The Leiden Equation: Unpacking the city’s successful formula for place branding

The Dutch city of Leiden is steeped in history – and is home to the country’s oldest university, founded in 1574. Fast forward some five hundred years, the city is leaning into its long heritage of scientific innovation to create an impactful place brand strategy that is engaging residents, businesses, and government alike in celebrating their proud history.

At the recent City Nation Place Awards ceremony, we were delighted to recognise the hard work and determination of the team at Leiden&Partners in pulling off a year-long celebration of their position as European City of Science. Mincke Pijpers, Head of Marketing & Strategy for Leiden&Partners, joined us to delve into the secrets behind their success and how they developed this carefully crafted blend of innovative campaigns and activations across the year.

Well done on being named Place Brand of the Year 2023! What does it mean to the team to have won this award?

It is such a wonderful honour to have won this Award! It made the entire team so proud of what we’ve reached all together. And not just our team, but in fact the entire Leiden community felt proud on what we’ve achieved! It is for sure an award that represents all the efforts of many parties that contributed to this achievement.

A place brand strategy only works if it is rooted in the everyday reality of the city. How did you land upon ‘City of Science’ as your positioning?

We’ve been sowing the seeds for this strategy for years through the Leiden Continuum – and actually, we won a Dutch marketing trophy for the brand story. That really helped us in getting our brand story widely adopted amongst a lot of stakeholders in the City of Leiden. It tells the story of Leiden as a true city of science from the beginnings in 1574 when the first University of the Netherlands was founded in Leiden. We consider this to be a crucial part in the development of our city as a city of art and sciences.

Many of the museums' collections came from the gathering of scientists lecturing, living, and experimenting in Leiden. As most of our communities have adopted this brand story already, it felt very logical to bid to host the EuroScience Open Forum [ESOF]. It is one of the most important scientifical congresses in Europe, so it fit our profile very well. But instead of focussing on the congress, we decided to showcase the title that came with it: European City of Science. So we positioned the city as the City of Science in 2022 for all 365 days of the year. 

This was the perfect strategy for us because it gave us the opportunity to show Europe and the rest of the world that we are a true city of science. We hosted all kinds of events throughout the year for different target groups, used citizen science, organised and hosted dozens of conferences, and realised a full year science program.

Over the course of the 365-day programme, there were a huge number of initiatives undertaken to showcase Leiden as the European City of Science. Is there one initiative that you’re particularly proud of?

Yes, the Seeing Stars Leiden event that took place was phenomenal. Inspired by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, we decided to switch off all the light in the city to be able to see the wonders of the night sky.

 It was exiting and asked a lot of effort from everyone, including from the citizens that were asked to turn off their lights. It also created a lot of awareness on light pollution, on the effect light has on biodiversity, and on the waste of energy (windows of shops, for example).

At the same time, it filled the dark sky with the stars. It should be a right for everyone to see the stars, but due to the light pollution, we don’t see them any more. The project was a big ‘hit’ for all kinds of people, all from their own perspective (scientists, citizens, organisations). It generated an enormous community feeling. People were counting the stars via a special app (which was part of our citizen science approach). It has been one of the programme elements that has generated also a big value for our city in PR. People are still talking about it, and it also changed behaviour and attitude around light pollution in our city.

This was a very collaborative project between a number of stakeholders. How did you navigate between the different priorities of organisations to create a unified narrative for the city? 

This is the most difficult part. Together with the main stakeholders we set up a separate organisation to programme the 365-day event-calendar, Leiden2022, with themes that everyone could be part of it. Every organisation was quite free within this framework to take a part or role in the bigger scenario. Navigating with so many partners is one of the most challenging parts of such a year. However, we feel that we succeeded in creating a kind of ‘pride’ towards the city and what we are capable of and to see the assets we have. Most of our partners moved beyond their personal wishes and priorities because they saw the value in achieving our major goal of being a European City of Science.

As you’ve explained, the strategy was very much built around a year of events, having won the title ‘European City of Science’ and been named host of the EuroScience Open Forum. How did you factor in a lasting legacy to the programme as you were developing it? 

For some of the events that were successful and logical, like for instance the Days of Art & Science, but also the Life Science and Health Week, the people and organisations that showed ownership for that particular part have decided to continue cooperating. They’re co-financed by different partners, all with the same goal: showing that Leiden is strong in Life Sciences and Health. For that to be successful, it requires one central organisation that still is chasing and lobbying for the overall end goal – in this case, the city marketing organisation, Leiden&Partners. We took ownership of making sure that some of the initiatives born in that year would not just disappear. We made sure people were still linked, gathered the needed budget, invested ourselves and lobbied to make sure that we can further build upon the efforts of that year.

Finally, if there was a single learning point that you could share from the experience, what would it be? 

It takes quite a lot of time. Start early with the preparations, because the most difficult part is getting people aligned to the higher purpose. Really, you need at least two years prior to such an event in order to make sure that you can truly benefit from it. Also, make sure that after such a project, someone takes ownership of its legacy and that it belongs to an organisation to watch over it and help it continue to grow.

Thank you for sharing that, Mincke. And congratulations again on your win!


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