Contested space, branding and the creative industries


I travel a lot, and I’m used to doing some damage control on behalf of my home town …  ‘Belfast’

But I’ve noticed an increase in questions and comments in the last couple of years, perhaps its because this country / Island is putting itself out there more than ever before. From the country wide tourism push of last year, to City of Culture this year, and the equally powerful global success of our golfers.

I live in Belfast. That is about the only non loaded statement I can make about where I live, I always say Belfast because Ireland, or Northern Ireland has political connotations – but only on this Island. I was in Madrid at the weekend and when asked where I was from I said Belfast, I got a blank stare and then I would say Ireland, my favorite response this weekend was ‘Oh wow, you live in the extreme bit of Ireland’

Another person asked me what I thought about Rory McIlroy saying he may not play in the Rio Olympics to avoid having to make a decision on his nationality.

Whilst marketing can put a good spin on a difficult situation from ‘Our Time, Our Place’ to ‘Legenderry’ this glossy facade isn’t for tourists it’s for the people of this Island. Tourists don’t visit Derry/ Londonderry, stroke city, City of Culture or indeed Legenderry they visit ‘Ireland’. Would you visit let alone invest in a city/ town or country that couldn’t decide on its official name?

A few months ago I got an email from a friend of a friend who works for a world leading cultural organisation in London. Her organisation is producing one of the signature events for City of Culture, her off the record email was a cry for help. The organisation had been given the official low down on the many names of one city, but they didn’t really understand it, they wanted to get someone to come in and do a workshop with them to make sure they didn’t say the wrong thing. When I got the email all I could think was how embarrassing. Come and work with us, but first learn the politics! Eeeek!

Matt Johnson from Digital Circle has been advocating for years that we need to stop talking about Newry or Belfast, or indeed any town in between, we are a tiny place and people outside of this place do not care for the specifics of town names or places. But agreeing on a name for this place is something that has escaped us for the last 100 years.

This is a small place, and to create impact, we need critical mass and for critical mass we need to unite under one ‘banner’. I say banner because, we can’t decide on a place name, we can’t decide on a flag, or a national anthem … you get the picture.

I’m a big fan of the  ‘Made in NY’ branding, because rather than being a superficial brand name, it pulls resources to create a critical mass, a movement, an active community. From tech meet ups, to the signposting of digital organisations, to helping start ups hit by Hurricane Sandy, this branding fosters a community and creates a powerful narrative that says: New York is open for business, it is an exciting place to be, so why not come and work with us?

A simple but effective map is the cornerstone of this branding:

‘The Made in NY Digital Map is a visual testament to the vibrant state of New York’s digital industry – showing a powerful constellation of over 500 homegrown startups, investors and coworking spaces across the five boroughs. Browse by neighborhood, review job postings, or add your own startup to the digital landscape – the Made in NY Map is a living resource that reflects New York City’s dynamic innovation ecosystem.

Led by Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to realize New York City’s digital potential, the Made in NY Digital Map was created by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in partnership with Internet Week NY and the New York Tech Meetup. Distribution of the map was also made possible thanks to the Association for a Better New York.’

The Made in NY blog is another good example of how to get ‘good news’ stories out there.

Whilst the start up community in Belfast is a small one, I often feel that no one outside that community even knows it exists. 

Wouldn’t it be great if you Googled Belfast and the first thing that came up was a map of digital companies and cool creative businesses, coffee shops with wifi, or coffee shops that open late that are great to work in. Wouldn’t it be great if you googled Belfast and up popped stories of how people from this wee place are conquering the world be that Rory McIlroy, Oliver Jeffers or Damian McGinty.

If we can’t decide on a cultural identity, perhaps we can unite under a narrative of success. The message we need to get out is that not only are we open for business, but we are a desirable place to do business. It’s all in the storytelling. Something that Oliver Jeffers suggests has always been central to our culture … indeed, this brilliant video about Oliver Jeffers shows us what’s possible if we focus on a narrative of success rather than politics.

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