"Branding, it could be said, is the greatest gift commerce has given to culture"
So said Wally Olins, on the blog of Saffron Consultants, recently appointed to create the brand for London.
The Brand for London nearly didn't happen, At the judging proces of the pitches, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, seemed to undergo an attack of the why bothers. "Why are we doing this?" he allegedly asked, perhaps mindful of the inevitable backlash that will result when Londoners find out what they've got for their £650,000.
The thinking behind creating a Brand for London is to create something that can stand as a defining emblem of the city, which is currently under siege from a barrage of logos, as deftly illustrated here by Michael Johnson of agency Johnson Banks.
The problem with a Brand for London is similar to the problem that benights the NYC brand for New York City - there is already a 'default' emblem in place. For New York, the incumbent is the I heart NY logo created by Milton Glaser back in the 1970's for the tourist board. In London, the London Transport roundel icon, the blue line though the red circle, occupies a similar place in peoples affections.
There is a very real chance, that rather than providing a single point of identity for London, it will just be one other to add to the morass, along with the 2012 logo that still divides public opinion.
As with all these branding exercises, the fee inevitably becomes a point of contention, the Evening Standard headlines write themselves, £650,000 to create a squiggle that a child could do. But the truth is the designers have got their work cut out. One of the agencies pitching, Moving Brands, whose work I admire greatly, tried to build on the concept of a 'crowd-sourced' identity and created a blog to engage users. The problem is that pretty much all of the designs submitted by users sucked beyond belief.
Here's a selection of city brands from around the world.
It is rather disturbing to note that Saffron previously created the moronic Belfast branding. Is it me or does this look dated already?
I like the way that the "I amsterdam" logo is created as a physical entity, a functional typographical object, and scaled to the size of public sculpture for tourists to climb on, distributed via a thousand digital photographs.
Lastly, here is the new identity for Melbourne, Australia, to show that sometimes these things do come off.
Why do cities feel the need for brand identities? I think much of it is to do with the mediation of modern life. Cities are dissemination, distributed, experienced remotely much more frequently than physically. Cities compete with each other for attention, kudos and status in order to attract investment, visitors and to host events. Style mags create league tables of desirable cities (cf Monocle's Liveable Cities guide), or Richard Florida's Creative Cities guide.
All are operating within a decreasing attention span, where an instant visual shorthand can stand in lieu of the real place. This has progressed from architectural and objective stereotypes (the red bus, the houses of parliament), to stylised maps, to the virtual, the purely symbolic, the logo.
One day, all cities will be rendered as logo. The next step is for the sign to break free of its signifier. Like Fake Omaha, Mega-City 1, or Eden-Olympia, let us create brands for cities that do not exist.