Brand Health Check: Liverpool

The European Capital of Culture has been hit by infighting and the city's less-than-desirable reputation.

Two weeks ago the world finally welcomed the dawn of Liverpool's term as European Capital of Culture - an accolade it shares, rather bizarrely, with Norway's Stavanger.

As Ringo Starr, that favourite son of Liverpool, who now chooses Surrey as his place of residence in the UK, took to the stage to open the £20m-over-budget proceedings with tracks from his festival paean Liverpool 8, there must have been some relief among the organising committee - the Liverpool Culture Company - that the event had actually got under way at all.

Festival artistic director and Brookside creator Phil Redmond, who was drafted in following the resignation of the Australian Robyn Archer in 2006, has famously described the project, as akin to a 'Scouse wedding,' characterised by rows between the various stakeholders.

The organising committee admitted that it had lurched 'from crisis to crisis', with the big architectural project and tram system promised in the initial bid scrapped as costs spiralled, and a much-hyped celebration of Beatlemania cancelled due to a 'communications breakdown'. It then found itself under fresh scrutiny over its £4.22m salary bill.

On top of these problems, the funding gap could still force the council to refinance an asset or dip into its reserves to avert a cash crisis.

To add insult to injury, a report issued last month by local information website named Norwich as the UK city offering the most cultural pursuits relative to population size, ranking Liverpool 124th.

The media also gleefully reported that just two hours after Starr first stepped up to the microphone, two men were found shot in the legs on the outskirts of the city.

It all seems a far cry from the jubilance that greeted the announcement in 2003 that Liverpool, once a byword for terminal decline, had been deemed worthy of being entrusted with such a prestigious international event, and the £900m of EU cash that went with it.

So how can Liverpool reverse its fortunes and make a success of 2008? We asked Martine Ainsworth-Wells, marketing director at Visit London, and Craig Mawdsley, joint head of planning at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, who has worked on a city tourism account, for the benefit of their advice.


So, Liverpool is riven with gangs, crippled by unemployment and poverty, and peopled with fuzzy-haired, shell-suited football fans. Sounds like just the place for an international arts festival, doesn't it?

Or perhaps not. Indeed, the idea of going to Liverpool for an arts and culture break is likely to elicit reactions of fear or derision in much of the rest of the country.

The furore around the beginning of Liverpool's tenure as European Capital of Culture merely reinforces the perceptions of squabbling Scousers as the city turns in on itself. The problems are the age-old issue of why arts money should be spent in the shadow of poverty, and the (Northern) British discomfort with the concept of art. The city is torn between feeling extraordinarily proud of itself and bottling out at the sheer absurdity of it all. Liverpudlians never take themselves too seriously, but to make a success of this, some of them will have to do just that.

Breaking the contradiction between the inherent demands of the event and the city's character is at the heart of moving forward and turning this into a success.


- Ignore controversy. People will only think about how much it costs if they are not having a great time.

- Reinforce the way the event transforms everyday life. Tell the stories of the kids who see artworks and concerts they would never have otherwise.

- Favour London media. Get TV, radio, print and online coverage by people who don't care about local politics to help Liverpudlians see their city afresh.


My city of birth has been plagued by the challenges of acquiring a tag (European Capital of Culture) that has a largely undefined status and value.

The event's programmes are often so mixed it is hard to tell what it actually means. A strong filter should have been applied to the inclusion process. Instead, it feels like everything has been included in order to please everyone.

Liverpool has relied solely on its Capital of Culture status to propel its image into the 21st century. It could have made a bolder statement about its brand prior to 2008 by establishing its credentials and using its Capital of Culture status as a catalyst, thus creating greater impact.

Over the years, Liverpool's brand has been built on self-effacing humour, contentious politics and financial management, maritime, The Beatles, strength and unity in adversity, football, WAGs and cheeky chaps. Liverpool is a strong and witty city that has the ability to really laugh with, and at, itself even in tough times - appealing attributes that few cities can boast.


- Remind consumers that Liverpool is not about what you see but who you meet. This is the character of the city.

- Remember that some of the stereotypes are positive and unique to Liverpool.

- Don't rely solely on the past. Younger people may not relate to it.

- Focus on what is unique about Liverpool. Don't compete with other cities with stronger architectural or arts offerings - it will damage credibility, not enhance it.


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