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How not to market Birmingham: confusion and chaos (but nothing left out)

How not to market Birmingham: confusion and chaos (but nothing left out)

🕔08.Dec 2014

I wonder if the glitzy ‘film fly-past’ presentation shown at Marketing Birmingham’s annual meeting was put together by a very large committee of the great and the good, writes Paul Dale?

That, I fear, is the only explanation for a bizarre hotchpotch of every conceivable fact about Birmingham past, present and future, that inevitably leaves the viewer none the wiser about the narrative or the message. Confusion and chaos abounds.

All of the bases were covered, for sure. Boulton, Murdoch and Watt and the Industrial Revolution (check), city of a thousand trades (check), Town Hall (check), car city (check), reborn city (check), Birmingham Airport runway extension (check), Bullring (check), Mailbox and Harvey Nicks (check), New Street Station (check), HS2 (check) metro trams (check), Snow Hill offices (check), John  Lewis (check), Michelin restaurants (check), Balti Triangle (check), new leisure complex at the NEC (check), Rugby world cup and cricket Test matches (check), Cadbury’s World (check), Royal Ballet (check) record visitor numbers (check).

Did we leave anything out? How about the city with one of the poorest skills bases in the country? Or the city with some of the most socially deprived council wards anywhere in the country? Or the city where unemployment has been hugely above the national average for years? Or the city that gave Britain the Trojan Horse scandal? Or the city with the country’s poorest children’s social services?

Moving swiftly on, gritty reality rarely enters into the world of Marketing Birmingham where the cup is always half full and tomorrow is another day. And that’s all very well I suppose, since organisations rarely dwell on the bad side when trying to promote themselves.

But the question has to be asked: how does the Marketing Birmingham slide show promote anything other than a series of facts about Birmingham, some fascinating and some not so fascinating, and the many striking commercial and civic buildings in the city centre?

Where is the unique Birmingham story, what does the city stand for today, what is its USP? Where is the simple, effective and short (yes….short) narrative capable of selling Birmingham across the world? What is the Birmingham DNA, and please tell me it’s not shopping centres.

It is too early to tell how Marketing Birmingham’s attempt to tell the Birmingham story will fit in with the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP’s search for a Greater Birmingham ‘narrative’. But as I argued last month, these messaging and branding attempts come and go, are mostly distinguished by their uselessness and are forgotten very quickly.

Having observed more Birmingham branding exercises than I care to remember, it’s clear that Marketing Birmingham’s latest effort – albeit for its Annual General Meeting – relies heavily on the notion that it’s a good thing to trot out every conceivable fact about Birmingham in an attempt to give the impression that this is a really happening and busy kind of place. Unfortunately, swanky office blocks do not a city make. And as for New Street Station, what’s so special about yet another shopping centre attached to a station even if we are to get a John Lewis department store?

Representatives from Birmingham businesses attending the Marketing Birmingham AGM inevitably applauded politely at the fly-past slide show. Hopefully, they thought the message represented value for money, since it is the business community that will in future have to dig deeper into their pockets to fund Marketing Birmingham, if the organisation is to continue to operate.

Marketing Birmingham expects to receive income of just over £8 million next year. It is unclear how much of this will continue to flow from the city council since the accounts presented to the AGM make no mention of where the money is coming from. But the council’s financial difficulties are an open secret and the intention is to make Marketing Birmingham self-funding.

That will mean a higher financial contribution from the private sector. And if that is the case, businesses are entitled to be assured they are getting value for money and if marketing and message positioning is felt to be important, some professional input will be required….at additional cost.

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