Consol Vancells Casanovas on Barcelona City Branding, Co-Creation and Storytelling

Ever since hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona has been admired for its ability to constantly reimagine and innovate, helped by its smart city branding strategies. But how do they do it – and how is Barcelona responding to the current pandemic and its economic consequences? To find out we caught up with Consol Vancells Casanovas, in charge of city branding at the Barcelona City Council.

Consol, do you remember the first time you heard about city branding in connection with Barcelona? What triggered your interest in the topic?

Probably the first time I thought about the concepts of city branding and international reputation was with the candidacy of Barcelona to host the 1992 Olympic Games. That international event was a unique opportunity to boost the city towards the 21st century: it marked a before and after, a turning point for the city both in terms of its transformation and its international image and projection.

The Olympic Games acted as a catalyst for a previously planned transformation process and as the best international showcase for a redesigned Barcelona, ​​as well as the enthusiasm and ability of its people to develop and manage an event of such magnitude and complexity creatively and effectively.

As city branding coordinator at Barcelona Activa, in your view, what does “Brand Barcelona” stand for today?

Between the years 2017 and 2019 a participatory process was opened with local and international agents from which the storytelling of Barcelona was created.

This was an exciting, collective project that involved an initial research phase on local and international levels to collate different points of view regarding the city and the image it projects.

As a result of this choral project, the purpose of Barcelona and the pillars that demonstrate it were defined, based on its identity features and its DNA: Barcelona, a city for all of life’s ventures! A model of progress which allows for both professional and personal growth while allowing people to enjoy life to the full in every respect. Always Barcelona!

How has the identity and image of Barcelona as destination (e.g. MICE) changed over the last years?

As you know, the perception of a brand is built over time in people’s minds, as a result of their experiences with the brand (also with a place or a city brand).

For this reason, in 2018 we considered it interesting to carry out an international market study, called “Barcelona in the eyes of the world”, to find out the evolution in the perception of the city at a global level, based on the same study carried out in 2011.

According to this study, “Barcelona to the Eyes of the World 2018”, Barcelona has a positive image all over the world, regarded a coherent and transversal city, and with a high overall attractiveness.

Survey respondents emphasized its welcoming nature, as a place to invest and do business, and to establish and attract qualified talent.

The name and image of Barcelona are linked internationally especially to creativity. For the first time in 2018, the technological, biomedical, and digital sectors stand out as emerging economies, where the city could be a benchmark on a global scale.

Comparing results of 2018 with 2011, there has been a strengthening of the city as a center of business and innovation; an increase that also stands out among the people of Barcelona, ​​for whom the Mobile World Congress is a clear dynamizer of this perception.

You can access our research on international perceptions of Barcelona here.

Which would you consider the main challenges or pitfalls to avoid, when promoting a city brand program or initiative internally?

What I would avoid is that it was an ‘internal’ work.

I think the key to the success of city branding lies in the concept of it being a choral project (or brand alliance), marked by joined efforts to work together with local agents for a common goal, agreed and continued over time.

Tobias Grut in his interview illustrated how Nordic countries in Europe are working together across the region to be able to better reach audiences in emerging markets, especially Asia. Do you think this would be an example for cities to follow?

At the moment, the example of co-branding successes comes to mind, with a joint initiative by Barcelona and Catalonia (Barcelona/Catalonia initiative), where the two places benefit from Barcelona’s international positioning and Catalonia’s opportunities to attract international real estate investments throughout Catalonia. This we do jointly from the City Promotion Directorate of Barcelona City Council, with INCASOL (Land Institution of the Government of Catalonia), the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, other metropolitan councils and real estate operators and firms of international lawyers.

Barcelona is a city used to crises: political, terrorism and now the coronavirus pandemic. To what extent can city branding support crisis communication and help to overcome such challenges?

Barcelona is a resilient city committed to its citizens, which has faced different types of crisis in the past. The fire at the Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona’s Opera House) at the end of the last century or the August 2017 terrorist attack on Las Ramblas are two examples of severe impacts that Barcelona received.

Whether through adverse impacts like these, or others that are positive for the city, such as the World Expo, the celebration of the Olympic Games, or the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona has shown one of its strengths: the public-private collaboration to tackle the great challenges of a global city.

How has your city branding helped Barcelona during the coronavirus shutdown, and now in the recovery phase?

The perception of Barcelona at an international level will not depend on what is happening to us (which is unfortunately similar to other cities and countries in the world at the moment), but on how we react to what is happening, and how we explain it.

In order to address Barcelona’s economic recovery strategy, under the leadership of Barcelona’s First Deputy Mayor, Mr. Jaume Collboni, the City Council has launched the Center for the Coordination of the Economic Response (CECORE), from where the strategies for international economic promotion and the city’s reputation are being designed.

As an example, we are preparing an international webinar called Rethinking City Branding in times of the Covid19: roadmaps to economic and social recovery (July 21st), in collaboration with Universitat Pompeu Fabra – Barcelona School of Management, where we will share good experiences with other cities in the world.

And we are giving priority to our digital communication strategies in this new post-Covid scenario.

Securing adequate funding for place branding and -marketing initiatives is often a challenge. How do you approach this in Barcelona?

The Barcelona City Branding budget is part of the City Council’s budget for Barcelona’s international promotion department. We work for the best conjunction of owned media, with paid media and earned media in our communication activity.

At the same time, we work with local agents for joint strategies and actions, since those are multipliers of the city’s storytelling.

Besides, as a response to the current crisis, the Barcelona City Council announced on May 30th that it will use the tourist tax for projects that promote economic recovery, including international economic promotion and city branding projects.

Your strategy advice for fellow city brand professionals?

The co-creation process of the new storytelling of Barcelona, with more than 300 agents involved, was an exciting experience for all of us, where we joined forces for the good of the city itself.

This formula, which is part of the DNA of Barcelona, can be a good strategy in times like these, where coordination and courage are needed to face together the challenge of economic recovery and change towards a new scenario, which is still unknown.

How do you collaborate with your citizens and businesses, to make sure their actions and stories align with Brand Barcelona – and the other way around?

Thanks to the co-creation process of the new storytelling for Barcelona, we created a powerful network. This process has helped us to be clear about where we want to go and how to get there. But only by working in a constant and coordinated manner will we be able to build a reputation that gives added value to all residents of the city.

Ours is a will to serve. The storytelling of Barcelona – and our Brand Toolbox – aims to be a useful, practical and inspiring guide to aligning all the messages and initiatives of the different public and private agents that affect the reputation of Barcelona’s city brand.

The Barcelona City Branding project works to inspire each organization, group or institution to activate the storytelling in its own sphere of activity, whichever way is most convenient to them – always, of course, in line with the essence of the storytelling and coherent with other spheres of activity.

Only in this way will we be able to construct a global, integrated perception of the city for years to come.

What’s next for Brand Barcelona?

Barcelona, like many other global cities, is facing a set of challenges that have never taken place at the same time: in addition to the new economic crisis and the pandemic, climate change and the digital divide are still there, and now even more so, it is critical how we face all these challenges at the same time.

But Barcelona has taken a path where innovation and partnerships are key to trying to overcome the challenges it faces, and even more, to guarantee that the city will not stop.

The City Council is working on defining a “new normal” that will allow the full development of the city’s economic, commercial, creative, and innovative potential.

To highlight the assets of post-covid19 Barcelona as an open, safe, innovative and connected city, we are redesigning digital communication strategies, with a view to the Mobile World Congress 2021, as a starting point for a new stage of economic relaunch for Barcelona.

On the other hand, we are preparing the third wave of interviews for the end of the year, for the Barcelona City Brand Resilience Barometer, to find out the impact of this crisis on the perception of Barcelona around the world. This helps us review our strategies for the future.

In the short term, we are organizing the webinar Rethinking City Branding in times of the Covid19: roadmaps to economic and social recovery, in collaboration with Universitat Pompeu Fabra – Barcelona School of Management, taking place July 21st, to share our experience and listen to other strategies to tackle this global challenge.

Professor Greg Clark, who has been advising Barcelona City Council for several years, as well as representatives from Tel Aviv, Oslo and Portugal have already confirmed their participation as speakers.

José Fernandez Cavia and Robert Govers from the International Place Branding Association will also participate, in the third panel on “city branding research: new trends and how to face the COVID aftermath”.

Thank you, Consol.

Connect with Consol Vancells on LinkedIn and Twitter.


More about the city performance, brand strength and reputation of Barcelona here


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