In 2018, the City of York realised it had an image problem. From the outside it was seen almost exclusively as a destination for heritage tourism; internally, this translated to residents feeling overlooked and underappreciated in a city economy that appeared on the surface to be completely one-dimensional.
Over the course of 2019, HemingwayDesign, Creative Tourist Consultants and For the Love of Place worked with a stakeholder group of 28 strategic partners in York to develop a place brand for the city. The goal was to cut through the dominant perception to uncover a narrative that would support bold thinking, attract new investment and above all be meaningful to and supported by York residents.
The UK’s biggest place brand engagement project
We undertook what we believe to be the UK’s biggest place brand engagement project to date, using a combination of workshops, one-to-ones, schools outreach, public access points and a digital survey to ultimately gain input from almost 6000 people, the vast majority being residents of the city.
An alternative story of York emerges
Through our engagement process what we discovered was a city with a history of innovating to improve lives. A few facts that you may not know about York – it is the UK’s Human Rights City, a designated refugee sanctuary city, the home of the world’s first mental health retreat, the UK’s first social housing project. In labs across the city at its two Universities and dozens of research institutes including the National Centre for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Food and Environment Research Agency, brilliant minds work every day to make a difference to people around the world – leading the way in sustainable agriculture, food innovation, nutrition and health.
We heard stories like these over and over again, and a narrative began to emerge. We distilled all of the evidence down into three ‘core values’ that underpin everything that York stands for as a city. We went through a process of refinement and testing with stakeholders, and the three values that resulted are shown in the filter below. These three values are based in fact, whilst communicating aspiration. They resonate with locals and sound appealing to outsiders. Most importantly they’re specific enough in combination to describe York and nowhere else – avoiding the generic positive attributes that any place would want to lay claim to is vital for a strong, meaningful and actionable placebrand.
Keeping momentum – putting the placebrand into action
York grabbed the bull by the horns and started using the place brand straight away. We delivered the place brand narrative and values to City of York Council in late 2019. Since then, a number of projects informed and shaped by the place brand have taken place:
• Most notably, in December 2019 (before the pandemic shifted our transport focus onto walking and cycling), York made the headlines by declaring it would become the UK’s first car-free city centre – and fast, with the (pre-Covid) goal of achieving the transformation in just three years. Take a look at the values and you can see it hits every one of them – making history by being the first city in the UK to make such a commitment, pioneering with the purpose of improving air quality and safety for residents, and prioritising the human experience by making the city centre a more enjoyable place to be for pedestrians.
• York is planning the UK’s largest Passivhaus and net-zero carbon housing scheme – again making headlines by using the values to inform their approach to housing development.
• The narrative has been used to inform design decisions for the redevelopment of The National Railway Museum
• Make it York – the city’s promotional and marketing organisation – used the narrative to overhaul their Tourism Strategy for 2020, focusing more heavily on resident experience, inclusion and sustainable tourism.
• A planned heritage trail around the city was scrapped in favour of a new ‘trail of trailblazers’ – celebrating York’s international impact past and present.
• 2022 – York has been chosen by the government as the location for the HQ of the active travel body – Active Travel England.
“The best response to a survey we can remember.”– Claire Foale, Head of Communications at City of York Council.