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Combined Authority decides not to rename

Combined Authority decides not to rename

🕔18.Jul 2017

A controversial proposal to change the title of the combined authority and adopt the name of its biggest city along with the term ‘city region’ has been dropped, writes Kevin Johnson. For now.

The idea could come back before CA bosses if more devolved powers are on offer from the Government.

There were also questions over the scope of the consultation, with too much emphasis on business-focused feedback.

Time to come clean….

The combined authority in question is West Yorkshire, not West Midlands.

It’s hardly hot off the press as the combined authority meeting happened a couple of weeks ago.

But, it’s a cautionary tale for the West Midlands Combined Authority – not least it’s Mayor, council leaders and the new West Midlands Growth Company.

The question of organisation names and regional branding is not new and has bedevilled our political and public agency leaders for years, if not decades.

In recent times, Advantage West Midlands – the regional development agency – tried to tackle regional branding through agency Cricket. It* came up with the ‘Governing Idea’ of Connected, Centred, Genius.

The City Region Partnership, which emerged during the David Miliband period in charge of local government, commissioned a local agency* to look at naming and branding. Council leaders wanted some evidence-based, marketing nous to help with this political hot potato. The agency published an extensively researched report, with the top recommendation of ‘Greater Birmingham’.

The Board opted instead for the snappy ‘Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region’.

Along came local enterprise partnerships in 2010. Birmingham and Black Country council leaders could not agree on developing a single LEP, so the Black Country LEP was born alongside the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP).

Andy Street, then chair of the GBSLEP, charged Marketing Birmingham with addressing “competitive positioning.”

We asked Google to throw up some pages about regional branding. This popped up:

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.

No idea who Paul Dale is or where he’s hiding now…

Heavenly, the last agency to conjure with this most entertaining of briefs, did* come up with a proposition around the idea of ‘Make Your Mark.’

The concept hasn’t really caught on and there has been kickback when some form of wider rollout or adoption has been suggested to political leaders outside the GBSLEP area.

However, those behind the concept would point out that successful branding strategies need far more time and investment than has been available. Much of the work of Marketing Birmingham, now the West Midlands Growth Company, and Heavenly remains relevant.

The word brand does not appear in Mayor Andy Street’s ‘Renewal Plan’. But the words “pride” and “voice” often do. “Restoring pride in the West Midlands” really was Mr Street’s core pitch.

Neither does the word “brand” appear in the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan. But “pride” does.

But the SEP document did adopt the title ‘Making Our Mark…The West Midlands, The Best Region in the UK to do Business.’

It’s likely when Andy Street returns to ask voters for another term in 2020, the underlying question will be whether he has proved the value of a Mayor by promoting the region more effectively in London and abroad.

So, the question of branding – positioning, narrative, purpose – inevitably arises.

Along with being the region’s primary ambassador, participants in a recent Downtown in Business Birmingham round table made putting “our efforts behind promoting the city and region under the Birmingham brand” its number one ask of the Mayor.

Chamberlain Files understands that the Mayor does want to tackle the issue – and quickly. It will be a task requiring not just considerable technical skills, but one needing more political and stakeholder dexterity than has gone before.

Balancing local public and political feelings with strategic marketing objectives is not easy.

The good people of Bradford and Wakefield have much in common with the burghers of Solihull and Sandwell when it comes to not wanting to be ‘taken over’ by the big city.

In the age of digital communications and social media in particular, the days of box ticking consultation exercises and centrally-managed brand control are over.

Too often, previous exercises have been held back by confusion between the naming of public bodies, retaining local identities and having the most effective marketing tools to promote to and engage key audiences.

In recent years, a whole new sub-industry of place making and strategic city/city region branding has emerged. It’s not clear if any future efforts from Mayor Street will focus on positioning and narrative or would embrace placemaking elements including architecture and planning.

No longer is destination marketing simply a question of a logo and slogan.

The key is to tap into the truths – the ambitions, assets, characteristics, culture, ideas, policies and behaviours of the whole area. Not just what political and business chiefs think or want to promote.

The leaders of West Yorkshire may have passed, for now, on the branding ball.

But we in the West Midlands must not. Some might call Mayor Street “brave” in the Yes, Minister sense of the word for potentially picking up the ball. But it’s a challenge that will not go away, so we’ll encourage any genuine effort that he and colleagues in regional bodies might make.

*Final confession: I had a hand, to varying degrees, in all three exercises. I was part of a ‘Creative Community’ of stakeholders that worked with AWM and Cricket. I led the City Region branding project through Urban Communications. I took part in stakeholder sessions on behalf of a client during the GBSLEP/Marketing Birmingham/Heavenly project. So, every half-baked attempt so far is my fault….

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