I was surprised, and a little bit flattered I’ll admit, to be asked to be on the panel for Birmingham Future’s (Big Brand) debate “Is Birmingham A Second City?”, along with Ian Taylor, commercial director of Marketing Birmingham and David Clarke. Exalted company, but both very nice as it turned out.
Here’s the ‘debate’ proposition (much longer and more detailed version here in the Birmingham Post):
“Birmingham was the original hotbed of entrepreneurialism, innovation and cutting-edge technology, our ‘City of 100 Trades’ was a proud forerunner in the Industrial Revolution. Since then, we have suffered an image crisis – maligned in the media and the butt of many jokes despite huge strides in improving the built environment, infrastructure, amenities and leisure offer for the city’s inhabitants and visitors. So what can we, the next generation of city leaders, do to change these outdated perceptions of our city? Is the Second City banner, coveted by a number of other English cities, a positive or negative for Birmingham? If not the Second City, then what are we? The First City for Innovation? The Youthful City? Diverse City? International City?
In this, the second Big Future Debate, you decide! Join your fellow Future members, our panel of influential and passionate ‘Brummies’ and those charged with marketing our city to have your say on the image of our city locally, regionally, nationally and globally.”
I like talking, and sprouting out vague opinions without much firm backing, but I’d never done a “panel” before. Debates I’d done at school, but this was a little different — no proposition to argue for or against, and as it turned out not much argument at all.
It went ahead a little like a version of Question Time, but without the nervousness caused by boom mics hovering over the pre-selected questioners. Tim, the chair, was very good at the “bloke with the striped shirt, no, the expensive striped shirt” thing, and other panel rousing duties.
As I say, I don’t think there was anyone in the room, or at least no-one who spoke, that thought that “second city” was the best marketing strategy for Brum. A few people thought that the physical size of the place was worth pushing, but as a tweet put it to me before we started “aspiring to be a second city is like aspiring to be a middle child; overlooked and needy for attention”. (There wasn’t any online coverage, next time? would be good, but I’d asked for any input via twitter before and got a couple of good lines to claim as my own.)
It was interesting to hear that Marketing Birmingham are focused only on “visitor attraction” to the city, not marketing it to us residents – and that Ian himself admits that some of the stuff they push at Americans in particular is cringe-worthy. They deliberately pick different tactics for different markets, as you would expect.
Ian was critical, as was I, of some of the council’s communication about the city to its residents (self-styled Red headed Canadian Debra Davies was in the room), a point raised a number of times from the floor was that Brummies didn’t bother to defend their town to outsiders. I do think this is a lot to do with how little we get to hear about stuff that is going on, the council website is a joke to navigate (new one coming soon…) and the Forward newspaper is dull (having only council PR in it really) — I’m a Brum addict and find it hard to bother to read it before lining the cats’ litter tray.
David Clarke made some very good points about the pride of Brum’s population, but his most interesting contribution (sorry, to my trivia-obsessed brain at least) was that Birmingham was the first place to have One Way Streets — invented by his grandfather no less. Could this be our USP?
I made a weak witticism about penguins when Torquay was mentioned (they have a lot of penguins) “where are our penguins?” I asked. I meant it metaphorically, but also what city wouldn’t be better with penguins than without?
So “where are our penguins?”, diversity (cosmopolitan to use the MB phrase) and youth apparently, but they are such abstract concepts and so obvious that almost all brands go for them.
Birmingham’s reputation is changing, but at best we’ve got a blank canvas at the moment. The city’s job is to allow the people to breathe and perhaps create something that people want to visit and live in.