Brand Manchester

This post is a break from my normal moan/call to arms approach, in favour of an interesting little bit of history I picked up while studying the evolution of place branding for an MSc assignment.

Tasked with producing a video focusing on a jurisdiction of our choosing, my group (for, lo, ’twas a group project), took the lazy prosaic approach and looked into the history of place branding for Manchester, the city where two of us live.

This being an academic assignment, there was limited room for the audience consideration and storytelling I would normally prioritise for a communications project. As a result we skipped lightly over some of the more interesting evidence we uncovered in favour of relevant theory – all kudos to my team mates for reigning in my but-guys-this-is-really-interesting instincts! It *is* really interesting, though, so I thought I’d share some of what we uncovered about Manchester’s complex recent history with place branding.

Manchester plays the game and City Pride is the reward

By the early 1990s Manchester was well and truly free of the municipal socialism that still dominated many northern Labour councils. Led by Graham Stringer, the City Council’s post-87 election approach to relations with central government softened considerably (in contrast with, for example, Liverpool, still reeling from the explosive effects of Militant’s control). That translated as a neoliberal willingness to form partnerships with the private sector. The transition is implicit in the change of Council slogan in the late 1980s: from ‘Defending Jobs, Improving Services’ – foregrounding the political process, very much in the mould of Kavaratzis and Ashworth’s (2008) “place marketing as planning instrument” – to ‘Making it Happen’ an approach emphasized concrete results.

This “playing the game” by the City Council won them ample rewards from the Tory government of the time, not least inclusion in the City Pride Initiative. Alongside London and Birmingham, Manchester was challenged – in November 1993 – to prepare a “City Prospectus” detailing
a vision for the city’s strategic development over the next decade. The report was duly published and contained a number of recommendations for physical, economic and social approaches to securing a future as a global city. Central to them all was the following:

“Marketing the City…with the aim of attracting inward private and international investment through distinctive image reconstruction, involving changing investor perceptions from a concern with an old industrial city to a regenerating cosmopolitan European centre.”

Marketing Manchester is born…and bludgeoned

And so Marketing Manchester was born – with a leadership team, in deference to the government of the day, headed by former Tory Minister and stockbroker David Tripper. Tasked with devising the first formal brand marque for Manchester, the team set to work and scheduled a launch…two weeks after Labour swept to power in the 1997 general election. With a change in government the ground for Marketing Manchester – headed by a Tory and established on the back of the Council’s embracing of Conservative neoliberal economics – was suddenly much less stable. Perhaps unfairly, the Council leadership perceived the whole enterprise as inherently Conservative and, unsure of the perception in Whitehall, were unwilling aligned themselves to the project and refused the invitation to attend. 

It was in this atmosphere of political isolation that Marketing Manchester unveiled their brand marque – Great Britain, Greater Manchester … we’re up and going”. 

Described variously as “artless”, “little more than dull” and resembling “a cycling proficiency badge” the logo drew audible gasps of horror from the assembled crowd and mobilised a high profile pushback that would have repercussions for the city for decades to come.

The McEnroe group

The chief architects of the rebellion against “up and going” were the McEnroe group – named for the incredulous tennis player and formed for the occasion. Tony Wilson, Ian Simpson, Tom Bloxham and Nick Johnson were amongst the prominent names involved (as was Trevor Johnson, who we interviewed for our assignment), although membership was flexible, nebulous. In a Guardian profile of Manchester’s urban renaissance a few years later, Martin Wainwright wrote “[The McEnroe] club input (‘membership’ is informal and open to anyone wanting to get stuck into the city’s leap ahead) is the fizz of bright ideas plus the business clout to act on them.” 

These were the new urban elite of Manchester whose sense of entitlement and ownership of the symbolism shared in their name emboldened their protest against what they perceived as a an old-school approach. It certainly seems that the larger political transformation that the arrival of New Labour heralded for the UK as a whole gave fertile ground for this kind of dissent. The irony, of course, is that the neoliberal hegemony that the Council leadership perceived to be at an end with the Conservative’s loss in 1997 was only just beginning.

A Revolution Made in Manchester

The McEnroe group flexed their collective creative muscles and a counter campaign was born. There is some debate as to whether the ideas they proposed – an asterisk marque with points to represent the constituent boroughs of Greater Manchester and creative around the ideas of revolution and “made in” Manchester – were ever intended for use or simply as a provocation or a public show of force from a stakeholder group who felt overlooked.

Regardless, Marketing Manchester took the criticism seriously and allowed the McEnroe group to present their work – including this incredible piece of late-90s memorabilia (and absolute BANGER) in the form of a promotional film for the brand.

It was clear that, following this public drubbing, “we’re up and going” was, in fact, never going to go anywhere for the city and Marketing Manchester swiftly dumped the brand in 1998.

The legacy

In the aftermath of the McEnroe group’s revolution Manchester was without a brand marque. The extent to which this was a great loss is, of course, up for debate but it is clear that the repercussions of the poor timing of Marketing Manchester’s inception were felt for some time. The Manchester Primer – a Manchester brand toolkit released in 2003 opens with the words “no one wants a draconian style guide”. Even as late as 2006 – almost ten years after the launch of “up and going” – Peter Saville was at pains to say that Original Modern, the “set of guiding principles” he devised for the city, having been appointed by a creative panel featuring many McEnroe group members, was not – most definitely not – a city brand.

In missing the mark so early on it could be argued that Manchester dodged a bullet to some extent. From 2003 I was working for a media company concerned with UK cities and saw more misguided attempts at city branding than I care to remember (Leeds Live It Love It was a particular lowlight) – Manchester essentially skipped over that (if you take Saville at his word, that is). In recent years there have been several instances of “citizen-owned” brands (on which I could write a whole other blog post) in I ❤️ MCR and the bee but Marketing Manchester now prefer to take a more campaign-based approach, arguing that the city is the brand, it doesn’t need a marque to sell it.

A fascinating bit of history, right? I liked it. And there’s lots more to say, too – the extent to which a group of self-appointed representatives of the city were able to decry the work of another group as being non-representative feels very much of it’s time. I would like to hope that now there would be at least some nod to the impossibility of the task of representation in place brands. Indeed, there are those who would say that the repetitive mundanity of all those early noughties city brands I witnessed were a result of just that – an attempt to be all encompassing can only lead to a blanding-out of a city’s style and distinction. And all of this misses a larger point: to what extent do we – should we – question the purpose of place branding in the first place? Many place brands are intended to attract investment through tourism, business and migration – the assumption then, is that their value lies in a model of trickle-down economics that most have long since given up on. And what about the rest? Is there anything else that they can do? Or – as one academic I have worked with who shall remain nameless suggested – do many places seek to develop brands simply because they think that they should, and give little thought to what they want the brand to do and how they expect it to deliver.

I am indebted to my MSc colleagues in the writing of this piece – the research is as much theirs as it is mine. A particular thank you to Emma Summer, whose incredible contact book led us to Trevor Johnson, who very kindly supplied all the images contained above.

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