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Branding Greater Birmingham: concentrate on ‘here and now’ and give Chamberlain a rest

Branding Greater Birmingham: concentrate on ‘here and now’ and give Chamberlain a rest

🕔03.Nov 2014

As the latest regional branding exercise is launched, the man who has seen more of them come and go than any other political journalist reflects on the latest effort and in the process calls into the question the potential role of our very own patriarch. 

Please stop blathering on about Joseph Chamberlain.

And give Boulton, Murdoch, Watt and the whole Industrial Revolution malarkey a rest too.

There, I’ve said it at last and doubtless committed a heinous Birmingham crime.

In fact I feel the eyes of the man whose picture adorns the top of this page, and whose name gives this site its identity, bearing down into the back of my head even as I write.

But really, as the city and region begins yet another attempt to “tell its story”, it seems to me that the starting point should be here and now, and the future, rather than deep in the past.

Chamberlain was an exceptional politician and civic leader of his time, but his time was long ago when local government was in its infancy, when central government did little other than finance wars, and the methods Joe used to transform Birmingham aren’t really applicable today.

This year, the 100th anniversary of his death, has been marked by more than  the usual run of tributes from politicians, fuelled by a fast-running devolution bandwagon. But Chamberlain’s achievements in the 1870’s, as splendid as they were, do not offer much in the way of relevant lessons other than underlining what might be achieved with the help of an inspired civic leader.

As for the Industrial Revolution, do they still even teach this stuff in schools?

And yet, I strongly suspect the narrative that place marketing specialists Heavenly come up with for the Greater Birmingham regional branding strategy will at some stage talk about the West Midlands’ rich history as the cradle of the modern industrial era, and if Chamberlain doesn’t get a mention it’ll be a first.

In any case, good luck to Heavenly in discovering a common thread that binds together a region where constituent councils still cannot agree to establish a Combined Authority, less still settle on a name for any such authority that might be formed.

Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP chair Andy Street says he wants to develop a message that links with communities and heritage and comes up with “an agreed narrative for promoting the region, whether it is an individual speaking to friends, a business on an inward investment trip or a minister in Parliament”.

Nine years ago GBSLEP’s predecessor, regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, went to great lengths and expense to develop just such a compelling narrative. Marketing Birmingham, leading today on the branding strategy, was also involved.

More than £1 million was spent on an advertising campaign, taking space in national newspapers and on the walls of London tube stations, to promote the Birmingham and West Midlands brand under the strap-line of “at the heart of it all”.

AWM signed up ‘ambassadors’, successful business people, who when travelling around the world would throw into conversations that magical Greater Birmingham brand message. Sir Digby Jones, as he was then, now Lord Jones, was one of the ambassadors, as was Pertemps owner Tim Watts.

The aim, at risk of dealing in clichés, was to make sure we we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet.

Ten years later, can anyone recall the compelling narrative? No, I thought not.

It is possible to decipher the message from newspaper reports at the time.  An AWM spokesman said the idea was “to highlight the cultural diversity, academic excellence, skilled workforce and vibrant environment we can provide to businesses”.

AWM’s director of communications Sara Moseley described the campaign as an opportunity to “prove the critics wrong and demonstrate that far from suffering, the West Midlands is flourishing.”

A decade on, and another recession later, Mr Street is using much the same language. He told the Birmingham Post: “The reality is we have a great economic story but perception isn’t as good.

“Manchester doesn’t have such a good economic story but perception is better – this is about turning that around. This is about being able to tell the story of our success better.

“It is important to do it now because we have got a great economic story to tell. But travel 20 miles down the road and they wouldn’t have a clue about the story.

“It’s not about a slogan or logo, it’s a positioning exercise so we can engage people.”

So, there we have it. The perception issue – if only we could get people to see Birmingham as it really is rather than as they think it is – is common currency today, just as it has been for more years than I care to remember.

Possibly Mr Street could have saved some of the £150,000 cost of researching the latest branding strategy by dusting off that 2005 AWM effort.

Mr Street is exaggerating when he says Birmingham has a great economic story to tell. This may be correct in selected parts of Birmingham, particularly the city centre where inward investment is galloping away and will continue to grow off the back of HS2, but elsewhere high unemployment, a very low skills base and rampant social deprivation paint a different picture.

Birmingham is ranked the ninth most deprived local authority in England out of 326 and a third of children live in poverty according to HMRC data. Over 17 per cent of adults have no formal qualifications, a figure far higher than the UK average.

Birmingham has the lowest rate of 17-18 year olds in training and education, its children’s social care services are permanently in government special measures and let’s not even think about the reputational harm Trojan Horse will have inflicted on the city.

These are inconvenient truths and no doubt the branding experts will choose their narrative carefully to avoid dwelling on the downside.

The greatest challenge is finding a common thread that unites a region that generally speaking is anything but united. Birmingham, the Black Country, bits of rural Staffordshire and Worcestershire tagged on into GBSLEP, this is not where you would start from if you wanted to sum up a compelling story.

All previous attempts to ‘brand’ the West Midlands have hit an obvious stumbling block because the starting point always has to be to ask ‘what is the West Midlands’? The honest answer is that the West Midlands is nothing more than an administrative local government unit drawing together cities and rural areas across the western half of the English Midlands with not very much in common.

The GBSLEP boundaries broadly reflect Birmingham’s north-south and south-north travel to work areas. This may be expanded to take in the Black Country if a combined authority ever gets off the ground.

Writing a narrative to define Greater Birmingham’s compelling story is a challenge to test the cream of the marketing world. The remit set by GBSLEP is to define Greater Birmingham “as a place to live, invest, visit and do business in”, which is a fair enough but hardly unique proposition. Cities and city regions across the country use exactly the same parameters when devising their own ‘compelling stories’.

Inevitably, the Greater Birmingham story must centre on Birmingham, a city of a million people which will always be the economic powerhouse of the West Midlands despite the problems outlined above.

Birmingham’s admirable diversity, growing reputation for high-tech and digital industries, medical research, a ‘modern industrial city’ with a professional services sector to rival anywhere outside of London, would appear to be fairly obvious lines to stress, along with the city’s central location at the heart of the motorway network and the arrival of HS2.

Expanding that narrative to take in ‘Greater Birmingham’ is the more difficult task, where previous attempts to brand the region have always fizzled out. Whatever Heavenly’s copywriters come up with has to be relevant, believable and easily understood. The challenge is vast; the potential rewards for a successful campaign are huge. I wish them luck.

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