'City Branding' in times of COVID-19.

Nicole Kalemba
Professora de Marketing de la UPF Barcelona School of Management

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City Branding. How to respond the current pandemic consequences?

Big cities, as New York, Paris, London, Lisbon, or Barcelona are managing large efforts to put the brands in top of the mind and, the importance of developing a brand image is getting more recognized than ever, as a successful place branding campaign can lead to the creation of attractiveness and a positive reputation of the city.

City branding is a very complex issue, it is much more than just attracting tourists. City branding means facing the challenges of globalization and crises. Cities belong to people. And there is no doubt that in those times we are living right now, city branding is more necessary than ever, as it is about people’s lives and about communities. It is about finding the essence of what we want to be in the future.  

Since March 2020, the pandemic has caused worldwide lockdowns with its beginning in Italy, followed by the rest of the world. Curfews, stay-at-home orders and other similar restrictions were suddenly the “normality”. The entire world has been paralyzed and the pandemic has significantly affected several sectors that are vital for many cities, as leisure and tourism, including also the sports tourism sector, and furthermore hospitality, retail, between others. This, and the shutdown of the entire flow of people has led to where we stand right now: The big clash with the post-COVID-19 recovery.

What will be the main challenge for the Barcelona Brand and other Cities?

Barcelona 1992. The Summer Olympic Games. The game changer for Barcelona as a City. VS. Barcelona 2020. COVID-19. The biggest challenge since the World War II.

The Olympic Summer Games of 1992 were the key that made Barcelona becoming a cosmopolitan and touristic city, and the Games were a great impulse for increasing the attractiveness and awareness of the city, as well as transforming Barcelona to an international well-renowned place. Thereafter, the Catalan Capital started to invest in other initiatives and events and is having nowadays one of the best images on a worldwide scale, differentiating themselves due to their city identity, as well as creativity and innovation, aspects that have been essential for the city transformation.

Today, July 2020 – being Barcelona the favorite European City Brand for international meetings, businesses and tourists, with an outstanding quality of life – it must, as other cities worldwide, face a big challenge with an uncertain future and reposition itself as a safe, sustainable and healthy city.

Rethinking City Brands in Times of COVID-19

In response to the importance of City Branding and the uncertainty that we are living at this moment, on Tuesday, July 21st, the international Webinar “Rethinking the City Brand in Times of COVID-19” took place, organized by the Barcelona City Council, Barcelona Activa and #alwaysBarcelona, in collaboration with the UPF Barcelona School of Management. The total number of registered persons was 494.  

After an Introduction to the Webinar by Mr. Mario Rubert, City Promotion Director of the Barcelona City Council and the Welcome Word from Mr. Oriol Amat, Dean of the UPF Barcelona School of Management, Mr. Jaume Collboni, 1st Deputy Mayor for Economy, Labor, Competitiveness and Finance of the Barcelona City Council, gave an interesting reflection on the actual situation of Barcelona as a City Brand.

Furthermore, during this Webinar, international knowledge of both local government and academic expertise has been contributed for interchanging experiences and finding measures and strategies to promote cities in the new post-pandemic reality. Therefore, a keynote speech by Mr. Greg Clark, as well as three Panels with international experts from cities as London, Lisbon, Oslo, Tel Aviv, Beijing, Poznan, Leicester, Barcelona, between others, have been carried out.

The main findings showed that one of the key lessons that must be learned from this pandemic is that no city is big enough to face this pandemic alone. Global alliances will help build better responses to the impact on the different sectors, being the post-COVID environment an excellent opportunity for cities to offer greater efficiency and sustainability in management, helping furthermore to boost again the city's international positioning and reputation and likewise to make the most of the city’s brand values. All cities have a unique DNA, and an attractive identity is fundamental for building a sense of belonging and a common purpose among the citizens.

Without doubt, COVID-19 is an agent of change and accelerator of trends, where communication, the right tone and transparency will be essential, and where value should be considered before volume.

Additionally, the Keynote Speaker Greg Clark pointed out that it will be essential to use city branding as a tool to help cities succeed. None of the cities should be recognized better as another one, as all cities are capable of a good organization. Thus, city branders should identify themselves as global alliances. Furthermore, he talked about a new model, “Blended Cities”, a combination of the physical and digital city, with new business models, disrupting face to place activities, accelerating face to space activities and relocating face to face activities.

Moreover, in those moments of changes it will be crucial to have leaders that can build trust and confidence to the citizens and between each other, fact that is seen as a basis for being more agile and prepared for future shocks.  

Winston Churchill said once, “Never waste a good crisis”. Thus, times in crisis can often lead to great opportunities and an improvement of the community’s situation. And maybe this is now the moment to rethink the city brand strategies, not only for Barcelona, but the entire world.  

Watch the videos: webinar 'Rethinking the Brand City'

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