Tell someone you live in Barcelona and invariably their eyes light up. Maybe they’re thinking of a lazy evening beer on a terrace by the beach or a gentle stroll through the old streets of the Barri Gòtic. Or perhaps it’s just the easygoing, creative vibe of this little city that seems to offer so much—from cuisine to beaches, architecture to football—that makes it a place that everyone loves. Any multinational would envy the power of the Barcelona brand. Yet, just a quarter of a century ago, the city was an unlikely holiday or business destination. So, how did the Catalan capital manage to become one of the world’s favourite cities? And is there a downside to such international pulling power?
Cities inspire us. Paris makes us think of romance, Tokyo, technology and Las Vegas, pure indulgence. And, in a hyper-connected world of global business and easy travel, the ability to stand out is essential. Cities are competing with each other for tourists, talent, investment and international events, all of which create jobs and fill the city coffers. They need to be able to communicate what makes them unique and attractive to potential visitors, residents and investors. And that’s where place branding comes in.
Towns and cities around the world are using place branding to define and communicate their unique qualities. Barcelona makes it look easy but it isn’t. According to a study by place branding consultancy K629, based on a database of 5,000 place brands, 86 percent of brands fail within the first year.
Experts agree that a successful city brand has to be truthful and an accurate reflection of the city’s authentic personality and assets. It isn’t an advertising campaign. According to place branding guru Bill Baker, author of Destination Branding for Small Cities (2007), the mistake is to apply the same criteria to a place that an advertising agency might apply to a product. City branding is far more complex. “A city brand must stand the test of time, public debate, political scrutiny, media questions, and the analysis of marketing partners and residents,” said Baker. The brand needs to unite all the city’s stakeholders, from the local government to businesses, and most importantly, the residents themselves. A successful brand resonates with the locals and inspires civic pride. Furthermore, a city’s policies must be consistent with its brand. So, if the branding focuses on being a place to do business, the city has to be business-friendly. If it’s about being a party city, then permits and regulations for bars and clubs will be a key factor in its success.
According to the The Guardian's City Brand Barometer, Barcelona is the world’s sixth most powerful city brand after Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris and Seoul. Not bad at all for a city of 1.7 million people that, just 25 years ago, for all its world-class architecture and enviable location, was a post-industrial city with little international appeal. And the Catalan capital consistently makes the top 10 in a plethora of global rankings, from lifestyle to foreign investment and innovation (see below).
So how did the Barcelona brand reach such heights in such a short space of time? The city already had the key ingredients that make it so popular today: spectacular Modernista architecture, the atmospheric little streets of the Barri Gòtic, a world-class football team and an unbeatable location on the Mediterranean. Equally important was its strong sense of identity and desire for innovation and progress. But, perhaps the main secret of its branding success lay in the way the city used the outstanding transformation it went through to host the 1992 Olympics.
Barcelona has a long history of using big events and its own urban renewal for getting its story out there. In 1888, it hosted the Universal Exposition, choosing the slogan ‘Paris of the South’ to accompany the urban development underway, which included the building of the Ciutadella park and the Arc de Triomf. In 1908, the 'Society for the Attraction of Foreigners' was launched to actively promote tourism by way of an information office and the publishing of leaflets and articles. The city had another chance to show off its urban metamorphosis when it hosted the 1929 Universal Exposition. Preparations included the building of El Prat airport, the development of Plaça de Catalunya and extensive investment in the city’s infrastructure. In the years between the two Expos, Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch, among others, had made their indelible mark on the city by way of their Modernista architecture, with the construction of buildings such as Casa Amatller, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló and the Palau de la Música. Barcelona had a lot to show the world.
Jump forward 65 years and the Olympic Games became another defining moment for the city, as it used the event to regenerate areas and create new infrastructures. These would have a lasting impact. Old factories and wasteland made way for six kilometres of beach and gleaming new buildings, such as the MACBA, L'Illa, Maremagnum and the Hotel Arts, which gave the city a new air of modernity. Montjuïc was transformed into a lush, green centre for leisure and sports, and the last of the shantytowns, which had sprung up with the influx of workers from other parts of Spain during the mid-20th century, were removed.
The success of the Olympics was no fluke. The city knew what it wanted to achieve. In 1988 the Ajuntament developed the city's first Strategic Plan (Pla Estratègic Metropolità Barcelona), taking advantage of Barcelona's nomination as host of the Olympic Games. The Plan’s purpose was to identify and promote strategies for the city’s future development using the Olympics regeneration, and to ensure the participation of local organisations and the promotion of public and private initiatives.
Neighbourhood and grassroots associations already had a strong voice in city life, and they played a key role in the Olympic planning. It was a chance to showcase Barcelona’s finest assets to the world and civic pride had never been stronger.
By the mid-to-late Nineties, and helped by the advent of low-cost airlines, the Olympic effect began to show results as the city started gaining a reputation as a weekend leisure destination and an ideal location for business meetings. The Barcelona brand was taking shape.
The Strategic Plan is revised every few years and its purpose is 'to identify the Metropolitan area’s needs and potential in the medium term and to create the best conditions possible for the future'. Vital to the plan’s success is involvement of the city’s key entities. Taking part in the plan are workers’ associations, business organisations, the city council, industry groups and the University of Barcelona. The 2015 Strategic Plan looks ahead to 2025, and reevaluates the city’s challenges and opportunities in the context of the recent economic crisis and new opportunities in Europe.
Cooperation between the public and private sectors was part of the Barcelona Olympics model and the city has continued to follow this strategy, actively encouraging participation in the city’s future. The building of the Poblenou @22 district is an example of this model, which combines urban planning with private investment from companies establishing themselves in the area. In 2014, Barcelona City Council launched Barcelona Open Challenge which invites businesses and entrepreneurs to give solutions to problems, from bicycle theft to social isolation. The city’s smart city website encourages individuals and companies to put forward their ideas for apps that can help the lives of residents and visitors.
As a result of the city’s international success, tourism, which accounted for less than two percent of the city's pre-Olympic GDP, is now worth 12.5 percent. Barcelona's airport handled 2.9 million passengers in 1991; last year that figure had risen to 21 million.
International consultancy firm EY ranked Barcelona as the 8th most attractive European city for investors, and around 12 percent of property sold in 2015 was bought by foreigners. In addition, Barcelona is number one in Europe for business conferences and, on paper at least, it seems that Barcelona is achieving the impossible: pleasing all people, all of the time.
It isn’t all plain sailing though, and behind the numbers there is some disgruntlement. The sheer number of visitors in the city centre has caused tensions to rise, particularly in those neighbourhoods which receive the most visitors, namely Ciutat Vella and the Barceloneta. The shopping antics of three naked Italian men in the Barceloneta in 2014 resulted in demonstrations by local residents. Illegal rental apartments are frequently blamed for the rise in the low-cost tourism based around the city centre, encouraging Barcelona’s reputation as a party city with an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere. The Ajuntament has since reacted with a heavy hand to keep things in line, banning organised bar crawls and outlawing unlicensed apartments, but some say it has been slow to anticipate the problems. For many local residents the overflowing streets are changing the personality of the city, the very charm that attracted tourists in the first place. The risk, they say, is that Barcelona becomes like Venice, long since resigned to be a year-round open-air museum. Tourists are, of course, disappointed by the long queues for the Sagrada Familia and the Bus Turístic, and the jam-packed streets in the old town, but they keep on coming.
So, while successful branding needs to be based on the city’s authentic character and assets, and policies need to be in line with this branding, is there a risk that the branding itself will start to drive the policies and change the city’s character, particularly if one group of stakeholders is seen as more valuable than another? Is it possible to meet the needs of residents, tourists and business visitors without favouring one group?
In the 2010 Ciutat Vella Pla d’Usos (the official regulation of city space), a temporary ban was imposed to halt the building of hotels and strict regulations for new bar and restaurant permits were introduced. The goal was to control tourist-related activity in the city’s smallest and most dense district and to achieve some kind of harmony between residents and visitors. In 2013, much to the fury of local residents and businesses, the plan was changed and, among other things, this ban was lifted. Ten restaurant and bar zones were introduced and the maximum density of tourist establishments, introduced in 2010, was done away with.
However, in June 2015, soon after entering office, new mayor, Ada Colau, reintroduced the hotel and tourist apartment ban, this time stopping projects in their tracks throughout the city. She was quickly labelled the ‘anti-tourist’ mayor, but Colau insisted that the idea was to ‘take a snapshot of the situation’ and allow local government time to elaborate a sustainable tourist model for the future. She argued that this was vital for residents and for the success of the tourist industry. “More and more tourists are disappointed when they visit Barcelona because in the centre they find a theme park.” And it would be hard to find anyone in the city who didn’t agree that the present model, fruit of Barcelona’s phenomenal branding success, needs some rethinking.
Ada Colau has every intention of continuing the participative process by involving residents in the planning of the city’s future, and €450,000 has been earmarked for public engagement in the Plan d’Actuació Municipal 2016-2019 (a road map that plans the city hall’s finances for the four-year mandate). Every district of the city will hold around 100 mini debates of between 10 and 25 people in order to collect opinions, suggestions and ideas from the city’s residents.
Another pending issue is the branding of Barcelona as a business destination. The city hosts a huge amount of conferences and business events and is making waves in the startup world—2015 was a record year for startups in Catalunya, with financing rounds raising over €260 million. Foreign investment in the region is at an all-time high. According to Foment del Treball’s ‘Report of the Economic Situation’, Catalunya attracted almost €2 billion during the first half of 2015, an increase of 281.2 percent compared to the same period the previous year.
Yet, professional opportunities are still thin on the ground and moving to Barcelona from other countries often involves a cut in salary and responsibilities or setting up your own business. The reality is that the Barcelona brand inspires tempting visions of a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle, but when it comes to serious business, the city just doesn’t have the same clout. The branding of Barcelona as a business city is the main preoccupation of Barcelona Global, which was launched in 2008. This independent, non-profit association aims to help Barcelona develop economic activity by attracting and engaging international skilled professionals. The association has set up a number of innovative tools, including events to welcome new international professionals and an annual survey to pinpoint the key areas in which Barcelona needs to improve.
So what lies ahead for Barcelona as it weighs up the positive and negative effects of its global branding success story? It seems likely that the Barcelona brand will try to steer away from the low-cost party crowd while continuing to establish itself as a serious city for investment and business. Inevitably, different interest groups will continue to have conflicting agendas and it will be up to the local government to tread a delicate path as it tries to keep all stakeholders on board. For while economic growth is vital to this city, it is likely to be short lived unless it is based on a reality that everyone buys into.
What do you think of the Barcelona Brand?
Claire Nielsen (tourist)
North Carolina, USA
"Barcelona has absolutely lived up to my expectations. We expected an old city with windy streets and that's exactly what we've found. We also anticipated a cosmopolitan and multicultural atmosphere and this is definitely true of Barcelona."
Rohit Gadkar (foreign resident)
New York City, USA
"I think Barcelona undeniably has a great reputation among foreigners, as they've done a good job marketing themselves as a 'cool' city. As a resident, I tend to agree with the veracity of that image, but when you live here, you become so absorbed in your day-to-day life and don't get to enjoy all those things as much. In addition, tourists are not mingling with the locals so I think they get the impression that the city is more cosmopolitan than it really is; although, in the six years I’ve been here, the city has become quite a bit more cosmopolitan. Overall, I think Barcelona's brand is relatively accurate with reality, as long as you have time to enjoy all that the city has to offer. Living somewhere is always different to visiting, no matter which city it is."
Miguel Ángel Viloslada (local resident)
"The brand has been a huge success, and as a local I have seen a radical change for the better, but I believe that the city needs to renew its branding model in order to create a more sustainable situation. An in-depth analysis from different angles is required, not just in terms of urbanism and business, but with a focus on social factors and how the different players—residents, tourists and stakeholders—are affected by it."