Chris Brown on the Branding and Marketing of Liverpool City Region

Chris Brown, Director of Marketing Liverpool, in this interview tells us about the city’s place branding and marketing work, the day-to-day challenges, city marketing trends and how Liverpool has benefited from its 2008 title of European Capital of Culture.

Learn about:

  • How Chris Brown’s experience as hotelier influences his approach to city and destination marketing;
  • The biggest challenges he has faced so far as Director of Marketing Liverpool;
  • What characterizes Liverpool as city, making it unique;
  • Pitfalls to avoid when marketing a city destination;
  • Key trends in city marketing in Europe;
  • How Liverpool’s 2008 title of European Capital of Culture has benefited the city.

Chris, earlier in your career you worked in hotel management. To what extent would you say has your previous work experience influenced your view of Liverpool as destination, and your approach to its management and marketing?

Even many years after leaving the hospitality industry, the experience is still very relevant in marketing the Liverpool City Region. As a hotelier, I recognized the importance of a strong, positive welcome, which can make or break a person’s experience and set the tone for the rest of their stay. The same is true for a destination, so we want to make sure all the touch points in the customer journey are managed as effectively as possible.

One of our major priorities is working with Liverpool John Lennon Airport, train operators, hotels, restaurants and attractions in providing a world-class experience from the first moment.

As Director of Marketing Liverpool, which is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in relation to the development of the city brand?

Place branding can never be the responsibility of one organisation. Liverpool, like most cities, is a myriad of voices and interests.

Our biggest challenge is getting organisations in culture, education, business, retail, transport and leisure to see how important the place brand is, how they can help to cultivate it and ultimately, how that supports their own product. They are all willing to take an active role in planning the city’s brand strategy, but we also need to make it straightforward and meaningful for them. This is not easy; it requires time, resources and tangible results to keep partners motivated.

What characterizes Liverpool as a city? Why should investors, businesses and potential visitors feel attracted?

Liverpool’s always been an independent, entrepreneurial, risk-taking city. It’s a place that’s not scared to stand out from the crowd and dance to its own beat, and will never hide away from its challenges.

From your experience, what are the biggest pitfalls in marketing a city, such as Liverpool?

Sometimes people and organisations can be reductive in their understanding of what marketing and branding is. It’s essential that city branding is a strategic management tool, not a logo or slogan.

We understand the limitations of ‘branding’ and common associations with promotion and communication. Our aim is to create brand positioning and communication that improves the city’s image, competitive identity and helps develop a shared vision that unifies our actions and behavior.

There is also a danger that, because Liverpool is a well-known brand, people believe the job is done; but there’s a big difference between being well-known and well-understood.

Which trends do you consider the most important at the moment, in terms of their power to influence the way we approach city marketing in Europe in particular?

This might be a cliché, but experience really is the new marketing. As city marketers, it’s essential we keep the promises that we make in our marketing communications. We recognize the essential role a DMO has in creating positive and inspiring experiences; it’s about that shift from providing information to providing inspiration and moving from destination marketing to destination management.

If you get this right, visitors will do the rest of the job for you by sharing these wonderful experiences with friends, family and social media networks. And if you don’t get this right, visitors who feel underwhelmed will be equally forthcoming about their negative experience.

Which is the secret for creating and maintaining a genuine, unique brand for a place which benefits residents, businesses and visitors?

I’m not sure there is one. It’s not a formula that can be adapted from place to place. My advice to anyone responsible for place branding is to have a clear set of values and behaviors, signed up to by partners and stakeholders, and make them your touchstone.

It’s easy to create an advertising campaign that’s glossy and seductive, but it’s quite possible that it would be better to spend money on free Wi-Fi or a remarkable welcome at an airport or train station.

2018 marks the 10-year anniversary of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture. How transformative was winning the event? And how has Liverpool as a place changed because of it?

It was a seminal year for the city. In many ways the city’s physical transformation was already underway – big developments had been planned for many years, but this gave us a deadline. We had to be ready. It’s like the Olympics, it’s not something you can put off for 6 months if you’re not quite ready.

But the biggest change was the confidence it gave to the city and its people. After delivering such a successful European Capital of Culture, there was a tangible sense that anything was possible. The city could stage the biggest events and realise ambitious plans.

It would be fair to say that the city is unrecognisable since ’08, and a lot of the credit for its progress needs to be given to the civic leaders who have never allowed it to rest on its laurels.

Cities such as Stockholm, Barcelona and Liverpool which have successfully established their brand now find themselves entering a second phase of brand maintenance – often threatened by political pressure to produce a new tagline or concept. Have you found this to be a problem in your day-to-day work? How do you deal with (not always constructive) stakeholder demands?

Yes, it’s what I alluded to earlier. We have to resist the tyranny of new logos, taglines etc. They’re transient and will probably change the moment a new political administration takes control of a place. It provides some gratification in the short-term, but any place branding programme has to be strongly connected to a long-term vision for a place.

What type of city do we want this to be? How do we reflect the values and attitudes of our communities in creating and delivering a place branding programme that has a positive effect on the local economy? The destinations that have got this right are very few.

As a speaker at the upcoming International Place Branding event this June, which aspects of your work will you share with the audience?

I’ll be emphasizing the international work we undertake with partners to promote Liverpool City Region and the work we continue to do on building a consistent and coordinated brand narrative.

There’s definitely a growing recognition that marketing the city and wider region is a collective responsibility and not just down to DMOs. We are seeing increased interest from partners in being part of the city’s efforts to travel internationally to meet tour operators, airlines and media to increase the city’s profile.

The theme of the event is Place Branding? It’s not about the logo – a statement which has been repeated over and over in our more than 120 expert interviews so far. Why do you think is it so difficult for city and destination marketers to let go of outdated marketing think and instead put their money and effort in creating and maintaining great experiences and brand platforms?

I think it’s changing. In the last 3-5 years there’s been a more sophisticated discourse on the nature on place branding and city marketing. DMOs and the stakeholders they represent are recognising that the aesthetic components of programmes are secondary to the importance of clear strategic thinking. To some extent it’s moving away from thinking a place branding programme must have a new logo, slogan and so on. This really is outdated thinking.

This conference will be another important step in moving away from that type of reductive thinking and highlights places that are doing things in a smarter, more intelligent way.

Thank you, Chris.

Connect with Chris Brown on LinkedIn.

This interview forms part of a special series with distinguished speakers of the Liverpool Place Branding event in England, May 31 – June 1, 2018.

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