New Bristol role for Bennett boosts profile of city branding

’I’ve never had a proper job,’ says co-founder of digital group E3 Media, Mike Bennett, who is to step down as chief executive of design body Bristol Media to become ’place-making director’ of Bristol.

A new identity and a snappy tagline are no longer considered an acceptable solution to place branding – and haven’t been for a while.

Creative chiefs like Manchester creative director Peter Saville are starting to work with and within cities to steer their brand. Saville, who calls himself a ’provocateur of progress’, has been ’attempting to transform Manchester from the first industrial city to the original modern city’ since being appointed in 2004.

Bennett’s role will go further still, demanding that he considers how future city planning and development will affect the Bristol brand. He’ll also attempt to drive economic activity for all of Bristol’s industries and lobby Whitehall on anything that will ’help Bristol promote it’s assets’, he says.

The two-year fixed-term contract, beginning in September, will require Bennett to work for Bristol City Council, although the role permits him the autonomy to invest in ’creating a sense of place’ in ways that he sees fit.

Bennett concedes that his appointment is a risk for the city, one which some in the local press have dismissed as unnecessary, but he remains optimistic.

’In time, I will be talking to Whitehall policy-makers, looking at city planning and infrastructure, promoting the knowledge-based economies in the city and encouraging in-migration of new business,’ says Bennett.

But first he will work with city stakeholders to establish how Bristol’s patrons want their city to be perceived. He hopes that this will also give him a better understanding of the city’s points of difference and allow it to compete internationally.

Although largely a strategic role, Bennett’s work will have a physical output, with his research leading to design, digital and app briefs.

Although Applied Information Group’s Bristol Legible City won a Design Business Association Design Effectiveness Award in 2003, Bennett says, ’City legibility is high on my priority list,’ adding that residents, tourists and businesses can benefit further from signage.

Michael Wolff has long been an advocate for city brands being steered from within. He considered the need for a Birmingham creative director in the run up to The Big City Plan – a 20-year development plan for the city laid out in 2006.

Although the role was theoretical and didn’t come to fruition, Wolff believes that this is a conversation 21st century cities need to have.
’I think one needs to be very careful with branding a city. Cities don’t behave like commercial brands. The sense of cities lives in people’s minds,’ says Wolff. ’Design can be an enormous asset for a city’s creative director, but creating a brand through graphics can be slightly reductionist.’

Going further, he asserts, ’Creating a brand for a city is absurd. It’s not a place with customers. Graphics have some importance but they’re not as important as the public’s idea of the thing.’

If Saville’s role suggested to the design community that a fixed-brief identity project isn’t enough for a city, Bennett’s remit will ask even more of place branding, believes Wolff.

Bennett’s role ’will be about control and introducing a sense of coherence rather than consistency’, says Wolff.

While Bennett says that many other cities will be watching how his role plays out with a sense of anticipation, Wolff believes that new cities, in particular, may look to appoint creative directors and brand guardians. ’In places like the Middle East – in new cities – they’re more likely to attempt this,’ says Wolff.

Mike Bennett’s key tasks

  • Identifying, developing and maintaining a clear sense of place for Bristol
  • Devising initiatives to enhance Bristol’s sense of place and persuading the appropriate delivery bodies to adopt and implement them
  • Influencing city planning and development authorities to reflect Bristol’s sense of place in all policy guidelines
  • Persuading stakeholders to develop, adopt and support initiatives that reinforce Bristol’s sense of place

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