Five cities that made a name for themselves in unexpected ways

There are a few cities that are lucky enough to be the superstars of the international scenes. But if you’re not New York, London, Paris, or Hong Kong, what can you do to make yourself known on the global stage?

By identifying a unique – and authentic – identity for your city, then it’s possible to make a real impact with your core audience regardless of your size or international renown. Here’s how second and third-tier cities around the world are making a name for themselves…

Helsinki: The Digital Testbed City

Already leading the way in innovation, Helsinki positioned themselves as a digital testbed for new start-ups to trial their idea: a sandbox city that was large enough to provide scope and scale to the trial, while being small enough to make the boldest ideas possible. Digital innovation has been a core pillar in Helsinki’s journey, from apps that promote sustainable living to a nation-wide virtual festival in the early days of lockdown. The city focussed on creating services that are so appealing that as well as meeting the customer needs, they’re also a story in and of their own right.

“One mistake that many cities make is that they think they need to be for everyone. That they need to reach every single person on this planet – but that’s not the point,” shares Laura Aalto, Director of Helsinki Partners. “We need to be the best destination, the best city, for those who shares our values and for whom we are the best city… We don’t need everyone here, but we do need those that share the Helsinki mindset.” 

Recently, Helsinki has launched a new strategy along these very values. Helsinki Freedom spotlights the quality of life that their residents take for granted (such as freedom of speech, fair elections, health care, and gender equality), and invites like-minded individuals to join them on their journey.

Eindhoven: City of Design

What drives a city? Managing Director of Eindhoven 365, Peter Kentie, says that for Eindhoven, it was “unconventional thinking… we focussed on that, resulting in an open-source and co-created branding and marketing programme.”

To raise self-esteem within the community and to invest in the image and reputation of the city, an open-source brand was created based on co-creation to develop a single identity for city marketing and municipal communication. Critically, the design – born from the creativity of fifteen local designers – was given back to the community with the tools needed to activate the brand. The strategy has been adopted by citizens and integrated throughout the city – even the pedestrian crossings reference the zig zags of the design! The place brand identity has transformed the city and boosted its economy, providing a platform for attracting new business and like-minded residents and visitors.

Cardiff: The Equality City

It’s perhaps a little early to include this strategy in the listing, but recognition has to be given for the ambition behind the vision. The Business Improvement District for the city aims to take an active role in creating a safe space for people of all communities and backgrounds.

“There is extensive data that shows that putting equality, diversity, and inclusion at the heart of your company is food for business,” stresses Carolyn Brownell, Associate Director at FOR Cardiff. “We want Cardiff’s businesses to be able to attract, retain, and progress diverse talent and really establish Cardiff as a leader in this area.”

Training and support are being offered to businesses throughout Cardiff to help understand and reduce unconscious bias, but by having the uncomfortable conversations and working with organisations throughout the city, Cardiff is ensuring that they’re an active participant in progress and not simply watching from the side lines.

Austin: Live Music Capital of the World

There are a number of contenders for ‘Music Capital of the World’ but Austin’s a strong contender with over 250 live music venues across the city and a diverse musical calendar. “The fact of the matter is that there was a large music community here,” explains Tom Noonan, CEO at Visit Austin. “It’s a big part of who we are, and we really celebrate music in Austin.”

However, as with all of these strategies, Austin needed to put their money where their mouth is. As well as opening new stadiums and venues, Visit Austin were critical in supporting the music industry during the pandemic. A series of virtual gigs offered local musicians a platform while support was provided to venues to ensure that as many as possible survived the pandemic.

“We’re trying to give back to the community, because we recognise that, yes, we want people to come here to spend their money, have a great time, and then go home, but we also want to make sure those folks that are working in our industry are taken care of as well,” continues Tom.

Struer: City of Sound

The ‘City of Sound’ identity is all about amplifying the existing assets Struer had; sound is inherent in Struer’s DNA. Home to Bang & Olufsen, a high-end audio technology company, Struer has a community of innovators in audio technology.

“Our objective has been to create a brand that is based on a true story about the city,” highlights Peter Kjeldbjerg, Manager of Struer City of Sound. “The key is to not only talk about the brand, but to continuously create new developments to enforce understanding of the brand.”

Struer has established Sound Hub Denmark, an ambitious development environment with the goal to attract and develop companies in the audio industry. And interactive art experiences, events like ‘Run to the Beat,’ and a festival for Urban Sound Art, making experiencing sound an integral part to everyday life.

So, what’s the formula for success?

  • Make sure it’s authentic.
    For a new proposition to be successful, it has to be rooted in reality. But as this list shows, inspiration can come from anywhere. Maybe you were home to an organisation that redefined an industry. Or maybe your community is full of free thinkers who challenge the status quo. Whatever it is, you need a solid anchor in the everyday reality of your city to create long-term impact.
  • Know who you’re target audience is.
    Once you’ve found that spark, take the time to understand who it is that you want to attract. As Helsinki’s Laura Aalto said, it’s not about being right for everyone; it’s being everything to the right someone. By understanding who aligns with your values, you can make sure that your able to meet their needs, whether they’re a prospective visitor, resident, or business owner.
  • It takes the whole city.
    Any new place branding strategy requires investment. And that means making sure that your municipal government and your residents are on board with your positioning. Make sure that you communicate your vision clearly to your local stakeholders, because their support will be critical in providing the momentum to making long-lasting changes.

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