Barcelona and City Branding

by Oliver Sutton

Barcelona, like many cities, now operates as a corporate brand, a process which has left residents disenfranchised and which raises important questions about the interests served by urban spaces

First published: 28 February, 2014 | Category: Corporate power, Economy, Europe, Privatisation

If you live in Barcelona whenever you travel abroad you are reminded of the success of the Barcelona brand. People who have never before been to the city will tell you how lucky you are to live there, travel programmes fawn over the place and people will tell you of their admiration for Gaudí’s architecture and other such staples of the Barcelona brand. Amongst residents of the city, though, the relationship with all this is not straightforward. There is a perception among many that this branding reflects a gap between  the city which is sold to guiris (tourists) and the city which is for residents, with the latter losing ground to the former. To describe Barcelona as a brand is no mere metaphor. Indeed, the name Barcelona was registered as a trademark by the city council in 2011 and this is entirely in keeping with the way in which the image of the city is managed and positioned. This way of managing the city shapes the city council’s policy making processes, exerting a powerful influence over everything from redevelopment projects to events and festivals.



The promotion of places goes back a long way, from the boosterism of American towns and the universal expositions of the 19th century through to the expansion of the role of place marketing in the 1980s and 90s. However, the key features of city branding as it is practiced today in cities across the globe were determined by a relatively recent identification of the city with the multinational corporation[1]. Over the last ten to fifteen years urban planners and city councillors have adopted an increasingly entrepreneurial approach to city governance[2] through such mechanisms as public / private partnerships and inviting the private sector into the heart of the processes of urban governance. This is an approach that was first taken in Barcelona when the city hosted the 1992 Olympics, when public private partnerships were used to finance the construction of the Olympic village, and the city first used the planning instrument of the strategic plan. Such approaches have since been cross-fertilised with the ideas of place-marketing and city-branding theorists, who, whilst arguing for a multi-disciplinary approach to the field, generally come from marketing backgrounds.


From corporate brand to city brand

By the 1990s the increasingly multinational nature of many corporations was creating a dilemma for them. Systems of production were becoming more  internationally distributed and were targeting a bigger global consumer market. In this climate maintaining control over their corporate identity became more of a challenge. What’s more, in an age of increasingly fluid systems of communication, it was no longer viable to treat the corporation as if it were a hermetically sealed box producing one set of messages for its clients and customers, and another for its employees. The rise of the corporate brand, as distinct from the product brand, in the 1990s was a response to just these challenges. It recognised the amorphous nature of the corporation in an age of globalisation and advocated the construction of an umbrella identity, which was sufficiently open and ambiguous to allow the full range of ‘stakeholders’ to identify with it, from clients and customers on the one hand, to investors and employees on the other.[3]

The expression ‘nation brand’ began to circulate in the 1990s, after which the concept of the ‘city brand’ started to gain traction in the fields of marketing and urban planning.[4] According to this discourse the modern city reflects the multinational corporation as it faces similar challenges due to the increasing interconnectedness of the global economy - challenges which, marketing experts such as Mihalis Kavaratzis and Graham Hankinson claim, a brand identity can go some way towards meeting. The city, like the corporation, is seen as a multi-faceted, amorphous entity, which requires the construction of a clearly identifiable brand in order to communicate a coherent and consistent message about itself, one which both the outside world and the resident population can identify with. Kavaratzis explains

City branding is understood as the means both for achieving competitive advantage in order to increase inward investment and tourism, and also for achieving community development, reinforcing local identity and identification of the citizens with their city and activating all social forces to avoid social exclusion and unrest.[5]


Creating a plug-and-play community

Corporate branding practices were reinforced by a powerful narrative, constructed across a number of different academic disciplines.  Cities were portrayed as competing with one another for investment, tourism and talented, young professionals in a global marketplace. The first ranking of world cities was produced by the Global and World Cities Research Network, at the University of Loughborough in 1998 and divided cities into alpha, beta or gamma world cities according to how well connected each city was to the global network of producer services.[6]. In order to quantify this, researchers looked at the presence in each city of company offices from various sectors (for example, financial services, marketing and public relations and legal services). Of course, this assessment of the relationship between cities is extremely limited, restricted as it is to economic indicators of only one sector of economic activity. Lagos, the largest city in Africa, does not even register using these criteria, nor do many of the most economically productive cities in the world if that production is based on manufacturing. Nonetheless, this representation of cities became very influential within the council offices of post-industrial cities the world over. This was in part because it provided a measurable representation of the difference between cities, but also, because, through its cartograms, it showed these differences in a visually striking way, seemingly easy to understand and PowerPoint-friendly.  

A GaWC cartogram from 2000 representing the city of Barcelona as an Alpha – world city.


In the early 2000’s the American sociologist, Richard Florida, coined the phrase, the ‘creative class’ to describe the highly educated young professionals who, he claimed, cities needed to attract in order to succeed in a post-industrial, knowledge-oriented global economy[7]. In fact, these young professionals were employed in just the sort of producer service industries that could push a city up the world city ranking. Florida portrays cities as being in competition with each other for these talented people and advocates that cities adjust their development strategies accordingly. Above all, he believes, cities need to turn themselves into ‘plug-and-play’ communities, in which people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds can fit in easily to an internationally recognisable urban branded lifestyle of hip bars, a vibrant music scene and fusion food.[8]

All this might go some way to explaining the emphasis which has been placed on turning the historic centre of Barcelona into a site of leisure, nightlife and tourism. Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella is no museum. It is a living, working part of the city with a resident population of over 100,000 people, many of whom are low income workers. In 2010 there was an agreement to limit the numbers of bars, hotels, apartments and restaurants in the historic centre of the city so as to preserve the residential character of much of the area. This agreement was called the Pla d’Usos, which roughly translates as the Plan for Land Use. However the plan was unilaterally torn up by the Council early in 2013 using the instrument of a modification to the plan, one that effectively left the original plan redundant. The number of bars, hotels, apartments and restaurants permitted in the area were all significantly increased. This reversal by the council was widely interpreted as evidence that the interests of Barcelona brand, the Barcelona of leisure, nightlife and tourism, was being put before the need of the residents for grocery stores, affordable housing and public spaces not dominated by restaurant terraces.[9]


The brand as a frame

If the field of city branding were restricted to designing striking logos and snappy slogans, none of this would matter very much. However, the importance given to the Barcelona brand goes far beyond this. The seriousness with which the city council takes the brand of the city is evidenced by the frequent references made to it in council publications, press releases and parliamentary debates. A 2010 document outlining the current strategic plan for the future development of the city up until the year 2020 entitled “Barcelona 2020; a strategic proposal” makes reference to the brand of the city 30 times. One section is dedicated to the global management and promotion of the Barcelona brand, while the rest of the document considers a range of features of the city, such as its products and companies, its sporting institutions and even its health care provision and education, in terms of how they influence the city’s brand. The Barcelona brand is also considered in terms of its capacity to attract talented professionals and capital.[10] Most recently there was a debate in the Catalan parliament to approve closer ties between the Barcelona Brand and the Catalan brand. While the proposal was approved, it angered the representatives of the ruling Popular Party because it was based on the suggestion that the Barcelona brand was being distorted by the Spanish brand and becoming less attractive for investors as a consequence.

And in case all this talk of branding sounds like empty rhetoric, a principle was established early on in the development of the literature on the city brand which insists that there must be ‘tangible evidence’ to support the image of the place which the brand seeks to project.[11] That is to say that for the brand to be effective it cannot simply be about presentation, it must be backed up by something substantive that the visitor, investor, businessman, resident, will experience either directly or indirectly. If this does not happen, the brand will be shown to be misleading and will consequently lose credibility. Superficially, this would appear to make perfect sense. If the marketing department of the city council is going to try and construct a brand, surely it is better that it bears a close resemblance to the reality? But what if the opposite is the case? What if reality is fashioned in service of the brand? The danger would then be that the interests of the brand and its capacity for attracting capital and talented young professionals will take priority over the needs and wishes of the residents of the city. There is much evidence to suggest that council policy is influenced in just this way, whether it relates to redevelopment projects, the introduction of city ordinance or the promotion of events and festivals.

The University of Barcelona recently organised a conference in which the proliferation of redevelopment projects along the city’s shoreline was highlighted. Amongst the various projects was the creation of a specialist marina for superyachts right next to the traditionally working class neighbourhood of Barceloneta. Many of the yachts will be over 100 metres in length and five stories in height. They will be surrounded by a high, non-transparent fence and protected by security guards. In common with many of the redevelopments discussed at the conference, this one involved little consultation with the local residents who would be most affected by it and is being carried out against their wishes.[12] All of the projects that were discussed at the conference were heavily criticised for their lack of integration into the social and cultural fabric of the areas in which they are situated. They were seen as contributing to a branded image of the city that is intended not primarily for the resident population, but rather an affluent, globally mobile target audience.

This year’s New Year Eve celebrations in Barcelona provided a good example of how events and festivals can be pressed into the sevice of the brand. A huge, publically funded spectacle was laid on for 70,000 people involving the usual fireworks display, but with the addition of Castellers (the traditional Catalan human towers) and a giant human-shaped structure filled with performers. Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias hoped that it would, “promote the Barcelona brand around the world.” It seemed that providing an enjoyable evening for Barcelona’s residents was secondary to creating a spectacle that would be picked up on by the world’s media.



The city-brand is an increasingly well-consolidated field of theory and practice, which represents the city as analogous to the multinational corporation and considers the corporate brand to be the model for the city brand. The ‘brand’ of the city, or the image of the city that is targeted at an audience, frames the decision making process when it comes to such things as redevelopment projects and establishing policy priorities. The brand then serves to reconfigure our perception of what the primary purpose of the city is, shifting the emphasis from the city as a site of commonality governed in the interest of the people who inhabit it, to the city as a site of capital accumulation governed in the interests of those who have a financial investment in it or can contribute to its economic growth.  The frame of the city-brand distorts the city, imposing on it a narrowly economic valuation, which doesn’t do justice to the social and cultural complexity of these places.

This article is part of the NLP series The Contemporary City

Oliver Sutton teaches at Arcadia University and CEA in Barcelona and is interested in the role of cities in the age of globalisation, particularly the way they market and brand themselves.

[1]  See Hankinson, G, “Location branding: A study of the branding practices of 12 English cities” The Journal of Brand Management, 9 (2), (2001) 127-142, and Kavaratzis, M. From city marketing to city branding. Groningen, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2008

[2] Harvey, D, “From managerialism to entrepreneurialism: the transformation in urban governance in late capitalism.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B. Human Geography, 1989, 3-17

[3] See Hulberg, J, “Integrating corporate branding and sociological paradigms: A literature study” Journal of Brand Management, 14 (1), 2006, 60- 73, Kavaratzis, M. From city marketing to city branding, 2008 and Simoes, C. and Dibb, S. Rethinking the brand concept: new brand orientation. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 6 (4),  2001, 217-224

[4] Hankinson, G, “The management of destination brands: Five guiding principles based on recent developments in corporate branding theory” Journal of Brand Management 14, 2007, 240-254

[5] Kavaratzis, M, “From city marketing to city branding: Towards a theoretical framework for developing city Brands” Place Branding 1, 2004, 58-73

[6] Beaverstock, J, Smith, R and Taylor, P, “A roster of world cities” Cities 16 (6), 1999, 445-458

[7] Florida, R, The Rise of the Creative Class: New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002

[8] Florida, R, “The Rise of the Creative Class: Cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race”, Washington Monthly, 34 (5) 2002, 15-26

[9] Baquero, C, “Ciutat Vella abrirá el grifo hotelero y de restauración en zonas especiales” El Pais, 15th March 2013

[10] See p23 of the City Council’s report

[11] Belloso, J, “The City Branding of Barcelona: A Success Story” in Dinnie, K, ed, City Branding: Theory and Cases. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 118-123

[12] Europa Press. 2012. Vecinos de la Barceloneta rechazan con un manifiesto la marina de lujo en el Port Vell. La Vanguardia, 13/3.


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