazy way of looking at cultural tourism or place marketing. I think it’s an old fashioned approach and it indicates people don’t fully understand how to market places or how to go about commissioning it. That just disappoints me, really.

Does this apply to Manchester, because I believe Peter Saville, who is the Creative Director of the City of Manchester, has created an M icon? There’s no strap line, but there is an icon. Is there merit in having some kind of go-to mark?

It’s really interesting. I’ve worked with Peter for a number of years and he never wanted to have any kind of simple icon mark. I think in the end there was a bit of pressure on him to create something. He came up with the M icon, but it was never meant to be used as a logo. It was meant for specific uses, particularly when Manchester is doing work internationally and when you’ve got a lot of partners working on an initiative.

In this context, it’s a symbol of a unified city region, not just the city of Manchester, but the 10 boroughs.

For example, when Manchester goes to the property event held in Cannes, the M icon is used. Of course, there have been cases where the council has occasionally used it completely inappropriately, sticking it on job ads and things like that because, fundamentally, they’re misunderstanding what it was intended to do. But generally, it’s used quite sparingly.

Another example: when we had the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester the M icon was used as part of the welcome messaging around the city because, again, it’s a partnership of agencies working together and to be there as the host city for things like those major conferences.

So in terms of marketing a destination, let’s assume there is limited or no use of a specific icon, and definitely no strap lines or positioning lines. How would you then market that place? Is it through various communication channels that are specific and targeted? Is it through media, or what other people are talking about? Or is it testimonials from people who’ve visited? How do you market that?

It’s sort of all of this. The interesting thing is that a blanket message across different markets doesn’t work. Of course, it’s the same for any product or service you’re promoting. You do have to think about tailoring the message according to the market. When approaching this for Manchester, yes, we’ve set up Creative Tourist, which has its own identity. But we don’t just promote Manchester through that vehicle. We promote the north of England’s cultural offer. We never wanted to be wedded to, or to just be seen as, an official channel for Manchester. We’ve always wanted to be seen as being independent, which we are now.

We use lots of different channels, not just our own. PR is really important. The way you talk about the place is really significant and, through the cultural narrative, how you articulate both the heritage of a place, through to the more contemporary feel of the place, is incredibly important. We have worked really hard on this. When we do campaign activity, for example Manchester Weekender, those strong heritage roots come through.

We don’t shy away from our heritage as I think a lot of post‑industrial cities in the U.K. do, trying to reinvent themselves as shiny, new, contemporary places. There’s almost an embarrassment about our industrial heritage, but actually that’s what makes us particularly unique and it’s important because that’s what we’re known for internationally, as well.

We do a lot of work on the PR side but also in the campaign activity and how we draw through the content and use that content in lots of different ways. Adding to this, we have quite a contemporary look to the Creative Tourist identity. We use a lot of illustration to ensure we are not bound by photographs… Because what often happens with place marketing campaigns is there’s an over‑reliance on pictures of buildings, or people having a good time.

[Laughing] Yeah, happy people stock shots…

Exactly! They could be any city or any place. So we try to take a different approach with the quality of the content, but also with the quality of imagery—and all of that does come through, hopefully helping people identify with it more and in a way they hadn’t expected.

I believe a lot of tourism agencies over the last 20 years when talking about particular destinations all ended up sounding the same. If it was a city, they all wanted to claim they had this or that: for example, we’re near the countryside, or it’s only an hour from the coast, etc. You just ended up with this amorphous description of places in the U.K. that could have been anywhere.

We try to bring more of the personality through; what makes the place different from other places. We do that with any destination, wherever we work, because every place is different. It’s just, historically speaking, some places have lost their way in articulating what their cultural narrative is, or they’re simply hanging on to something from the past, something nostalgic, a nod to their heyday—and they need to change.

You talk about Manchester Weekender and other events or initiatives that—if we take Manchester as an example—suggest the Manchester brand could be an amalgamation or an aggregation of various independent but connected brands in their own right, those you’ve leveraged and promoted collectively. In other words, it’s tactical and market specific. So when a diverse range of brands are talking collectively about one destination, does that simply reflect diversity, because you’re coming at it from whatever angle you need, and depending on the cultural tourism you’re promoting? Is that where branding can come into play?

Yes. Also, as I said, Manchester is probably known for a handful of things internationally. One is football. One is, as we like to say, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. But that’s always contested. [Laughter] And music, particularly The Smiths through to Happy Mondays. I’d say actually Joy Division through to Happy Mondays.

Now that doesn’t represent the whole of the city, of course, but at least there is a level of international awareness regarding Manchester. And we have a job to do in changing peoples’ perceptions, that the city is more than that. We don’t have the flagship building that people will associate with the place, so people’s visual perception is often really out of date because the thinking might be: “Industrial revolution? There must be lots of factories and chimneys.”

Meaning: I don’t want to go to Manchester because it’ll be smoggy [laughs] or dull!

Once, on the train from Manchester to Stoke‑on‑Trent—world capital of ceramics, as they like to call it—I overheard an American guy talking openly.

The train goes through beautiful countryside and, although he was on own, he was chatting to anybody who’d listen. I won’t try to do his accent, but he was like: “Wow! This isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I thought there’d be lots of factories and chimneys.” And this is an educated man on business in the U.K. who still thought that ‘up north’ was just full of factories and chimneys!

Often, there are these huge out-of-date perceptions.

And we also struggle with the visual representation of Manchester. Liverpool doesn’t have that because it has its waterfront. It has the Three Graces, which is quite an iconic image. It also has The Beatles, as well as football. I think a lot of places will struggle with visual representation.

I’m sure actually Brisbane has some similar issues, though it’s quite a beautiful city. But I imagine people don’t visually know what to expect because it’s not known for having an iconic flagship like Sydney. That’s always a challenge.

Now I’ve forgotten your original question as I’ve been wandering around with my response. Oh yeah! Brands—different brands! [Laughter.]

The way that we approach cultural tourism is: ‘It’s not democratic or diplomatic.’ You don’t always promote the same perceived lead brands. You promote what is appropriate for the different markets and depending on the time of year as well. Just because a major gallery exists it doesn’t mean you will always lead with that as the story, because they might not have an exhibition that relates to the market we’re looking at. It has to be market‑focused.

The title of your talk in Brisbane had a rather provocative title: Cultural Tourism: Curb Your Diplomacy. One would suspect promoting cultural tourism involves managing multiple stakeholders with multiple agendas. In your opinion is diplomacy in general, or in specific terms, actually counterproductive? Or are we talking about separate things…

It’s slightly provocative. Often, the way the public sector has worked in the past—when it’s worked in collaboration—has been dominated by a perception that everybody has to be equal and that the profile, if they’re working in a joint marketing way, everything has to be equal.

That’s product‑focused, not market‑focused. That’s very much about egos at the table saying: “I need to get as much profile as them, and they shouldn’t be getting more profile than me.” We just don’t work that way. It’s not about who’s turn it is. It’s simply about what’s right for the market.

That is sometimes really difficult for people in the public sector to get their heads around, because they’re fundamentally used to working primarily with the public sector. And the cultural sector is more often than not funded by the public sector.

It’s not to say that there aren’t private sector organizations that one might work with, particularly the tourism industry. Even so, it is still very difficult for some people to leave their egos at the door and sit in a room and think of the bigger picture. It’s taken us a while to get to that point in Manchester.

I’m sure it’s also influenced by those who say: “Well, we’ve put this amount of money on the table, therefore we want to get this amount back.” But the person with the biggest checkbook doesn’t necessarily need to get the biggest megaphone.

Exactly! Actually, on the whole tourism agencies are set up as membership organizations. So people buy into campaigns. If you buy into a campaign, then you get profile in that campaign. It’s completely client‑focused and not market‑focused.

Incentivized for funding…

Campaigns help get information through but it’s often on behalf of a random collection of organizations. I’m sure members of the public understand that, to a degree. But we don’t operate that way. We’re not a membership organization, so we don’t have to include certain organizations.

We’ve historically worked with the Manchester Museums and Galleries Consortium which is not a membership organization, either. It’s a collective of venues working together around different areas. They are big enough to say: “Yep, fine, you get on with it. We know that it’s for the benefit of the city and therefore it will benefit us.” But it’s taken a long time to get to that point.

That actually goes to the heart of the theme for this issue of Open Manifesto 7: Enlightened self‑interest. Obviously, some organisations you mentioned have a self-interest, but it’s enlightened enough to understand that it’s also got to benefit other people, and the by-product will benefit that organisation anyway. The thinking is: “Because if it benefits everyone, it benefits us.” We’re talking about culture, but that must be a cultural shift for many organizations. Is this still a barrier for you?

Yeah. Many of those organisations are publicly funded and the funding situation here [in the U.K.] for the arts is really difficult. There have been significant cuts, which have impacted on all the funders of the arts. And sponsorship outside London is difficult anyway.

There are also people at the table thinking: “There’s going to be money coming out of this. And I want a piece of that.” So it’s vital to understand people’s motivations regarding why they’re at the table.

The majority of private sponsorship and philanthropy that’s going into the arts is in London. For some funders, if the Arts Council is seen to be behind something, they feel like they need to be at the table to demonstrate they’re part of whatever the project is, which is not necessarily the right reasons for being at the table. There are also people at the table thinking: “There’s going to be money coming out of this. And I want a piece of that.” So it’s vital to understand people’s motivations regarding why they’re at the table. In some cases the local authorities told them they should be there, or they feel they need to be there because of other people who are at the table. Then you end up with an unwieldy group of far too many people. And worse: whoever shouts loudest gets the attention.

All of them looking for an equal share of the pie regardless.

Or smaller organizations, thinking: “It’ll always be the bigger ones who get all the attention.” There’s a lot of that to get through. We spend a lot of time managing those kinds of relationships and trying to encourage other destinations to think similarly.

Obviously, we’re based in Manchester but, in the other destinations we work with it’s about trying to encourage those lead organizations, which tend to be local authorities or tourism agencies, to take the lead because somebody has to take a lead when you’re talking about cultural tourism.

The lead should be from within the cultural sector, but in some places it isn’t. So it’s about encouraging them to know how best to work in partnership and what the benefits are. If people step out along the way, then you have to just take that on board. We just need to accept that it simply may not be for them. The important thing is if there are big players in your destination, you absolutely need them around the table. There has to be an incentive for them to be around the table. And that isn’t necessarily about money. It’s an ongoing cultural shift where the larger organizations are encouraged by funders to think about how they support the smaller organizations.

Of course, in the private sector it’s really competitive but it’s a very different experience when you get into the public sector… For example, I was at a hoteliers forum just after I got back from Australia. Now, I’ve been at different hoteliers forums in Manchester, but this one was for a particular part of the city, so not the whole city. Actually, because they were a particular area of the city, they did seem to be more willing to collaborate. But if you take a general hoteliers’ forum, it’s everybody in and everybody for themselves. I know this might be a sweeping generalization, but there’s more of a sense of competition. There’s a sharing of information up to a point, but then commercial sensitivities come into play.

Thankfully, many of those commercial organizations do now understand they need each other and they grasp the importance of critical mass. They also understand how things in the city are impacting them as an individual organization, as well as members of an industry sector. Even as commercial organizations they have to think in different ways and talk to people that they perhaps wouldn’t have, even 10 years ago.

In terms of everything we’ve been talking about, does it matter whether we’re talking about a city or a place? If you scale this up to a country—what we refer to as nation branding—can cultural tourism in the way we’re discussing be successful? For example, in the 1990s, you had Cool Britannia under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s stewardship.

I knew you were going to mention that.

Well, that’s probably one of the more focused attempts at trying to create some kind of a destination brand around a country. Others have approached it differently, but Cool Britannia is probably one of the most memorable, at least in my experience. Whether it’s successful or unsuccessful in its objectives is a different question. But is it possible to scale these ideas up?

What’s interesting for me about Cool Britannia is that this was a national government attempt to reposition the country. And it’s really interesting when you look at the cultural people who were involved with it in the early days—bands like Blur and Oasis. When it started off the perception was the government understood that it wasn’t just about chocolate box heritage, that there was a contemporary culture being promoted around the world, particularly on the commercial music front.

But then they went too far with it and it just became naff. I bet all of those people who were originally associated with it now look back and cringe, thinking: “I can’t believe I was involved in that.” [Laughter] Because Tony Blair with an electric guitar is not the kind of image you want when trying to convey Cool Britannia around the world. It’s just not authentic.

It comes back to the fact it’s just a sound bite. It’s that kind of politics that we had during that era, that it’s more about the photo opportunity and the sound bite than the substance. It might have started off in the right place, but it really went in the wrong direction.

Visit Britain now has this Great Britain campaign, which they’ve been rolling out internationally. They’re using a lot of celebrities to endorse it, including actors and musicians. But they’re not necessarily people you would associate as being cool. They’ve got Stephen Fry, Julie Walters, Judi Dench and the stars from Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, among others. So they are internationally renowned cultural icons, if you like, who’ve come out of Britain and who are saying they like a particular part of the country. It’s a much more mainstream approach.

I find when government bodies try to get across the intangible cultural feel of a nation, they will always slip back into generalities because it’s quite difficult to articulate.

I find when government bodies try to get across the intangible cultural feel of a nation, they will always slip back into generalities because it’s quite difficult to articulate. The more you try to scale that up, the more general it becomes. I think that’s why you end up with these very general campaigns that can often go off in the wrong direction.

I’ve been to events in Los Angeles, which have been organized by—I’d better be careful what I say here now—let’s say ‘national bodies.’ The way that they’ve presented Britain is not necessarily the Britain that I know. It is hung on stereotypes. And that’s not unique to just this country. That’s every nation doing pro‑active tourism work. They will tend to hang it on those visual icons: the London bus, the Chelsea pensioner, the Beefeater, those things that are instantly recognizable. But you end up with people thinking London is the U.K. You go to America and people ask:

“Where are you from?”

“Manchester.”

“Is that near London?”

[Laughing.]

The response I have in my head is often: “Well, probably to you it is, but Manchester is a different world.”

What often happens is that those major capital cities tend to dominate the national perception and narrative about a place.

Yes, I think Australia has a big problem with that when it’s speaking to the international market. It tends to trade off very, very clichéd stereotypes. It’s a lazy way of approaching it because it could be done in a much more authentic, more educational, and more genuine way. That said, there are campaigns that have attempted to do that, particularly with regards to Indigenous culture. But it’s sugar coated. It’s stereotypical. The experience may align with a tourist or visitor’s perception in the first couple of days but pretty quickly they’re likely to see an entirely different story—which is the reality. Maybe that’s the intention. Grab people in and when they’re here, they’ll figure it out for themselves. Perhaps there’s room for an international dialogue, which isn’t based on stereotypes or clichés. Have you seen anything like that?

What’s interesting is that visitors are now becoming much more sophisticated. They are not relying on official channels or going into local travel agents and booking their holiday. My parents actually still do—bless them—because they don’t have a computer. Well, actually they do have a computer, they just never switch it on.

The market has changed so dramatically that people will generate their own research about the place. And particularly in the cultural tourism world, the likelihood of them going down official channels has diminished—word of mouth is going to be important, but they also want to find out their own information. Of course, you can see the sales of guidebooks are plummeting. There’s so much information on the Internet now that people will form their own opinion.

Now, whether it’s right or wrong is a different issue. I mean, I still am amazed at how many people still use TripAdvisor when for me, it’s not authentic anymore. It just simply isn’t. I think in its early days it was a useful tool, but I wouldn’t use it now. I just wouldn’t believe anything on there.

Then there are a lot of people who will still listen to a stranger’s opinion regarding a place and take their advice, rather than an official channel, which is quite an interesting shift. That’s a massive cultural shift.

Take the stereotypes of Australia, as an example. A lot of people who visit will never go near the bush. They will go to the cities and the beaches. So there’s a lot more that needs to be done in that dialogue. I think there’s a safety mechanism with people hanging onto those stereotypes and those national icons, because they know it’s a quick reference point. I think we’re a long way from ditching that. The London bus example is really interesting, because the buses are completely different now.

Heatherwick redesigned them…

Yeah. So they don’t look anything like the previous buses, but they’re still the red bus.

A few years ago I spoke with branding guru Wally Olins [interviewed in Open Manifesto #5]. We talked about nation branding, and he had similar views to you, that it’s perhaps difficult—or even contentious—to brand a nation, but the reality is that it will be branded through perception anyway. And when considering countries, they are going to be in constant flux, regardless. So his view was you’re better off trying to at least manage that process, so that you can help guide the perception. There is a fine balance between branding—as we know it— and avoiding the approach of: “Let’s just leave it up to the people and see what they say.” It’s really about management. One of the principles that I use in my branding work is: branding is not what you say you are, it’s what other people say you are. The challenge is managing the gap.

Absolutely!

I believe this is what you’re referring to, in terms of changing perceptions, but not using slogans. It’s a tricky line to walk, but that’s where it is. That’s where it happens. It means you can be more flexible, though. You’re not bound by one statement or one thought. You can move.

Exactly. Simon Anholt also does a Nation Brand Index, as well as a City Brand Index. There are certain groupings of cities that are based on perceptions of the nation, more than the city. African cities, Middle Eastern cities—they don’t score well.

I guess that makes sense, considering the power of perception.

As I say, Australia and Canada score well. In terms of the U.K., the perception is that we’re not very friendly, and that the weather’s bad. It affects perceptions of individual cities, as well as it does the nation. There are things that are wrapped up with the national perceptions that impact on an individual place, and these perceptions are almost outside your control. But you just have to work with that.

That said, even though the U.K. is not known for its weather, we still get a lot of visitors, because of the quality of our tourism offer and our cultural offer. It’s unique to us. There are things that you can work with and adapt to—but there are other things, like people’s perceptions of the Middle East and Africa, that are generational and they’re gong to take a lot longer to shift. And if a country is enduring political strife, that just reinforces people’s perceptions.

Also, people’s geography is often not very good. Africa just gets lumped in as this one place, rather than the reality of lots and lots of different countries, not to mention the differences between those countries. It’s just a lazy way of thinking, but it also demonstrates people’s general lack of knowledge.

You mentioned Peter Saville earlier. When I spoke with Peter a few years back [in Open Manifesto #4], one belief he mentioned about branding—and this goes to perception—is that, as a brand, it’s important to be in the news. It’s about being a news story, because that’s going to shape more perception than any official brochure.

If we go back to the topic of PR, of media—but also if you look at those areas, geographically, which you’ve mentioned—when we see Africa in the news, it’s usually not good news. When we see the Middle East in the news, it’s usually either a bit awkward or not good news. That goes to people’s perception of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Tanzania, etc. Again, what Peter was advocating is developing your specific news story. That’s where branding can happen, because that’s where perceptions can get shaped or altered. It’s not necessarily a traditional space that marketing and branding people will inhabit because, for a start, you can’t manage it, and that’s scary for them. But it also doesn’t give them a physical output, a designed artefact—like a logo, or a brochure. Marketing and branding agencies still seem to be addicted to an output, rather than an effect.

Absolutely, yeah. The tourism industry, in particular, is still obsessed with leaflets and brochures. The Arts are too, to some extent, but the tourism industry in particular. It’s as if when they wonder what they should do someone says: “Let’s produce a leaflet.” They’re not market‑focused, and they’re scared of making dramatic changes. Their default position is: “It’s worked in the past, so we’ll do that again.”

Most organizations are really well behind the curve when it comes to digital engagement. This is something we tackle quite a bit with Creative Tourist. That’s one of our strengths. It can be quite frustrating when talking to other organizations, places, clients, whatever, when they’re well behind on that journey.

The public sector is particularly well behind. Now, I’m not saying that the commercial tourism sector is necessarily at the forefront, but they’ve certainly understood the potential a lot quicker.

Many fall back to their safety net: “We’ll do what we’ve always done. And we need a website, as well. We have to be on social media, too.” But they say this without understanding what engagement with consumers is now about, or the importance of content‑led marketing, because there isn’t a physical output.

All bias aside, the fact Manchester now has two world‑class football clubs, and the messages this has sent around the world, and what that means for the city and the level of investment that’s come into the city, is enormous. Previously, when working internationally, everybody would just talk about Manchester United. Now they ask: “Which team do you support?” (I’m a Manchester City fan, by the way!) It’s things like that which can make a massive difference over a relatively short period of time. Yes, it still reinforces the football message, but actually, it gets people thinking in a different way.

From a perception point of view, Manchester United in particular—but I assume Manchester City as well—is seen to be an internationally successful business, a brand, which just happens to be a football club. That’s the difference. It’s that shift where people begin to think: “Whoa, all right. They are really savvy businesses.” In some ways, this could be a hook for inward investment, because they’re not just seen as a football team. They’re seen as a business. I feel this is the perception being promoted now, which I imagine is helping Manchester broadly. Which goes back to the point that it can come from any angle, to promote any aspect of any destination, as long as it’s articulated clearly in terms of the perception.

Yeah, exactly. The interesting thing about Manchester City and the investment in the club, it’s actually investment in Manchester. They are investing in a whole range of new facilities, to create this sports city around the club. It isn’t just about the club and that’s quite a different shift. It’s also quite different to how Manchester United approach it.

Of course, the way Manchester United embraced branding, merchandising and their international markets, they really knew what they were doing. They’ve got a massive following all over the world. And this brings in a lot of money.

Obviously, there are a lot of true football fans who don’t like the way that the football industry is going. That’s a whole different conversation. But certainly, thinking more broadly about backers of football clubs investing in the city as well as the team is very interesting to watch.

I’ll finish on one last question, and it’s a local question for me. I was intrigued when listening to the Q&A after your talk. You were rather scathing about the positioning of Brisbane: Australia’s New World City. I agree it’s ridiculous. But did the perception you had of Brisbane before you visited change during or after your visit?

It’s really interesting. I’ve been to Melbourne and Sydney a few times, but I’d never been to Brisbane or Queensland before. I asked a lot of people: “Do you know Brisbane? Have you been to Brisbane?” Not that many of my friends or colleagues had been, but those who had said: “Actually, it’s a really great place. I really like it.” But I didn’t really have a visual picture of what the city was going to look like. I thought it would be a smaller version of Sydney—somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, in terms of what it might look and feel like.

I was really surprised at the size of this city, which I know sounds daft. The U.K. is tiny in comparison, but I wasn’t expecting Brisbane city to be as big as it is. That’s maybe me sounding really parochial.

Not at all. It’s validating the fact that the perception of Brisbane really is unmanaged.

I also didn’t know about the wealth of the cultural offer. And I think this is something—I can’t remember if I said this to you Kevin, when we spoke previously—but one thing that Australian cities do really well is embrace the waterfronts. In the U.K. we’ve had a tendency to turn our back on waterfronts, particularly these polluted industrial rivers and canals. But we’re sorting that out. It’s obviously changing now and Birmingham was the first city in the UK to see the value in embracing their canal system and making it a feature within the public realm.

It is impressive the way Brisbane has embraced its waterfront and how important that is to the life of the city. I just spent a lot of time wandering around and watching how people interacted with the place, and how important being by the river seems to be. But what was interesting is that the collection of cultural organizations [at South Bank] hasn’t made a real connection with the river. It seems that their backs are to the river. I think there is an opportunity to turn that around. Of course, I don’t mean physically, but to turn that around and embrace their location.

There seems to be a great cultural scene around that precinct. I was lucky to meet quite a lot of cultural practitioners. There are a lot of very good people doing very good work, and that’s just not visible to us at all here in the U.K.

Having been to Sydney and Melbourne, I know the depth of the cultural offer of those cities, but we’re not really aware of what’s happening culturally in Brisbane. But like other Australian cities, Brisbane is really clean and feels very safe. I had anticipated that’s what it might be like. Of course, the issue around the lack of public access to wi-fi was very frustrating. That does need sorting out. But it has exceeded my expectations.

Aside from your—shall we say—distaste for slogans and taglines, I find it interesting that the Brisbane: Australia’s New World City positioning had no bearing for you, or your experience here. In fact, it’s probably null and void, if not misleading, because there’s no context around it.

I didn’t know about it until I was told about it. And then when I was walking past the information center in central Brisbane, I did actually see it. But I haven’t clocked it. It has no relevance as far as being something that might attract a U.K. visitor. I don’t know what it means. I simply don’t know what it means.

Cities can’t rely on—or stop with—a slogan or a tagline. It has to be validated. It has to be communicated on multiple levels. It has to be reinforced. I truly believe branding can be incredibly dangerous because you have to live up to it, and if you don’t it exposes you. You’ll be found out very quickly, particularly in today’s day and age. Whether or not cities employ destination branding, a slogan or a positioning line, it has to be given context, whether that’s domestically or internationally. For me, perhaps one of the core take‑outs from our conversation today is that cultural tourism is a long‑term dialogue to provide context that will help shape a perception. And there’s a lot of benefit to that approach…

Yeah. One key thing which is particularly relevant for Brisbane—in the same way it’s relevant for other places that aren’t capital cities—is not to compare themselves to someone else, to another city.

There’s no point comparing yourself to London or Sydney or New York. It’s pointless. You need to be who you are, and then as you said, Kevin, focus on how you articulate that.

I’ve heard people say Birmingham is UK’s second city. Well, it’s actually not. But what does that mean, anyway—second city? Does anyone want to be seen as a second city? Peter Saville would always say he always thought Germany was an interesting example, where you had a lot of cities that were very strong in their own right. It was more equal than somewhere like the U.K., where Peter often says London is its own country now. It’s almost split off from the rest of the U.K. So there’s no point comparing yourself to London or Sydney or New York. It’s pointless. You need to be who you are, and then as you said, Kevin, focus on how you articulate that.

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Image Credit: The Angel of the North by Antony Gormley / Shutterstock

Image Credit: M logo, City of Manchester, by Peter Saville / Manc / Alamy Stock Photo

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Biography

Helen Palmer has worked within and for theatres, arts organisations and festivals across the UK for over 20 years. She was part of the team that set up and delivered Cultureshock (Commonwealth Games North West Cultural Programme), the inaugural Manchester International Festival and the Marketing Co-ordination Unit at Marketing Manchester.

Helen is also Director of Creative Tourista company that works with cultural places and brands to develop clear future vision—sharing the knowledge, tools and platforms to engage and inspire audiences and visitors, combining a mixture of strategic thinking and campaign know-how.

Creative Tourist develops intelligent communications strategies that enable organisations and destinations to position themselves as places that cultural tourists actively want to visit. To put it another way, Creative Tourist bridges the gap between culture, tourism and the consumer.

Helen Palmer: No logos; No straplines; No slogans! Just culture

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