Branding, Storytelling, and Urban Identity

Visit any city of substantial size and you are likely to encounter efforts to promote the city’s “brand.” How are such brands (or public images) created? How does the brand relate to the city’s identity and story? And how do a city’s story, identity, and brand relate to the city’s development of its future self?

It was questions like these that led faculty in the University of Washington at Tacoma’s Urban Studies department to organize and conduct on February 20 its 2014 Urban Studies Forum: “Beyond Urban Branding: The Promise, The Problem, The Potential.”

UWT Professors Fern Tiger, Ali Modarres, and others recruited a very stimulating mix of urban design professionals, planning scholars, journalists, and practitioners to explore what lies behind and beyond urban branding. They also attracted a large audience for the event; roughly 300 business people, governmental officials, students, faculty, and leaders of non-profits attended.

Ken Greenberg, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the city of Toronto and author of “Walking Home” (2011) made the keynote presentation. UWT Asst. Prof. Anne Taufen Wessels (who focuses on urban governance and place transformation), Aaron Renn (urban affairs analyst who recently founded The Urbanophile), and I formed a the first panel of invited speakers. A second panel consisted of Cleveland resident Anne Trubek (founding editor of Belt Magazine and publisher of Rust Belt Chic), veteran Detroit journalist Bill McGraw, and Chattanooga Senior Planner Pamela Glaser.

I tend to be quite skeptical of market-driven branding, especially when the authors of such efforts claim they are telling [insert name of city here]’s story. So I wanted to convey a sense of what’s really required to tell a persuasive story about a city’s future. In part it requires the teller to use all the skills of the storytelling craft. But, perhaps more important, it means the story’s teller has to find some effective way of interacting with the story’s recipients. My presentation, which appears below, explains why.

Branding, Storytelling, and Urban Identity: From Aalborg to Tacoma and around.

What is Tacoma’s story? And what does the telling of that story have to do with this city’s branding and place identity?

I can’t pretend to know a lot about Tacoma, so I’ll engage these questions indirectly. Let me begin by telling you a story about Aalborg, Denmark.

Branding and Storytelling in Aalborg

Aalborg is one of a large number of cities that I have visited over the years, including some that students and I have visited on field trips or virtually by using Google Earth, YouTube, and Wikipedia. These cities have included “the Gateway to the South,” “the city that care forgot,” “the city of stones,” “the city of fountains,” “the gathering place by the waters,” and others.

Aalborg itself is a city of around 200,000 people at the northern tip of Denmark. It used to be heavily industrialized, but, like many other cities in Europe and the U.S., it deindustrialized in the 1970s and 80s, and its government and business leaders have been spending the past couple decades trying to transform or even erase the traces of that historic legacy. They have been trying instead to attract attention, capital, residents, and tourists by reinventing Aalborg as an “experience city” based on service, knowledge, and culture. As part of this effort, Aalborg has been constructing new images and representations of itself; that is, giving itself a new urban brand.

In 2004 the city initiated a branding campaign called “Aalborg – seize the world.” The campaign identified four values that were said to lie at the core of Aalborg’s identity: diversity, wide prospects, teamwork, and drive. A booklet accompanying the campaign proclaimed, “‘we are not like anyone else’” and “‘Culturally Aalborg has the whole palette – from fine culture to subculture and avant garde’” (Jensen, 2007, p. 226). The campaign also used a logo [display logo], which sought to capture the idea of Aalborg being outward-looking and having a global perspective.

I learned about the city’s branding campaign from my colleague Ole Jensen. Ole is a professor at Aalborg University who had in 2007 published a scholarly article titled “Culture Stories: Understanding Cultural Urban Branding.” After reading that article, I decided to use it in a course I was going to teach in the fall of 2009, a course which I called “Designing Europe: Spatial Planning and Identity in Europe.”

According to Jensen, Aalborg’s branding effort was linked to the global discourse about “the creative city.” Citing Bilbao, Spain, and other exemplars of successful urban transformation, this discourse emphasized the importance of attracting knowledge-based workers, or what Richard Florida has labeled “the creative class.” Innovation, art, and creative capacities had to be enhanced. In the context of this global discourse, Jensen reports, cities like Aalborg were using storytelling to motivate and legitimate their efforts, with the stories both representing and producing space.

Jensen illustrated his theoretical claims by focusing on a proposed renovation of Aalborg’s harbor front, where a number of flagship architecture projects and cultural institutions were being planned as part of a new “Culture Triangle.” The projects included Nordkraft, which is the name of a former power plant being turned into a culture hub inspired by the Tate Modern in London.

According to Jensen, public debate revealed that some people found the branding campaign “too generic and general to be specific to Aalborg and thus not emblematic of the character of the city” (p. 226). The main criticism had to do with identification; that is, with what sort of city the citizens thought they were living in. Jensen claimed, with Aalborg’s campaign “we have left the realm of the factual, and become embedded in a visionary story of a city transforming its future in accordance with its history and identity,” and the plot was being “articulated on the basis of the city’s ability to compete globally” (p. 228).

Jensen also reported that proponents and opponents were telling competing stories about the proposed renovation, and that the stories differed radically in their relationship to place. In his view, many of the opponents were “much less organized” voices on the margin who told stories based primarily on “a populist shared fear of the elite” (p. 230).

To help my students understand how Aalborg’s branding campaign and Jensen’s interpretation related to our course, I had them view an official 6 ½ minute video that Aalborg’s city government had produced. Let’s take a look:

After watching this video on YouTube, my students said they thought it could have been produced about almost any city anywhere. They might have pushed the point a bit too far, but they had some good reasons for responding as they did. [The video begins with contemporary images of the city’s location on the water and with remnants of the harbor’s past, but it shifts into a celebratory mode by showing young people (including the country’s king and queen) having fun at various events, and it ends with images of a technologically-driven future that truly do look, for the most part, as though they could have been produced in almost any thriving city. Two songs sung in English (“Seize the World” and “Bound for South Australia”) plus an up-tempo instrumental drive the video’s sound track. Other than in those songs, no words are spoken in the video, and only a few words of Danish appear; e.g., Kontraster, Hojt til himlen, Samarbejde, Handlekraft, and Aalborg Vild med verden.] This is a topic we can return during the Q&A.

Recalling Jensen’s claim that competing stories were being told, I found another YouTube video satirizing the city’s. It had been produced by some young alienated Aalborgians, and – unlike the one we just watched – was entirely in Danish. Alas, I can no longer find the video on line. As Jensen reported to me in an email, this video focused on “the ‘other’ side of Aalborg – bars, strip bars, gambling casinos. And when they pay credit to the ‘nice side’ (the church, the Aalborg Tower, the Zoo, the library) they do it in a massively ironic way. The underlying tone is one of partly fatigue and boredom with small-town living, and on the other side a love of the place where most of them probably grew up.”

Local officials did not respond too kindly to the alienated youths’ version of Aalborg’s story. According to Jensen, a public relations official at Aalborg University criticized it “for undermining the new and positive image of Aalborg as a nice student city.” But this statement got the official into a lot of trouble as “many people felt he was trying to sanitize the image of the city (which he surely was). He was later interviewed in the local media saying that the rough, working-class ambiance of the city was part of its genuine identity!”

In sum, Aalborg’s official produced the video to tell their branding story about Aalborg, the local public interpreted that video in conflicting ways, some young Aalborgians produced their own counter narrative, students in an Iowa classroom viewed and interpreted the official video, and now we’re in Tacoma sharing this story of Aalborg’s branding effort and its reception.

The interaction of branding, identity and storytelling

What can we learn from this brief tale about branding, identity and storytelling in Aalborg?

My tale reveals, first, that the official branding effort did not authentically represent the full complexity of Aalborg’s identity. Rather that branding effort was, as Jensen puts it, a form of “selective storytelling” aimed at persuading its recipients “to ‘see the city in a particular way’” (p. 213). Ultimately, in his view, the narrative and physical construction of the  “Culture Triangle” in Aalborg was “lacking in public validation” and carried “the hallmark of a place myth” (p. 232).

This tale about Aalborg’s branding effort also conveys a sense of how stories and storytelling work in the public realm. Like similar officials in other cities, Aalborg’s leaders believed they had a good story to tell. It was a story they thought could be used to shape the audience’s attention, and hence Aalborg’s future, by turning it this way instead of that.

But what constitutes a good storytelling? It involves much more than merely listing facts or ordering events chronologically. Instead a good storyteller must use all the elements of the storytelling craft to narrate the unfolding of events over time in some particular location. The teller has to decide where to begin and end the tale; how to arrange and shape (that is, emplot) the flow of events; how to fill the flow of action with interesting and believable characters who act in appropriate settings; and how to build conflict, crisis, and resolution into the story, such that key antagonists are somehow changed or moved significantly. The teller also has to draw upon the imagery and rhythm of language (and the visual arts!) to express a preferred attitude toward the situation and its characters.

These are useful and necessary concepts and skills for anyone who is crafting a story. But they don’t fully explain how the meaning of a story like Aalborg’s gets constructed.

The meaning of a story lies not just in the teller’s intent or their written or cinematic version of the tale. It lies also in what the various audiences bring to the story. As we learned from my students’ response, not all audiences received the message Aalborg’s storytellers intended to convey. The meaning of a story is, in other words, contestable and negotiated between the teller and its many audiences.

We should also note that more than one story can be told about any particular place. Consequently, the audiences for one story frequently are also the tellers of their own tales. As was the case in Aalborg, their stories often differ from the official ones sent their way. Moreover, both storytellers and recipients are characters in each others’ stories, often in ways they can scarcely recognize.

The story about Aalborg also suggests that future-oriented storytelling about places is tightly connected to physical design. Simply put, plans act as claims, those claims are rooted in a range of locally-grounded stories and common urban narratives, and those narratives influence the physical transformation of places over time. Reciprocally, the physical design of places affects the stories and arguments that can be told, and to whom they can be told.

Lastly, the reception of Aalborg’s branding video in my Iowa class, and the fact that the video is now being discussed here in Tacoma, indicates how stories circulate through webs of relationships. Those webs include face-to-face relationships, but they also involve global scale interaction through Facebook, Twitter, and other new social media. Because they are told, interpreted, and contested as they circulate through these webs, stories can stimulate a chain reaction in which each part becomes the cause of new processes with unpredictable consequences.

Concisely put, the meaning of the story will go well beyond the control of the original teller.

The implication is stark and important: crafting a story is one thing, but in the end it is the interaction between the teller and the story’s various recipients that really matters. To tell a truly persuasive story about any city’s identity and future, a teller has to construct the story in a way that persuades diverse people to feel that their own stories are authentically represented in the whole.

It is not, in other words, simply a matter of “telling our story.” One should instead consider: Who is telling the story to whom? What kind of person does the teller’s story invite or expect the recipient to be? What kind of community does the storytelling seek to create, both among its diverse recipients and between the recipients and the storyteller?

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