A UN study has found that 54% of the world’s population now lives in large urban areas and that this figure will rise to 70% by 2050. French sociologist Marc Augé believes that growth like this is creating “city worlds” transforming cities with a well-defined personality into great urban sprawls with multiple identities.
Brands can play an important role in what is happening – and fast - to city layouts helping to redraw the identity of the metropolises of the future.
One of the reasons for the sense of familiarity we feel as we stroll through the city streets of some distant world capital, together with a sense of disappointment at not having discovered anything new, is that in the last twenty years the big brands have strived to penetrate key areas of the city, applying the same format as consistently as possible.
But for those brands with are increasingly trying to become parts of consumers’ lives, an approach based on the presence of flagship stores with their predefined top-down strategies, is no longer enough. City centres are gradually becoming disagreeable and expensive shop windows and their inhabitants are fleeing them to settle in new districts. Changes in people’s living spaces are also going hand in hand with the new urban layout, opening up the possibility of a different relationship between brand and local community.
So brands become practices, setting aside sustainability as an ecological mantra and opting instead for practical, tangible contributions with long lasting effects on the area. According to the “broken window” theory, there is a risk that even minor acts of vandalism like breaking a window may be the first step in a process which leads to degradation and to people deserting the area if they are not remedied immediately; similarly, it is also the case that a single positive action such as improving a derelict space or finding a creative way to reuse an existing facility can herald the rebirth of a whole district.
This awareness had led to the creation of projects that start from below, for example from associations or local communities, and aim at improving living conditions by making improvements to urban spaces. Projects such as the “b the change”, an Italian geo-located crowdfunding project which leverages the local community’s sense of belonging or of el hueco twitero (“the tweeting pothole”), a Panama project which applies technology to bring traffic problems such as holes in the road to the government’s attention.
All this represents an opportunity for big brands to take an active part in transforming urban areas. The trade-off is clear: districts are regenerated and brands are able to set up shop and gain visibility.
The UniCredit head office in Milan has breathed life into a new district with an auditorium (UniCredit Pavilion) in the heart of the Italian economic capital. But the most conspicuous example is Heineken, which has just launched the Shape Your City project, a practical application of the “open your world” brand strategy to the lives of local communities. Without the need for new buildings or headquarters, Heineken has conceived a way of penetrating the most important cities in the world and change their way of living. The aim of the project is to help to transform derelict urban spaces by encouraging artists, musicians, performers, video makers, architects and street artists to settle there. The process involves the local community through committees and at the same time aims at enriching the city fabric. The subsequent opening of a Heineken outlet right in the centre of the project is then regarded as a natural consequence.
Coca-Cola Italia has launched a similar scheme in order to breath new content into its historical brand statement, inviting people to suggest and vote for the urban projects they want to support and invest in.
Thus brand essence works directly with the city fabric in an exchange between regeneration and branding. This is a global branding strategy which can be applied in different ways according to local circumstances and the result will be a welcome addition to the brand’s storytelling, providing newsworthy content which can be used on all media.
So the world’s big cities and the changes taking place in them are increasingly offering brands the chance to move away from the classic consumer/brand relationship and forge a new type of bond in which investment in marketing makes life more worth living.