Postcard from Brighton
Adam Hill, executive director at Brighton-based strategic creative agency Designate, speaks to Transform magazine about how the city inspires the company's work, how to create brand campaigns that capture the city's uniqueness, and the challenges that exist now around place branding.
How does being a Brighton agency make Designate special? How does the city inspire your work?
It's the people for both. It's a special place with a unique culture. People are open to new ideas, no one bats an eyelid or cares about what you're wearing, how you're acting or what you're thinking. People have always come to Brighton to escape and to be free. That mindset is apparent in the way the city works too. It's full of free thinkers, entrepreneurs, artists, hedonists, creatives, misfits and oddballs. Brighton's definition of normality is a little different to the rest of the country, let's say that. We started here in 1993 with a view to always stay. It helped make us a little bit different, and in the 90s Brighton really was a special place to start an agency.
How do you create brand campaigns which are ‘never normal’ like the one with VisitBrighton, which captures the uniqueness of the city and sets it apart from others?
It's through getting to the heart of what makes a business or place. Understanding its culture and what will make it appealing. And being prepared to take a few risks along the way. In the case of the Brighton campaign, it doesn't have stretches of golden sun-kissed sand. Its beach is pebbly, and some (not all) would say a bit rubbish as beaches go. But as a city it has so much more going for it. You might come to sit on the beach for part of the day, but there's so much to explore and do inland too. Embracing that and all the rough edges as well as the smooth makes for a more honest, more trustworthy campaign. Our key image for the 'Never Normal' campaign was taken on a murky, overcast day and featured a man in his seventies, wearing a swimming cap with a couple of fish over his eyes. It's not blue skies and sand, but it caught an essential truth about the place. Also, it's a great photo.
How can visitor destinations, like Brighton, attract people back as restrictions ease?
By being true to themselves and being honest about what they have. Giving themselves a simple, easy to understand positioning which will inspire visits. Not promising something they're not. Truth and honesty are even more valuable commodities in a post Covid, post Trump era. For example, we love the destination work by Visit Iceland, New Zealand and Finland that have an honesty and killer attitude to them.
What challenges exist when approaching place branding?
Being normal. Normal is predictable. Normal is undifferentiated. Normal is entirely forgettable. If you are an island you don’t need to tell people you have sea. If you are in the Caribbean, you don’t need to mention the sun. If you are any destination you do not have to mention that you have restaurants or bars.
Branding a place is no different to branding a product or service. It needs clear, differentiated and memorable positioning. It must pass the ‘thumb over the logo’ test, which most places (and many brands) fail. It frankly doesn’t matter if you haven’t got a ‘USP’, because you offer the same selection of visitor attractions, shopping experiences, countryside or seascapes. Where is your personality, your character, your promise of something that will both entice a visitor, and stay with them after they’ve gone home?
You’ve won as a destination if your returning visitor doesn’t just list the places they saw and things they did, but can describe the feeling they had when they were there.
How has the pandemic changed how places have to position themselves?
Destinations are of course going to have to adapt and it may take time. There has been a lot of evidence of a change in search behaviours when some people are looking for places to visit. There’s more emphasis on space, fresh air, self-catering and being away from the crowds. That means a rethink and a reset to cater to this new pattern. There are also people who are resolutely determined to return to normal.
Visitors will want reassurance too. Destinations like Las Vegas have had to engage in counter-intuitive behaviour like encouraging people not to visit. It's that kind of honesty that will breed trust though. It's an opportunity for new destinations and for new experiences to come to the fore, and the way things are shaping up at the moment, domestic tourism will be front and centre in a lot of people’s minds. Now is the chance for some of the less predictable and lesser-known destinations to get onto the consideration list. Cornwall and Devon will be full up. The beach at Bournemouth too. Where else is interesting on this big island of ours?