At last month’s British Consortium of Shopping Centres Conference, Mary Portas painted a pretty bleak picture of town centres.
A nation of shopkeepers has been replaced by a nation of closed shutters, rusted padlocks and To Let signs.
She took us to Margate, and the grim reality where 40% of shops are now defunct. Portas laid the blame partly on the doorstep of out-of-town supermarkets: “They’ve displaced the high street – it’s the single biggest effect.”
And it doesn’t end there. “The question isn’t ‘how can high streets be saved, but which ones should we save?’ was the grim conclusion by Justin Taylor of property consultants, Cushman & Wakefield.
Despite such worrying reviews and predictions, there can be a positive outcome, for those authorities and organisations willing to take control.
They need to consider why people use towns, and what they want from them. They need to create experiences, to create destinations.
Cultural probes are used to engage stakeholders
Creating a destination means identifying what differentiates one town from another. It means defining the town’s story and then communicating that story through the most appropriate channels to reach those audiences, from local residents and shoppers, to businesses and investors. Engage with audiences and the people of that town or city will take ownership.
That has been our approach when working with places as varied as the London boroughs of Hounslow and Brent in the south, to Liverpool and Wirral Waters in the north. Every town, city or place has a story to tell, and our approach helps uncover and communicate that brand story effectively.
Even those towns lucky enough to still hold an appeal to major developers and retailers, still need to articulate their town story to stand out from the vast array of competitors vying for a limited investment pot.
And then there’s the tourist pound. Towns with a credible tourist offer cannot afford to rely on their past wins. Consumers are being targeted via increasingly sophisticated and innovative ways, while time, and money, is finite.
So how do towns uncover their own story, and find this differentiator?
Portas hit it on the head when she spoke about the need for co-creation, and collaboration. She spoke of the need for retailers, councillors, planners, landlords and others to come together to create a force of good. Collaboration is also a core aspect of the brand process that we have developed at Uniform, when creating a distinct place brand.
A place brand shouldn’t be created in isolation, and certainly shouldn’t be enforced on a community. Co-creation makes it stronger, not only during the brand process, but afterwards when everyone is working towards the common goal.
The UK’s towns are at a critical juncture, and need to rediscover their sense of place. A new, vibrant future is possible for those who take up the mantle. In this highly competitive market place branding has never been more important.
This piece was published in The Drum on September 14, 2012