‘London in Beijing’: Selling a City’s Brand

With tens of thousands of live spectators and around-the-clock television coverage, the Beijing Olympics offered an opportunity of a lifetime for athletes and countries to display their athletic prowess. But it also afforded a unique chance for a city like London, which is host for the 2012 Olympic Games, to aggressively promote itself as an ideal destination for businesses, students and tourists.


 


The “London in Beijing” campaign attempted to refresh the London’s image — from its old rooting in royalty and history to a more contemporary and forward-looking spirit — in order to capture the attention of today’s younger global citizens who will make tomorrow’s investment decisions. In the face of rapid globalization, London is competing not just with major financial or cultural centers like New York and Paris, but also with Mumbai, Beijing, Bangalore and Shanghai — or any other city that might claim relevance in the shape of things to come.


 


David Adam, head of the emerging markets team at the London Development Agency (LDA), which coordinated the efforts of other city agencies that participated in the campaign, instinctively knew that London’s history as the seat of the throne that ruled the seven seas and its iconic tourist attractions were strengths — and a limitation, too. “People already know what London’s strengths are versus [those of] New York or Paris,” he says, noting that his agency instead focused on London’s “culture, and we threw in a little bit of intellectual content, because they are the basis by which we want to try and attract people.”


 


“This is Marketing 101 in that with the Olympics … you had the attention of people around the world,” says Wharton management professor Michael Useem. “But the devil is in the details here, on how you do it — especially in the case of London, where you are using an athletic event to promote something that is so far away from sports. But it seems the opportunity is there.”


 


The London Development Agency and its partner agencies spent 3.6 million pounds, or US$7 million, on the London in Beijing campaign. As a base, they created “London House,” a hospitality venue in the Games’ neighborhood from where they orchestrated seminars for Chinese businesses interested in expansion into London, exhibits, dinners and other networking opportunities for their target audience. The London brass included the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, London mayor Boris Johnson, and Olympian Sebastian Coe, who is chair of London 2012.


 


London House was like “a meeting place without walls,” says Ashish Mishra, senior manager in the emerging markets team at the LDA. “We recognized that in the middle of the Olympics we could not follow people around and engage with them because the agendas were so tight,” he notes. “So, we decided to create a [central] space where people would want to continue coming back. For example, at London House you could have seen the mayor of London, the prime minister, the Olympics minister, or you could have bumped into Jackie Chan, David Beckham or the mayor of Hackney.”


 


Mishra notes that London House was cited as a top Olympic venue by the many people who visited the promotional venues of other cities or countries at the Beijing Olympics. That was because of the sheer range of offerings, he adds, which included some 37 events over two weeks, a “London Icons” show and a 1984 Olympics torch exhibition, conference spaces, a “massive media presence,” and the entire “stakeholder family” that included the agencies of Think London (the city’s foreign direct investment office), Visit London, Film London, the LDA, the office of the mayor of London and several other borough representatives.


 


Learning from India


 


Among the agencies the LDA chose to work with to develop its campaign was Mirabilis Advisory Services, a marketing communications firm in New Delhi that had worked on India’s massive branding effort at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We were extraordinarily impressed with the way that India used that platform — a moment in which the eyes of the world were watching — to brand itself and to state what its intentions were,” says Adam.


 


At Davos, the Indian government, along with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a leading chamber of commerce, had showcased the country’s economic opportunities with a campaign themed “India Everywhere.” The $4 million branding effort brought together 22 prominent Indian companies, various government ministries and departments, and other organizations. About 110 Indian business leaders and government officials attended the event, participating in more than 200 meetings and speaking in 60 sessions.


 


Wharton’s Useem, who attended the Davos event where India had its promotional debut, recalls the impact. “What India did in Davos with the CII was to pitch several key messages and themes [that were] repeatedly delivered in an almost subliminal way — that India is not just about the Taj Mahal and rickshaw drivers, but it is also a country with close to 10% growth.”


 


As to whether India was able to capitalize on its Davos campaign, Useem says marketing campaigns like that one are expensive and that “until you can confirm that you affected people’s thinking, you’ve got to remain skeptical.” All the same, he notes, India had the “factual foundation” at Davos of strong economic growth and Indian companies “competing with some of the best companies in the world” to be able to credibly promote itself as “incredible,” as its campaign slogan went. “It was able to deliver what amounted to a one-two punch.


 


“If you look at foreign direct investments and private equity investments in India in 2007 and in 2008 until about six weeks ago, they have been soaring — absolutely spectacular growth,” he says. “Many factors obviously have gone into that, and who knows if the [Davos] campaign may have had something to do with it.”


 


Although London Development Agency was impressed at how India promoted itself at Davos, the work it needed done was significantly different, says Adam. India was emerging from an image of being a closed economy and had much baggage to unload as it positioned itself as a destination for investment, he says. “India’s main challenge at the time was to be able to stand up to the world and to credibly say that something different is happening. And the way that [worked] was to have the politicians and business leaders hand-in-hand, saying that to the world. That gave a very strong message that India was ready and was changing and was doing something new.”


 


For London, “the baggage that we have is that everyone thinks [the city] is always going to be there,” Adam says. “Every element of what you understand to be London is probably outdated already…. As a tourist, if you think you are coming to London to enjoy the traditional elements, yes, of course that will play a part in your experience; but if you want to ‘dip’ in, it’s like a river — it’s changed again.” Age data on the tourists who visit London gave Adam’s group some insight about what many feel: “People are saying, ‘Well, we can wait; we can go to London at the end point. We’ll go there when we are 50.’” Adam wanted to change that mindset. “We are [trying to attract] a younger group … to come and experience London now.”


 


Building an Emotional Bond


 


The LDA aimed to build an emotional bond with its audience and not necessarily force compelling statistics or data on them. “We wanted to project something slightly more on the emotional scale; we wanted to give people a ‘feel’ for London,” Adam says. “There was no pushing [in this campaign], or trying to convert…. [The goal was] to make people walk away with the feeling that actually this is something they want to be part of.”


 


That is precisely the strategy that works for long-term decision making, such as moving somewhere or investing in destinations, says Eric Bradlow, Wharton professor of marketing. “If you ask somebody where you [want to be] tomorrow, people tend to look at more objective information. But when you ask people to make longer-term decisions and ones that are more complex … that’s where the salience of more emotional factors come into play. And so, it makes a lot of sense.”


 


A city’s “overall valence can play a very significant role” in branding it, says Bradlow. “Cities do have the opportunity to brand themselves in a certain way: Philadelphia has forever been the City of Brotherly Love; New York City has been the financial capital of the world; and with Las Vegas – ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’” Such brands, he adds, “represent a very strong intangible asset.”


 


Useem agrees that the challenge in such promotional opportunities, “for London or any other big metropolis, is to home in on one key thing” and then use images and words to get that message into “people’s heads and also their hearts.” He notes it would nevertheless be a good idea to offer some numbers “that sum up why [a city like] London is so important in the world.”


 


According to Adam, a key idea his team sought to communicate was that “doing business with London means doing business with the world” – that London is a platform to reach markets across the globe, not “Come here and we will give you a tax break.” The team did, of course, have its regular marketing script in hand, Adam says: “the best talent, more than 300 different languages spoken; some of the world’s best higher education institutes,” among perks. “The sound byte we use is: ‘London, the world in one city.’ And this isn’t about what we are trying to sell you — it’s [about] what you want.”


 


Adam emphasized that he wanted London to be building relationships with the students “who will become tomorrow’s leaders, who will become global investors, who will become the leaders of finance and government … and various individuals who will be influencing others to make decisions about where they make relationships.” Targeting the student community is critical, he says. “If you do not market yourself as accessible and friendly right now, the crucial relationships that you want to build [in 10 or 15 years] will be gone.”


 


Measuring the Payback


 


The payback from the London in Beijing campaign will materialize over the years, or even decades to come, and many of the gains will be hard to quantify, Adam says. “In the short term, you can follow through with every business that comes and invests in London and you can simply ask them the question: Were you weighing coming to London or Paris and did we have any influence in that?” Such a measurement strategy works in the first year or two after a campaign, he says.


 


In the medium term, an agency like the LDA can use a “series of complex economic equations and do the standard analysis where you suggest that your activity promoted you into certain markets which had little prior knowledge of you.” A third method makes more sense, Adam says. “I want to look back in 10 or 15 years at the institutional links that we are making now,” including government or educational institutions and others. “You look back at where the majority of the businesses are coming through.”


 


The London branding team’s “next big staging post” is the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, says Adam, where he expects to have a much more “public-facing” opportunity. He also expects to have more corporations participate with the branding team than during the Beijing Olympics, adding that several have already expressed interest.

London cannot afford to relax if it wants to capitalize on its Beijing gains, Adam notes. “The ecosystem that we are in reminds me of a theory in biological science, which is called the evolutionary stable system or ESS. Unless one is constantly adapting to one’s environment – running in order to stand still, effectively – one is not going to achieve one’s ends. I think that’s true in business, that’s true in politics.”

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