Rebranding Barcelona as City for Business, Talent and Innovation: City Branding Case Study

What is it with Barcelona in Catalonia (Spain) that people’s eyes sparkle as soon as you mention its name? Where does this magic come from, and was it always like this? Far from it. As city branding expert Juan Carlos Belloso explains in this case study, Barcelona’s admired brand today is the result of many years of hard work and determination. 

This reflection on Barcelona’s city brand development is based on the extensive professional experience of Juan Carlos Belloso, managing director at FuturePlaces. Juan Carlos assisted the Barcelona’92 Olympic Games Organization and helped develop the Strategic Metropolitan Plan and the design of the new Barcelona Brand strategy. He is also a founding member and currently on the board of the Barcelona Global Association.

Learn about:

  • How the 1992 Olympic Games changed everything;
  • Why being known for and admired as a tourist destination is not always desirable for a city;
  • The strategy, action and tools of Barcelona’s city branding;
  • How Barcelona involved the private sector in its branding efforts;
  • How long it takes for a city branding initiative to bear fruits;
  • Impacts of Barcelona’s city branding strategy;
  • Future challenges for Brand Barcelona.


Barcelona, with just over 1.6 million inhabitants (the entire Greater Metropolitan Area totals 3.8 million), is Spain’s second largest city in terms of population and the capital city of the region of Catalonia. It’s the main economic engine of Spain and accounts for more than 25% of all Spanish exports. It has 101.4 Km2 (4.58 Km of beaches) and is a city with more than 2,000 years of history and rich cultural heritage.

Over the last 20 years, Barcelona has successfully positioned itself among the top cities around the world. It is widely associated with creativity, culture, sport, gastronomy and high quality of life. Barcelona has also become one of the main tourist destinations in Europe, with more and 7.5 million tourists in 2013, and is a popular place for corporate, scientific, cultural and sporting events and congresses.

Today, Barcelona is a modern, advanced, cosmopolitan, open, creative and inspiring city boasting a high quality of life.

Modern Image of Barcelona
Modern image of Barcelona – Source: Future Places

In order to understand how really the Barcelona brand has achieved this high level of awareness, recognition and esteem, we need to go back to the 80’s when Barcelona needed to completely transform itself after a ‘grey’ period of 40 years of dictatorship in Spain. At that time, city and regional leaders, together with the civil society, came together to create and implement a future vision for the city.

Game changer: 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics

For this process, the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games were fundamental since they marked a before and after, a turning point in the push for the transformation and international projection of the city. The resources generated and the tremendous energy unleashed by a challenge of such magnitude acted as a catalyst for the process of transformation that the city had planned.

The great international shop window that are the Games, allowed Barcelona to show the world a redesigned city, as well as the enthusiasm and capacity of the people of Barcelona to develop and manage with creativity and efficiency an event of such characteristics and complexity.

After the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona became a modern, cosmopolitan and touristic city. Tourists, students and professionals from around the world wanted to visit, to study and to work in what had become a very fashionable place.

And the city continued transforming itself and also innovating and creating all kind of initiatives, events, etc. that contributed to increase the awareness and attractiveness of the city.

So it is not just communications that have made Barcelona a strong and powerful global city brand, but the continued and consistent effort from the key public and private city leaders and organizations transforming the place and communicating effectively this transformations and the identity of the city.

Tourism hot spot, but what about business and innovation?

However, research we conducted in 2010 indicates that the city today is still not globally recognized for its businesses, services, innovation, knowledge and entrepreneurship, with a need to strengthen its position in this area. In November 2010, a new Strategic Metropolitan Plan of Barcelona Vision 2020 – was presented: the result of the joint work of over 650 experts in different fields, who collaborated for more than a year to create and shape a projection for the future.

The vision of the Strategic Metropolitan Plan for Barcelona for 2020 consisted of consolidating the AMB (Metropolitan Area of Barcelona), with its model of quality social cohesion and integration, as one of the most attractive and influential European regions for innovative global talent.

Barcelona Vision 2020 Strategic Metropolitan Plan


Coinciding with the arrival of a new municipal government and governing party to the city in 2011, and following the Strategic Metropolitan Plan, the new city government – together with public and private stakeholders – created and implemented a new city development and brand strategy.

Objective: to position Barcelona as one of the most attractive and influential European regions for innovative global talent and as the best setting for economic and business growth.

With this objective in mind, different initiatives and actions have been put in place both from the public and the private sectors.

Strategy, action and tools

1. Public sector new economic development strategy: ‘Barcelona Growth’

The priority of the City Council of Barcelona at that time was to fight against the economic crisis. For this reason, the new Municipal Government focused on pressing questions such as: how to create employment, how to promote investment and funding, how to attract talent, or to help companies and entrepreneurs.

Under the ‘Barcelona Growth’ programme, together with the City Council we identified 30 main economic measures to focus on. Those recommendations led to the rebranding of Barcelona from ‘Mobile World Capital’ (the city is host of the annual World Mobile Congress) into a ‘Smart City’ (Smart City Expo World Congress also held in BCN), positioning Barcelona as a city of knowledge and innovation.

2. Private sector involvement (Barcelona Global)

In order to implement the strategies and actions put forward in the Strategic Metropolitan Plan – Vision 2020, we created ‘Barcelona Global’, a private, independent and non-profit association: a citizen’s platform of ideas and action, made up by people and companies who care about Barcelona and its future. The association’s mission is to actively contribute to making Barcelona one of the most attractive cities in the world, to attract and develop talent and economic activity.

Barcelona Global develops executive projects related to the competitiveness of Barcelona. These projects look to:

  • Strengthen the Barcelona brand associating it to sectors and activities with higher added value and quality.
  • Facilitate the attraction, retention and landing process of foreign investment and talent in Barcelona.
  • Bring together innovative talent and business decision centres and institutions.
  • Encourage dialogue between sectors and across different groups as a way of detecting development opportunities.
  • Collaborate with other institutions, organizations and public authorities on various types of projects and initiatives.

One of the main ideas and strategies under the action of Barcelona Global is how to make Barcelona a truly ‘business friendly city’, as well as how promote and position Barcelona through its main economic sectors:

Barcelona Strategic Economic Sectors
Barcelona Strategic Economic Sectors

3. A new Barcelona brand strategy

The City Council of Barcelona also decided in 2011 to start a new project whose main objective was to review and develop a new brand strategy for the city. Developed by the author of this case study, the project included the identification and confirmation of the main brand attributes and the unique and different values of the city, the definition of the brand vision and new brand positioning and the development of a new brand story and value proposition.

Available tools were identified to strengthen and build the new brand positioning and a brand building strategy devised for those economic sectors most relevant to the city. The project also contemplated the definition of a brand management model through the establishment of a separate agency with the participation and involvement of the main actors of the city, public and private, which is yet to be created.

A new positioning statement was developed for the city, following in-depth strategic analysis and extensive consultation among key stakeholders.

4. A new city brand communication strategy

After the new brand positioning was defined, a communications strategy was put in place in 2013 under the idea or ‘motto’ ‘Barcelona Inspira’ (Barcelona Inspires). The objective of the communication strategy is to help visualize, communicate and value all the city assets and initiatives aimed at positioning Barcelona as a place for business, entrepreneurial talent and economic activity.


Time frames

The city’s transformation into a city of innovation and knowledge began in the 90’s, with the conversion of the old industrial district of Poble Nou, the former “Catalan Manchester”, in the new 22@ Innovation District.

But it is only thanks to the Strategic Metropolitan Plan and Vision 2020, presented in 2010, that the city has been working in an integrated and strategic way to position itself among the most attractive and influential European metropolitan regions for innovative global talent.

It is clear that repositioning Barcelona not only as a great place to live, study and visit, but also as a the ideal place for business and economic activity, will take time, effort and determination. This positioning will not be easy to achieve, especially in a context of increased competition among places around the globe. However, thanks to its clear vision, strategies, actions and tools, Barcelona is well equipped to succeed.

City branding impact

Although it is very early to measure the impact of the new economic and branding development strategy of the city, it seems that some results have already been achieved:

  • Barcelona is consolidating its position as one of the leading cities in the area of ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Mobile Technologies’ (in line with the objective of positioning itself as the Mobile World Capital).
  • The city was awarded with the title of ‘European Capital of Innovation’ by the European Union in 2014 and is ranked the 4th Smart City in Europe and the 10th in the world.
  • The city has also been ranked as the 4th city in Europe in Scientific publications and the 10th in the world, the 1st city in southern Europe in economic development and the 1st European city in quality of life for workers.
  • Also, according to a recent international survey by the City of Barcelona in 2013, Barcelona is being perceived as one of the most creative cities in the world.

However, we all know that changing the image of a place or building a new positioning takes time, and requires the constant and consistent effort of the different city stakeholders over time.

Future challenges of the Barcelona brand

Although Barcelona city branding seems to have become one of the global benchmark cases, we have to recognize that proper city branding as such has not been developed to date.

The success of any city brand, including Barcelona, basically depends on a strong vision of great city leaders, and its coherent and consistent implementation, which is only possible with strong commitment of the civil society, and continued collaboration between all city stakeholders – public and private.

However, Brand Barcelona still faces challenges that have to be addressed and solved. The first is how to coordinate the main city stakeholders and their efforts in branding and promoting the city.

For many years the author and other private stakeholders have been pushing to create the Barcelona Brand Agency, as a coordinating body also responsible promoting and protecting the brand, but for many different reasons we have not been successful to date.

The second challenge is how can we protect and ensure the proper use of the brand (name) of Barcelona. Different strategies have been proposed but none implemented.

And third, there are practical challenges, such as how to develop a more sustainable touristic model for the city, how to make the city more attractive and welcoming for investment and talented people and, in general, how to involve and engage the citizens with the brand.

For more about Barcelona, visit

About Juan Carlos Belloso

Place branding expert Juan Carlos BellosoJuan Carlos Belloso is a renowned international expert in corporate and place branding, marketing and internationalization, based in Barcelona. He has for many years advised the City Council of Barcelona and other city organizations and institutions in the areas of strategy, development, image and promotion.

Juan Carlos is a founding member and serving on the board of ‘Barcelona Global’ and is also part of the expert team of Best Place – The International Place Branding and Marketing Institute based in Poznan, Poland.

He has advised many countries, regions and cities in Western and Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

His work experience includes Director for Spain and Latin America at Placebrands, Brand Strategy Services Director at FutureBrand in Madrid, Director of Strategy Consulting Services at Coopers & Lybrand and KPMG, Director of the Catalan International Promotion Agency in New York and responsible for international marketing projects at the Barcelona’92 Organizing Olympic Committee.

A graduate in Economics and Business Administration at the University of Barcelona with specialization studies in international marketing at New York University, Juan Carlos is a frequent speaker at seminars and forums, and has written many corporate and place branding articles for different journals and magazines.

More about Juan Carlos Belloso in our interview, or visit his website and LinkedIn profile.

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