Brand Politics: City brands & the ‘world-class’ positioning myth
by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) In our globalised world, countries and cities compete in an almost-open market for investment and tourism. That makes it as important for them to have coherent and compelling brands as it is in the private sector. But South African cities are struggling to define their brands, pulled as they are between wanting to seem “world-class” and wanting to seem responsive to all who live in them.
The problem is that they are focused upon high-end developments, sophisticated infrastructure, clean streets and middle-class aesthetics.
Understanding of “world-class”
Their understanding of “world-class” is one in which informality and poverty are hidden from view, rather than one in which poor people are integral to the priorities and identity of the city. Despite very different marketing messages, there are two cities which are trying to build brands on the exclusive end of the exclusive—inclusive continuum.
On the one hand, Johannesburg’s positioning as “a world class African city” got it into trouble with the ASA in 2013 but it has also led the city to do some very anti-poor things. Operation Clean Sweep, for example, has involved forcibly removing informal traders in the city centre, arresting some of them and confiscating their possessions.
The positioning has all the feel-good warmth of a group hug, but it has met with fierce criticism from those who believe it is entirely inauthentic: If inclusivity is so core to Cape Town’s brand, why then are its townships so shamefully underdeveloped? Why are sharp rocks embedded into the ground beneath bridges to stop homeless people from sleeping there?
In focusing upon high-end developments and citizens, SA cities are choosing to build exclusive brands, presumably because they believe this reflects the tastes of global investors and tourists. As custodians of entities which belong to all who live in them, this is not only unethical, but it is a strategically flawed from a marketing point of view, too.
What people want
What visitors want is a bustling, unique and authentic experience. What investors want is social stability. Both of these come from responsive, caring cities, rather than flashy skyscrapers and sanitised streets.
We use “exclusive” interchangeably with “sophisticated”, “classy” and “luxurious” but it isn’t that. The clue to what it really means is in the word. Exclusivity excludes.
Exclusive brands go to great lengths to ensure they are not accessible to the masses. Some clothing brands, most notoriously Abercrombie & Fitch, refuse to make larger-size clothing and destroy their old or damaged stock. rather than donate it — because they don’t want their brand to be seen on or associated with poor or fat people. Belgian beer Stella Artois had the tagline “reassuringly expensive” for many years. It’s funny, but also brutally clear: you can’t drink this if you’re poor.
The problem with inclusivity is that it isn’t sexy. It’s earnest and wholesome and salt-of-the-earth. When you think of inclusivity as a brand value, you think of sweet old ladies (Ouma rusks, maybe, or Omo washing powder) or family holidays or sitting in a circle talking about your feelings. It’s great for non-profit brands, or insurance companies or mass-market retail, but you can’t hope to build an aspirational brand upon it.
Build something extraordinary
The good news is that there is a lot more to high-end brands than exclusivity. All exclusivity offers is restricted access (exclusive events have limited space available; exclusive stories have been given to one publication only) and that’s a pretty shallow measure of what constitutes worth. Consumers in the information age need more tangible benefits, before parting with their cash, than restricted access. Premium brands need to offer something genuinely valuable: hand-craftsmanship, for example, or a fascinating history or superiority of ingredients, materials or taste.
More good news is that the dichotomy between premium and mainstream brands is coming to an end.
Globally, we are witnessing the rise of the “hybrid consumer” — people who buy from both expensive and cheap brands, depending upon their mood and their needs at that time. Income no longer determines brand choices, and brand choices no longer define your identity to the same extent. A wealthy shopper may pop into PEP, for example, to get some basics for the kids; a low-income shopper may save up for months to buy one really expensive pair of Carvella shoes. Izikhotane are not high-net-worth individuals, and yet they blow all their money on luxury brands.
Brand owners can no longer assume they know what consumers want, based upon how much money they have, and they can no longer afford to exclude people who may well turn out to be customers.
Be the best of both
This means it is increasingly important to be the best of both: “cool” and aspirational, while also making everyone feel welcome.
Woolworths is a brand that has done this exceptionally well: broadening its appeal downwards by offering good-value meal combinations (Eat In for Under R150) without cheapening its overall brand experience. Mercedes-Benz overtook BMW in this year’s Sunday Times Generation Next Coolest Brands Survey with a similar stretch downwards to include the excluded: the all-new, entry-level CLA-class.
There are many smarter ways of building a premium brand than just making it exclusive. World-class brands have intrinsics that genuinely stand out. Socially cohesive cities that work for their most marginalised residents have just that kind of brand intrinsic. It’s much more attractive for investors and tourists. It’s much nicer for residents, too.
Alistair Mackay (@almackay) is a writer and marketing strategist. He spent many years at Yellowwood, a leading strategy consultancy, and has worked in politics as the digital media manager for South African political party, the Democratic Alliance. He believes marketing has the power to be both good for business and social change in South Africa. He contributes the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.
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