All cities have a reputation for a ‘brand’.
For some, a positive image can be a powerful promotional tool while, for others, a negative reputation (sometimes unfairly earned) can make them the butt of jokes and the least likely name on anyone’s travel list.
As Oscar Wilde famously quipped, however, it is better to be talked about than not discussed at all. And so it is for the many towns and cities that exist anonymously between those two extremes, known and discussed by few outside of their own regions.
Last week saw the first episode of Channel 4’s new ‘Derry Girls’ comedy broadcast to considerable fanfare. Early signs of its success are promising - attracting 1.6m. viewers to a 10pm slot on a Thursday night. The show was well received locally, despite grumbles about accents, geography and the fact that much of it was filmed in Belfast - all of which misses the bigger picture.
I’ve lived outside Derry for more than 26 years, in Holland, the United States and various parts of England. Throughout that time, one thing has continually surprised me. Whenever I meet people and they ask where I’m from, my response is usually met with blank faces (regardless of which version of our city’s name I use). Derry may be an important place in Ireland but most people beyond these shores seem to know little about us.
And that matters, because people won’t visit or invest in somewhere they’ve never even heard of. So, regardless of whether or not ‘Derry Girls’ becomes a comedy classic, its greatest legacy may be in helping to put the city it’s named after more firmly on the map.
When it comes to Ireland, awareness of Derry is understandably much higher and we’re also increasingly viewed through positive eyes. We have a growing reputation as a fun, creative and friendly city with events like Hallowe’en and the Maritime Festival doing much to boost that image at home and abroad.
Yet, some lingering doubts undoubtedly remain. A surprising number of competitors and visitors to the All-Ireland Fleadh here in 2013, for example, consciously stayed in Donegal rather than Derry - concerned at the possibility of security issues locally. I spoke to a few people in that position - first time visitors here who confessed in hindsight that their behaviour had been irrational once they’d seen the city for themselves.
It is all too easy to fail to appreciate the psychological barrier that many people in the Republic erected in their mind towards the north during the ‘Troubles,’ and which still shapes how some view us to this day. The same is true even amongst our fellow northerners - with Derry viewed in some quarters (thankfully to a declining extent) as an unattractive, aggressively nationalist and unsafe place to visit.
And, most regrettable of all, is the fact that a similar perception, combined with force of habit, still leads some people from predominantly Protestant sections of Derry’s hinterland to look towards Coleraine and Limavady for their shopping and social life. There is still work to be done within Ireland to ensure that our city is seen as welcoming to all; but positive change is undoubtedly afoot in how we’re perceived on both sides of the border.
The lack of awareness of Derry outside of Ireland is undoubtedly an issue - but one with a silver lining. Cities like Liverpool and Glasgow were saddled with poor reputations for years, which were often reinforced by negative media stereotypes - such as the Rab C. Nesbitt caricature and Harry Enfield’s argumentative Scousers. Both cities worked hard over a prolonged period from the early 1990s to change those reputations, and are today successfully reinvented as vibrant, exciting and creative places (notably aided by having been European Cities of Culture - the chance of which has been denied to Derry by Brexit).
Places can and do reinvent themselves all the time - provided they are prepared to focus their efforts and finances on doing so. As Derry is a blank slate with a largely non-existent reputation in international terms, that task is made even easier. Though, if we don’t seek to shape how the world sees us, we risk either continued anonymity or having a reputation hoisted upon us by others.
So, what kind of image should Derry seek to project for itself ? Four key considerations are essential within this. Firstly, any image proposed for our city should be unique - certainly within Ireland and ideally also within the UK. There would be no point getting into a branding arm wrestle, particularly with places that had a greater claim on whatever image it was we were trying to appropriate for ourselves. And it would be unnec0essary as Derry has more than enough material in its history, buildings, people and environment to fashion a genuinely distinct identity for itself.
Secondly, reputations don’t stick if they aren’t authentic. The Titanic may be a globally popular brand linked to Northern Ireland, but Derry played no part in its story - so any ill-judged attempt to cash in on it, for example, just wouldn’t work. Better, instead, that we focus on our own blockbuster history, - from Amelia Earhart to our world-changing Siege.
Thirdly, any image created for Derry should be clear and simple, without a multitude of confusing and contradictory aspects.
Finally, seeking to project an image for a city is not an exercise in civic vanity and should, therefore, be used to help deliver its broader economic and social goals. Once a desired brand for any city has been identified in line with these four criteria, it should then be promoted and implemented continuously (whilst avoiding doing anything that could undermine it).
There are a variety of potential ‘brand’ images for Derry that could meet that criteria list and help create a new reputation for our city. We could easily pitch ourselves to the world as Ireland’s most historic city – though that would require a significant change in how we treat and value important heritage structures here. We could portray Derry as the island’s cultural or creative capital, with the expectation of a positive economic impact from doing so. Or we could go down the route of striving to be Ireland’s ‘greenest’ or most liveable city - with a strong focus on quality of life likely to attract families and highly skilled individuals to locate here.
When it comes to cities, what matters isn’t who you know - but who knows you. Derry has an increasingly positive reputation within Ireland (though work still remains on this), whilst to the outside world we’re less well known than we may like to believe. Many of the 1.6m. viewers who watched ‘Derry Girls’ last week will have discovered this city for the very first time. Rather than leave Derry’s popular image to be determined by either chance or television, however, I believe the time has come for the development of a clear and compelling strategy for how we want to be seen and known globally. It’s time to determine our brand in our way, and present it to the world for the benefit of our city.