Collaboration in action: Sheffield’s place branding journey

Sheffield had a perception problem. The industrial and economic decline of ‘The Steel City’ in the 1970s led to a severe drop in relevance for Sheffield. And while Sheffield has been on a remarkable journey of development and revitalisation over recent decades, the speed of change rapidly outpaced the shift in domestic perceptions.

“Sheffield has always had a strong identity rooted in its history and culture, but the city’s identity has significantly evolved over the years as the economy has changed,” explained Danny Johnson, Commercial Manager at Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.

Sheffield needed a refreshed brand and narrative to help address the challenges in awareness, reputation and relevance across talent attraction, tourism, and trade. “For a company, organisation, or institution to be able to stand for something and try to shape its reputation, personality, and values, it needs an identity. Place is no different,” shared Mark Mobbs, Place Brand and Marketing Manager at Marketing Sheffield.

In 2015, a brand partnership led by Sheffield City Council began to research the economic benefit of a collaborative and joined up brand for the city, and in 2019, the place brand was launched. Since then, Sheffield’s Greenground Map shows just how far away the old perceptions of smog and industry are, with the city placing second in Time Out’s list of Best City Breaks in Europe 2023, being identified as the top place to start a business in the UK, and one of the most-searched places for people looking to relocate within the UK.

What’s the story behind Sheffield’s place branding success? 

Before we head to Sheffield for the City Nation Place UK conference in just a few weeks’ time, we wanted to understand how it was that the city has had such success in updating their domestic and international reputation.

In short? Collaboration.

“We work hard to find innovative and effective ways to listen to and partner with people, businesses, and organisations that make up our city in ensuring that their diverse stories, aspirations, and ambitions for our city are embodied in the goals we set and way we work,” explained Kate Josephs, CEO of Sheffield City Council, when we asked why she felt a unified place brand is important for a city to grow, develop, and thrive.

“The drive in Sheffield is one of collaboration and working in partnership, shaped by a new energy and motivation to get things done,” concurred Martin McKervey, Chair of Sheffield Property Association, our host partner for City Nation Place UK. “We are ambitious, and our new ways of working are enabling us to unleash our strengths and deliver on our ambitions.”

A more effective use of place branding resources

‘Collaboration’ within the world of place branding takes many forms, but at its core, there are two main purposes: to surface the authentic, everyday experience of your community, and to amplify your message with many voices singing from the same hymn sheet.

“We have to be honest about the fact that we simply don’t have the economic and human resource to deliver the totality of the city’s needs,” Kate Josephs outlined. “We have to lean into the opportunity that modern, collaborative, and open forms of place leadership offer today’s world.”

Mark Mobbs shared a similar sentiment with us, explaining that partnerships are key to promoting the city with limited resources. By identifying what the mutual problem is that Sheffield’s place brand can help to solve – and thereby provide return value to partners for their support – the city is able to make greater impact with their place brand. “Partnerships are arguably the most important aspect of our place brand strategy, because if our place brand is not of benefit to our key partners, then it is basically redundant,” Mark continued.

Activating collaborative approaches to place branding

Sheffield’s collaboration is bringing the place brand to life in multiple different areas across the city, including their communication strategies. Take Sheffield’s ‘Your University City’ campaign, which is possibly a world-first in using the place brand to bring together two universities within the city to create one campaign that showcases the student experience in Sheffield. The research of both universities highlighted the importance of place when a student is selecting their university – and also the lack of awareness that Sheffield had amongst that audience.

“The results were mind-blowingly good, with brand uplift metrics for awareness and consideration obliterating industry benchmarks by multiple figures,” shared Mark Mobbs as he explained why the campaign has now become a multi-year strategy.

Working with private sector partners is also key to building culture and heritage into the heart of the city. Leah’s Yard is one such example of this collaboration in action. A former collection of small industrial 19th century workshops, the space had been left empty and unused for over 20 years. Now, a £6 million renovation is breathing life back into the buildings to create a destination for independent retail and immersive experience showcasing traders, makers, and creators from Sheffield.

James O’Hara, a driving force behind the redevelopment, has been operating F&B premises for over a decade in Sheffield. However, according to James, while they might be a “disparate menagerie of businesses[,] they were all motivated by a desire to create something in Sheffield it didn’t have before. I certainly would’ve never consciously admitted to having an impact on the ‘brand’ of Sheffield, but perhaps that’s the thing – it’s a series of seemingly small changes from many, many people that result in a city on the cusp of a really fruitful future.”

By partnering with the people changing the fabric of the city, the Sheffield brand remains tightly anchored to the everyday experience of the city. “There’s no point fictionalising anything,” explained Mark Mobbs. Instead, the team aims to “bring to life the feel, character, spirit, and personality of the city as a reason to visit for a different kind of unique experience” – and developments like Leah’s Yard are critical for this to be successful.

Crafting Sheffield’s future through place branding

Effective place branding is a key tool in shaping a prosperous, thriving future for your city or nation, and the shared identity allows you to unite the different voices of your place with one story. “Place branding gives us something tangible and tactile,” mused James O’Hara. “It gives us the language and markers we need in order to talk about our city in the way it deserves.”

Sheffield Chamber of Commerce’s Danny Johnson agreed that place branding was critical in securing the shared vision of Sheffield’s future – and reiterated how essential collaboration was to realising this. “Place marketing, challenging perceptions, and achieving our long-term objectives can only be achieved if we work together as a city,” Danny told us. “I’m pleased to see this evidenced – and we’re very much looking forward to City Nation Place.”

City Nation Place UK is heading to Sheffield this September 19-20th. Book your place today to hear first-hand how Sheffield are realising their ambitions through collaborative place branding. Alongside other place brand and marketing leaders from across the country, you’ll be able to hear from Kate Josephs, CEO of Sheffield City Council, and Martin McKervey, Chair of Sheffield Property Association (and host partners of CNP UK 2023), at the conference on September 19th. Mark Mobbs, Marketing Manager for Marketing Sheffield, will be leading an exclusive placemaking tour of the city on September 20th alongside Wendy Ulyett, the city’s Marketing Manager for Visitor Economy, and key city players from across Sheffield, including Leah’s Yard’s James O’Hara.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.