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Will the train take the brand strain?

Will the train take the brand strain?

🕔26.Oct 2017

It’s difficult to know which is more complex. Sorting out skills, negotiating Brexit or coming up with a brand identity for the West Midlands, writes Kevin Johnson?

The latter task is in the hands of the West Midlands Growth Company and its agency, Heavenly, under the watchful eye of Martin Reeves, the ‘accountable’ local authority chief executive for ‘competitive positioning.’

As regular Chamberlain Files visitors know, there is quite a lot of ‘previous’ when it comes to regional branding. Let’s be honest, no one has cracked it yet. When you mix branding, place marketing and politics and add a heavy dose of parochialism and cynicism, anyone accepting such a challenge has their work cut out.

Combined Authority decides not to rename

Earlier this month, the Coventry city council chief executive – who described his management style in a recent Local Government Chronicle interview as ‘tigger-like’ – and Heavenly’s Roger Pride presented their latest recommendations to the WMCA.

They have two principal tasks – the ‘corporate portfolio’ and the external profile of the region in terms economic development.

Whilst understandable and commendable, in setting these twin tasks the challenge has been immediately intensified by the demand to satisfy both organisational needs (ie. the WMCA ‘family’) and the requirements of promoting a region.

Their first challenge is to come up with a ‘brand framework’ or ‘identity model’ for the organisational arms of the region, including the Mayor’s office, the WMCA and the West Midlands Growth Company as well as its transport services.

At present, neither the Mayor nor the Growth Company (previously Marketing Birmingham) have so much as a logo to put on a business card. The current WMCA identity was lifted off a shelf, which goes some way to answering questions posed by Chris Game on these pages.

Combined Authority logos – do they do it for you?

Heavenly picked up the ball where they left it with GBSLEP and Marketing Birmingham, particularly the core proposition of ‘Make Your Mark.’ This is said to be:

rooted in the region’s rich industrial heritage. However, it is forward looking in orientation, celebrating the modern assets and achievements of the region as a place to live, work and visit.

The proposition – as set out in a presentation to the WMCA Board – is based on four ‘pillars’: heritage, people, place and spirit.

A set of brand values comprising achievement, ambition, creativity and community give rise to a ‘brand narrative’ that tries to balance the inherent humility as well as ambition of the region, in turn playing to the idea that – for the West Midlands – “it’s our time”

The paper which went to the WMCA Board largely focused on brand architecture. In other words, what system based on a common identity should be used to fit all the pieces in the jigsaw together?

The need to make “customer journeys” easy and make sense of the interconnections between different areas and organisations or services in the region is a defining theme in the approach.

The framework proposed – a ‘family hybrid’ – is coherent and difficult to argue against, hence adopted by the Board.

But, as ever with brands, the logo and its application will cause most debate.

After all everyone, including politicians, is an expert on brands. There’s almost no one without an opinion or a better idea.

Those leading the process have a delicate path to tread. Bringing political leaders together to form the WMCA and agree to a Mayor was difficult enough. Agreeing a brand to represent their collective region is another leap altogether.

So, the West Midlands Growth Company is at pains to point out that whilst the design principles have now been agreed after some consultation, the design detail is far from finalised. All the key elements are “work in progress.”

The identity proposed is lifted from the new West Midlands Railway service. The new franchise, overseen by a consortium of local authorities and run in partnership with the Department for Transport, will take control of the service currently operated by London Midland from this December.

West Midlands Railway is already down the (ahem) track on branding as it has a pressing operational timetable.

Its hexagonal design structure was deemed to offer a flexible basis for the needs of the WMCA family.

Given the focus on customer journeys and interconnections, and the exposure and familiarity which the new rail brand will have across the West Midlands, adopting it must have appeared the path of least resistance.

Matters such as colour and font for the various incarnations of the identity are far from fixed in stone. Chamberlain Files understands that yellow will not be chosen for the West Midlands team strip. Which is a relief.

Time will tell if the proposition and hexagon device at the heart of this new brand strategy will enjoy wider consent and enthusiastic support. Will its expedience and flexibility withstand inevitable brand birthing pains?

Consultation so far has been limited to local authority, LEP and Growth Company stakeholders. Many are established leaders in their fields with strong commitments to the region, but few would be described as brand specialists.

In a region where the Mayor and WMCA believe its creative sector is crucial, it would be a wasted opportunity if this community was not now engaged in the next steps.

The Board paper on competitive positioning states that the place proposition is at the heart of the concept.

However, whilst stating his agreement at the WMCA Board meeting, Councillor Ian Ward – leader of Birmingham city council – also said he had been thinking about how to present Birmingham nationally and internationally.

It’s not yet clear how towns and cities in the region will use the emerging regional brand identity within their placemaking strategies and promotional activities.

The proposals from the Growth Company and Heavenly have looked at sub-regional versions of the identity for the three LEP areas, but it’s not clear whether the LEPs will adopt the branding approach for their own organisations.

There is so far no mention of the Midlands Engine. It appears nowhere in diagrammatic or narrative form in the branding proposals. Maybe those behind the branding project have concluded it doesn’t fit anywhere and should be treated like the embarrassing uncle at a family wedding.

The real elephant in the room remains the question of how to use brand ‘Birmingham’. The term ‘Greater Birmingham’ simply appears alongside the other two LEP area names.

The brand’s family name clearly remains West Midlands (and WM).

That will be a point of debate among many in the business community and elsewhere who believe Birmingham (and Greater Birmingham) is the region’s key asset in terms of identification and profile, particularly internationally.

On the flip side, will the rest of the region endorse a proposition originally developed for Greater Birmingham?

Only yesterday, Professor Simon Collison from the University of Birmingham was stressing the importance of differentiation in how the region markets itself.

There remains work to do for Heavenly and the Growth Company to embed, articulate and demonstrate how the region is unique, or at least different, in the deployment of the new brand strategy.

Previous attempts at tackling the brand challenge have often fallen short due to the lack of engagement of a wider group of stakeholders and ultimately West Midlands citizens.

For brands to work, they have to resonate. They need to be real and reflect the genuine characteristics, culture and attitude of, in this case, the region they seek to identify and promote.

As we have observed before, the central theme in Mayor Street’s manifesto was restoring pride and giving voice to the West Midlands.

For him to achieve that – or at least make good progress before May 2020 – he will need the brand strategy to give him the best possible platform.

As the West Midlands Growth Company well understands, real engagement followed by a confident roll out is now critical to the success of the regional identity and branding project – not just in terms of the WMCA family, but if it is to work for the region as a whole.

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