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Place branding and regeneration Q&A: Part one of two

By David Bardell
December 9, 2019

Place branding is sometimes viewed as a natural extension of product branding. But in reality, its characteristics are very different.

Traditional brand development generally involves creating something new for a target market – such as a product, company, service or cause. You know who it’s for and what their needs are, so your design and brand it for them. But with place brands, you’re not creating anything new; rather, discovering something that already exists and – most – crucially listening to the people who live there.

In the first of a two-part series on place branding, we asked regeneration expert Paul Quinn of Clarion Housing Group and Creative Bridge’s creative director David Bardell to discuss their experiences.

How did you get involved in place branding?

PQ: I’ve worked in urban regeneration for around 30 years. To some extent, there has always been an element of place, but it’s much more significant now. Place and placemaking have become an integral part of the lexicon for development and house building.

The largest project I look after for Clarion is the Merton Regeneration project. Over the past six years, my team has both worked with existing communities and planned for the introduction of large numbers of new people into neighbourhoods as we increase the density of homes on three specific estates. Historically this would have been a project that was largely about demolition and rebuild. Nowadays there is a recognition is a much more complicated, nuanced process. 

DB: I’ve been involved in branding projects for around 25 years. Back in the day, this included destination brands like VisitBritain, as well as holiday companies and international airlines. Over time I became more familiar with the need to brand places, and the opportunity came up to get more involved.

It’s really interesting. Traditional, marketing-led techniques don’t always work – because the culture is what defines an area, and that comes from the people within it.

Placemaking, place branding, how do you see it?

PQ: I’m not entirely comfortable with the term ‘place-making’. Neighbourhoods are typically places where people have lived, brought up families and lived for generations. These are already places and you’re usually not starting from scratch. I’m keen to understand what works well about a place, and what can be enhanced.

At Merton, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to focus on that and understand what’s important to local people and other stakeholders. We’re more than doubling the number of homes, so a lot of new people will be in the area. But where they’re moving to is already a place; it hasn’t been invented, with a fancy new name to match, for the purposes of selling homes in the Evening Standard.

DB: Authenticity is an over-used term, but it is important to stay true to an area’s roots. We spend a lot of time engaging residents in projects because we’ve seen how it makes a difference and can draw out what makes a place special. You don’t need to make anything up – just use methods to uncover perceptions and get the information out there.

PQ: Exactly. We do shedloads of engagement these days. And we use digital technologies more, to reach people who might have been hard to connect with in the past. It’s not just about listening to existing likes and dislikes; sometimes you have to push people to give a more expansive, longer-term view. It’s easy to settle into and for existing patterns of living and if we’re not careful, it would be easy to replicate those patterns in the newly designed neighbourhoods – even if they are not necessarily what’s best for residents or the neighbourhood.

What are the main differences between regular branding and place branding?

PQ: There is a fine line. To me, branding sounds like products. For example, I’ve got 1,000 homes to sell; and if I don’t sell them, the product doesn’t work. So, I need to have a brand to start with.

But shaping place – and how you talk about a location and present it – is a much more complicated, nuanced thing. You have to take account of sensitivities, considering what people think about where they live and their position in the new place.

As a case in point, probably one in three of the people who will live at  High Path (one of the three neighbourhoods in the Merton Regeneration Project) are existing residents, while the other two-thirds will be new; and many of the people coming into the area have paid a lot of money to live in SW19. They may be from a different academic background, different social strata and have entirely different aspirations to some of the longer-term residents. We have to take account of all this so we’re not just focused on the market. It’s much more political than would be the case with product branding. Everyone needs to feel valued and that they are gaining for the regeneration, especially the residents who already live on High Path

DB: It’s the difference between creating and discovery. With a traditional brand, you create something for a market – so you will usually know what that market is beforehand, then create the brand to sell to that market. But with place branding the place already exists, so you’re not actually creating it; you’re discovering what is genuinely good about the area and defining the message. Sometimes it’s quite far away from marketing, and more about communicating with the right people.

PQ: It’s like peeling back the layers of history. Some of it may be around a very recent history and reputation, such as ASB or whatever. And some of it might be down to origins, how the street pattern reflects medieval beginnings or historic characters that have lived there.

When you build a new place, it’s all about the new. There’s an emphasis on the potential for generating a return if you private let or sell to new buyers, and often a focus on access to public transport; these narrow indicators are used for most of the London new build schemes and are true for many urban locations in the UK as a whole. We’re trying to look beyond that. To look much more deeply into location, its history, the public and civic life that already exists there and how that shapes what we are bringing to market.

DB: Place branding is much more dependent on people and culture – after all, it’s where people may live for the rest of their lives. But think about the upsides; the potential for a better quality of life – and extra years that could be added onto someone’s life – is amazing. As recent news headlines have reported, where you live matters.

Does size particularly affect the complexity of a project?

PQ: At the minute I’m looking after Merton and several other projects. Each of these is complicated in its own way. For example, one current refurbishment scheme will only generate around 90 homes. But how that location reads back into the surrounding area, the history of the area, and its relationship with its neighbours is critically important.

We’re currently looking for architects for this job. London obviously has a lot of good architects. The professionals who really pay attention to and reflect back the aspirations and fears of local residents, they are the ones that will get this job – and that’s for a scheme that would be seen as a very small project alongside something of the scale of Merton. But it’s arguably just as complicated.

Thinking about it, the larger the scheme, the more anonymous and more headroom potentially you have. The small, tight locations that have been that way for more than 100 years – they are harder to unlock because the roots run so deep. The example I’m thinking of was built in 1913 and designed as social housing from day one. It’s a William Sutton legacy estate and one of the UK’s first examples of purpose-built social housing; that means you need to be really careful with it, irrespective of the design.

What’s your starting point for a new place brand?

PQ: Listen, listen, listen. In Merton we spent night after night at drop-ins, resident meetings, talking to groups of councilors and so on. We had to be clear what people aspire to, and what makes them nervous. In our experience, you have to absorb whatever is thrown at you – fear, aggression, excitement, whatever – then structure it into something that you can respond to and shape into a positive resident offer.

This approach isn’t new; it goes back to my community development days in the early 80s. We aim to hear as many voices as possible, then explore how best to capture and structure the practical delivery of the other side of that.

DB: Creative Bridge’s starting point is to research the project in-depth, and explore it first-hand. In Merton, we took our team on a tour of various places, to get a practical understanding of local neighbourhoods and what it’s like to be there. We looked at the organisation’s vision and aims and how this translated on a local level in a meaningful way for the stakeholders.  We also visited other areas of the country to compare notes. That paved the way for in-depth consultation work, where we helped to facilitate conversational ‘building blocks’ (area descriptions and stories based on local feedback).

The start and endpoint should always share the same thing; the residents’ voice.

Sincere thanks to Paul Quinn, Director of Merton Regeneration for Clarion Housing Group for contributing to this blog.

Further reading

Housing association brands: 30 years and counting

Branding strategy, architecture and identity services