Between a rock and a hard place!

15 Jul,2021

 

 

By Avik Chattopadhyay

 

Avik ChattopadhyaySunday, July 11, was quite a tumultuous day in London. While in Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic fought his way to his sixth title on grass, just 8.8 miles away, Wembley was preparing for the Euro 2020 finals between England and Italy.

 

Wimbledon was prim and proper, with people enjoying the game seated comfortably at centre court or relaxing on the lawns outside watching on large screens. Everything was very ‘English’ in its casual elegance and sportsmanship was displayed by one and all.

 

Wembley was the epicentre of a gathering storm, with people drunk on the streets damaging public property, smashing car and shop windows, uprooting potted plants and dancing on police barriers. Everything was very ‘English’ in its feared hooliganism and total lack of social propriety towards one and all.

 

What happened outside the stadium after the English lost in the penalty shootout has been shared across the world, with most English media embarrassed to cover and capture it in its brutal entirety.

 

A popular social media message doing the rounds is, “Wimbledon is what England wants the world to see it. Wembley is what England actually is.”

 

Screen captured from bbc.com

 

So, what really is “England” as a brand?
Is it actually Wimbledon with Wembley as an aberration?
Or is it actually Wembley with Wimbledon as an elitist diversion?
Or is it both in equal measure?
Or is it a larger macrocosm with these sporting events as little parts?

 

A more fundamental question that emerges is – is it England or London as a brand? Do Londoners believe they are distinct from the rest of England just like New Yorkers or Parisians do? Do they consider themselves just different or ‘better’?

 

“Places as brands are some of the most complex to both understand and work on”, Wally Olins, one of the world’s last brand gurus, had told me in 2010 when he was working on the London brand as part of the oncoming 2012 Olympic Games.

 

“Most place branding exercises end up being tourism campaigns,” he continued, “projecting an incomplete picture to the world at large and, more importantly, its citizens.”

 

So, while the world was debating the racist hooliganism of London, there were these electric buses traversing the city carrying pithy messages in typical English humour. If one were to judge London by just a single event of either a Wimbledon, a Wembley or a London Bus, one would be very far from the total picture that depicts the city in her entire form and mind.

 

Place brands are the closest to individual human brands in their complexity, mood swings, and multitude of manifestations. Their constituents make them so. Corporate and product brands are far simpler in contrast as there is greater ‘control’ on how the constituents behave.

 

It is nearly impossible for place brands to be opaque to the world outside, be it a tourist, an investor, or an immigrant. Each stakeholder is well aware of all aspects of the place before experiencing it, investing in it or even wanting to be a part of it. It is not that the place willingly shares all its manifestations, but the actions of its constituents ensure this level of transparency. London would love to have wished away what happened before and after the football game, but a place does not have control over each of its constituents. And one can end up being a total embarrassment even if miniscule as today’s open world captures, amplifies and critiques it even before you can finish singing your national anthem!

 

Just see what one virus from a bat did to brand China! All the hard work over the last three decades in building its ‘power and prosperity’ image came tumbling down because some constituents handled the situation so badly that it will take another three decades to restore any semblance of credibility and bonhomie with the larger world. In retrospect, it could not have been worse timed ahead of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the CPC!

 

At the same time, place brands are also subject to stereotyping by the rest of the world. There are riots currently happening in South Africa but then discussion and outrage in social media circles is far lesser even though more than seventy people have already died. That is because a larger part of the world actually expects such happenings in that place. This is the other aspect of place branding that it cannot turn away from.

 

Places and their citizens are stereotyped on historical records and their interpretations. A large part of this stereotyping is a post-colonial outcome with most ex-colonies taking considerable time to come out of the images cast upon them by their occupiers. The general narrative created is the deterioration of an ex-colony in quality of life, law and order and culture once it gains independence. Close to 70% of the world has spent the last half century in destroying these narratives primarily through action and credible demonstration rather than mere advertising.

 

Hence whether Kerala is truly “god’s own country” will not be determined by only the tourist boats on the backwaters but also on people enjoying “beef fry and parotta” irrespective of faith and ensuring every child gets high-quality education.

 

That makes place branding a slightly easier task!

 

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