Article by Alina Polianskaya
First published in Design Week
As more areas invest in new identities, Design Week spoke to Lantern’s Director, Ryan Tym, about why this is a growing trend, the benefits a visual brand can bring to a locality and the ethical issues to consider.
From small communities to entire boroughs, new place brands are cropping up at an increasing rate.
Thought to boost tourism, attract investment and boost morale among local people, design studios are being called in to create visual identities for various destinations, in the hopes that a strong brand will bring a range of benefits.
But how effective is place branding and why are so many local authorities and areas investing in it?
While a strong brand is thought to help entice visitors which in turn lifts the local economy, some people such as Ryan Tym, founder and director at studio Lantern, believe tourists are also increasingly looking on a smaller scale when they choose where to travel, leading to smaller areas developing their own identities.
So instead of France, perhaps they are interested in Bordeaux, or rather than London as a whole, maybe its Covent Garden that attracts them. This is where branding a locality comes into play.
Tym, whose studio recently branded London’s Leicester Square, says: “Destinations are always competing for visitors and footfall, so they need to stand out.”
“I think people are becoming more interested in specific areas or parts of cities nowadays. In larger cities, there is more of a requirement for areas to have unique identities.”
He believes this is enhanced by low cost airlines flying to more destinations, forcing cities to work harder to attract visitors.
Empowering residents and boosting morale in a community is another reason for branding a place, such as with Lantern’s project for the Newington Estate on the edge of Ramsgate, a seaside town in Kent.
Home to around 5,000 people, the neighbourhood was chosen to receive £1 million from the lottery’s Big Local fund, putting residents in control of how the money was spent without council involvement.
Previously considered “forgotten” and “underfunded”, Tym says, the community invested in initiatives including credit unions and community gardens and also decided to bring design studio Lantern on board at a discounted rate.
The aim was to create a sense of pride in the area, partly by flipping the concept of an estate from “negative” to “positive”, raising awareness of new initiatives going on in the area and involving more people in decisions around money.
The project included creating branding which has been rolled out on a new website, marketing materials, and a poster campaign encouraging more people to get involved with community matters. It also included a newspaper written by local people and designed by Lantern.
“The concept behind the brand was embracing that there is no shying away from this being an estate but positioning it as an ‘estate of enablers’ and harnessing that positive underdog spirit the community has.”
In terms of how to brand a place effectively, many agree it is important to involve the people it represents from the start, such as the community and various stakeholders.
For Tym, working on the Newington Estate project began with speaking to residents about their neighbourhood and why they “felt forgotten as an area”, and about positives of where they live, which includes a “very strong sense of community”.
The studio then presented two potential design routes to residents, settling on black illustrations on a coloured background, chosen to be “easier to print and roll out,” he says.
Tym says the outcome has been positive. “It has created a far greater sense of pride in the area, the newspaper has continued and there has been an increase in people attending events,” he adds.
Similarly, when branding Leicester Square, Lantern aimed to speak to a wide range of stakeholders including associations representing local businesses and residents, Tym says. The project was paid for by the Heart of London Business Alliance, a business improvement district (BID) representing companies in Leicester Square and Piccadilly.
The aim was to challenge perceptions, as “there had been a lot of investment in the area, but despite this, its image hadn’t really changed among Londoners,” he says. Some people viewed the area as “a bit of a tourist trap” or only recognised it as a place for film-watching, he adds.
The brand is centred around a logo resembling the letter “L” at an angle, that looks like it is made out of neon lights forming three connected boxes, with the letters “LSQ” inside them.
Marketing materials including posters with brightly-coloured gradient backgrounds, setting out a schedule of things to do in one day in the square, such as “11.47 Lego, 13.04 Lobster, 15.09 Chocolate, 20.03 Cabaret”.
Another shared view is place identities need to be more than just a logo or a strapline, but also include assets such as imagery, case studies, key facts, narratives and marketing campaigns — and most importantly, it all needs to be “genuine”.
“You need to make sure there is a strong story running though the brand you are developing, and that it is true to what the area is,” Tym says. “Cultural and historical significance is important, so it is not just starting from scratch but building it up from something.”
“If you are looking to set up a business or move to a new area, part of the decision-making process involves thinking about whether the values of a place fit with your values as an individual.”
But while branding a place can make it appear more attractive, some worry this in turn can lead to gentrification, with existing communities being priced out.
Tym says that while this may be a risk, he does not think it is down to branding, but the whole planning of an area, which he says needs to include a mix of affordable housing along with shops and restaurants at different price points to ensure a variety of people feel welcome.
It seems clear that when it comes to place branding, it is hard to please everyone.
Understandably, people tend to have strong connections with where they live or work and branding an area without getting the community on board shows poor judgement, especially if public money is involved.
Stories behind a place are important, and capturing these by talking to the people who know and live them seems like a responsible way to encourage those people to support a project. When it is done right, place branding can be a powerful thing, boosting civic pride, attracting tourism and investment, and empowering communities.