Ank Hendriks on How Utrecht Uses City Branding to Promote Healthy Urban Living

Utrecht is one of the inspiring place branding stories which will be shared at the Nordic Place Branding Conference 2020, this November. Utrecht city marketing coordinator, Ank Hendriks in this interview gives us a glimpse into the city’s brand positioning surrounding “healthy urban living”.

The interview is part of a special series with speakers of the Nordic Place Branding Conference – more information here.

Ank, do you remember the first time you heard about “branding” in the context of cities or regions? What got you interested?

I remember a few defining moments and experiences that made clear to me that branding can be very relevant for cities and regions. One was the Eindhoven region that came out from a very tough economic period, branding itself as Brainport.

Another insight was our participation as Utrecht in the Urbact city logo project about city branding, where we learned all about place branding. And partly as an extension to that, Oslo’s brand manager, Øyvind Såtvedt presenting their brand model at a Dutch city marketing conference.

City branding interests me because it connects branding with strategic thinking, long-term goals and broad partnerships, which strengthen each other.

Can you tell us about Utrecht’s place brand remodeling exercise?

In Utrecht, for some time it was hard to get broad support from the main companies and partners for one brand positioning. So we started with building a city branding coalition of partners, the Utrecht Brand Team.

The next thing we did was letting these partners define the values and promises of Utrecht. They came up with the archetype model, Utrecht being a creator (like Apple and LEGO), always inspiring others to create, innovate and connect.

In the meantime, the regional triple helix of economic, knowledge and governmental organisations focused more and more on Utrecht’s strong economic areas: ICT, health(care) and sustainability. Over time, this turned into healthy urban living – for everybody. This is now the strategic goal for the city, as well as the region; a goal shared with many of our partners.

Our remodeling exercise is about how to connect the branding with this strategy, in a simple way. The Utrecht Brand Team is working on that right now.

Cities, regions, and destinations often heavily rely on heritage in their brand positioning. Do you think focusing on Utrecht’s healthy urban living strategy is sufficient in your branding project? How do you use this theme in your city branding strategy and projects?

The story goes that St Martin shared his coat by cutting it in half and giving one half to a beggar. In the seventh century he became the Patron of Utrecht. The image of the half coat you’ll still find in typical Utrecht signs, like Football Club Utrecht, the shield of the city, the shield of the university, etc. We celebrate Sint Maarten every year.

We are located in the middle of our country, with many national connecting functions and roles. We have a strong social connection with each other and we work explicitly on healthy urban living – for everybody.

Furthermore, by having healthy urban living as our ambition and strategy, this brings focus to every project, every partner, every colleague. It is becoming a starting point for more and more projects.

Reducing the many facets of a city or region to one overarching theme for effective positioning can be challenging. How do you go about this in Utrecht?

This was a huge challenge, and still is a challenge. Because in a city many things happen and will always happen. Every city is a lively ecosystem that exists for hundreds of years – or even more, like Utrecht. Our city was founded by the Romans, and celebrates its 900th birthday as a city in 2022.

We know that of course not everything in Utrecht is related to our strategic positioning and branding. But by trying to work with values and a strategy that is close to the identity of the city, its ecosystem, its inhabitants’ values, we hope that an overarching theme like this could work.

So what healthy urban living is what we strengthen at the moment and where we put our ambitions. Not only for our own inhabitants, but also to share with others (like Sint Maarten did).

A good place branding strategy provides a blueprint for taking decisions around city planning, capital attraction, infrastructure investment, and public policy creation/reform. Are projects like Wonderwoods, We Drive solar, and building bike parking garages a result of Utrecht’s brand positioning strategy, or is it the other way around?

Depending on the project – but they are all now more and more a result of the city’s and region’s strategy. There have been funds to stimulate these projects and we are working closely with development teams to make sure what happens in Utrecht is aligned with our brand positioning.

Our bicycle parking spots are a result of our many cyclists and all the political choices and investments in our cycling city. Our triple helix partners have participated in this strategy for years now, together with the city government, other partners and also the region. This has had its results, as you have noticed.

And for future projects we strive for even more connection with the brand strategy. It is becoming easier now because the focus in local and regional budgets and investments is linked to our common strategy.

From your experience, what is the best way to measure the success of city branding initiatives?

Measuring results of city branding is not easy. There are many factors influencing the perception of the brand – and the success of initiatives which are beyond our control. Like the tram incident in our city last year, the corona virus now, among lots of smaller things happening.

The best way is to measure the image and reputation over several years, among  the different target groups, including the inhabitants.

For me, place branding has been a success when the people and partners are proud of their city, are inspired by what is happening and is being created in their city, and when they want to be part of the community.

Which cities would you consider good examples to follow, for their innovative and successful approach to city branding?

Eindhoven, Oslo, Stockholm, Melbourne, Vancouver.

Which trends are likely to influence place branding initiatives of Utrecht in the years ahead?

Video marketing, offline experiences, social influencers, sustainable tourism projects.

Thank you, Ank.

Connect with Ank Hendriks on LinkedIn


More about the Nordic Place Branding Conference here.

To continue exploring, visit our city branding examples and interviews with city brand professionals.


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