A tagline on the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau website reads: “America’s birthplace. History’s showcase. The past is present in Boston.” Meanwhile, Frommers.com calls Boston “relentlessly historic.” And Fodors.com says “to Bostonians, living in a city that blends yesterday and today is just another day in their beloved Beantown.” History is the core of Boston’s brand.
Consequently, I have found it interesting to move to a city that doesn’t particularly consider itself historic. Turku maybe, but not Helsinki. A tagline on the City of Helsinki’s official tourism website reads “A little bit Eastern, a little bit Western—totally Finnish.” Frommers.com says Helsinkians are “the best educated, the best clothed, the best fed, and the best housed on earth.” And Fodors.com calls Helsinki “a city of the sea.” These websites all certainly refer to Helsinki’s past, particularly its past with Sweden and Russia, but they don’t describe it as an historic city. They focus instead on technology and design, the high quality of life, the water, the climate. History is not part of Helsinki’s brand.
So this week I’ve been reading some of the branding literature, to see if anyone has anything significant to say about the impact of history on the perception of cities. I found a master’s thesis from Julia Winfield-Pfefferkorn that asserts that possessing a unique history helps a city build a successful global image; she sites New York and Paris as examples. I also found the 2008 Saffron European City Brand Barometer, which awards 20% of its “city asset strength” score based on “sightseeing and historical attractions” (Helsinki ranked 21 out of 72 cities). And in the introduction to the 2006 version of his famous Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index, in which Boston ranked 23 and Helsinki 36 out of 60 cities, Simon Anholt says that city brands “are inextricably tied to the histories and destinies of all these places.” But history does not play a direct role in any of his six scoring components: presence, place, potential, pulse, people, and prerequisites (perhaps because it doesn’t start with P?).
So far, none of this is overwhelming evidence. So far, I haven’t found anything that adequately delineates a link between history and brand. I wrote a few weeks ago about Boston’s preoccupation with the history of the American Revolution, and it’s clear that its identity as a historical city yields an enormous amount of tourism and global recognition. Every child in America knows Boston because they learn about it in their American history classes. The same can’t be said for, say, Austin or Phoenix. Boston makes a nice example, but I don’t necessarily think that a city needs to have a globally-recognized history in order to build a meaningful brand. I would like to see all cities develop a stronger sense of their own history, but not for the sake of branding. In fact, I think city branding is a tricky concept to begin with—Simon Anholt himself even says as much.
What I really care about is not so much branding—how many people know about a city and where it falls on a ranking list—but whether a city’s history has an impact on the daily lives of its residents. Can public history strengthen the social fabric of the city and make people feel more connected to the place where they live? I fear that such a correlation will be difficult to substantiate, qualitatively or quantitatively. My next step is to look at visitor studies. In the meantime, any thoughts, residents of Blogosphere?