In 1992 the Olympic Games were held in Barcelona. Since then, the local design scene has grown immensely, so much so that Barcelona now has more design schools than any other metropolitan region in Europe. The city is now recognized globally as a forward thinking design city with the branding to prove it.
In order to maintain Barcelona’s recent reign of design dominance the city’s local government, public and private institutions, and companies have made big efforts to create and build the Barcelona brand.
But how exactly do you brand a city?
Getting the City Council behind the idea might be a good starting point. It has certainly paid dividends in Barcelona. Ajuntament de Barcelona (Barcelona’s City Council) asked design agency clase to redesign the city’s visual identity, aiming to create a less formal, more approachable and contemporary image of the City.
To mark all the buildings, centres, and facilities under the auspices of the Barcelona City Council, the letter B is used as a background – a simple gesture and an immediately recognizable symbol of the city.
The B was also used as a core element by award-winning designer Mario Eskenazi for the identity of “Do it in Barcelona”, a Council initiative to promote business.
Eskenazi is also responsible for the identities of the Barcelona City Transport and the City Council’s Environmental Department. Yes, even garbage trucks are stylish in Barcelona.
Of course, a brand is not just a logo and a city is more that its council. Football Club Barcelona (FCB) is also a big part of the Barcelona brand. Vasava designed custom typography for Nike and FCB’s official uniforms that the team wore during the 2012 – 2013 season. The typography was inspired by the subtle cuts and angles of the chimneys of Gaudi’s famous Pedrera building in Paseo de Gracia.
Sónar Music Festival’s campaigns (design by Sergio Caballero) are another good example of a design-conscious, culturally relevant Barcelona brand ambassador. The campaigns, with their eye-catching photography, punchy graphics, and minimal typography, signal that Sónar (and Barcelona) is progressive, creative, and just simply fun (alright, and a little freaky).
And of course, Barcelona, like any city hoping to be seen as a global center, needed a dedicated Design Museum to be considered a true design city. Designed by architects MBM the museum recently opened and David Torrents was awarded with the Grand Laus Award for his design installation BruumRuum! which is a part of the design museum complex.
The design essence of the city is evident in its products as well. Chocolat Factory “From Barcelona with chocolate” (design by Ruiz Company) and Camper’s “Locus BCN” (design by Toormix) demonstrate the modern but approachable and charming qualities of the city. Hotels like El Palauet hotel “Living Barcelona” (design by Marnich) and fashion labels like Custo Barcelona are also Barcelona branded.
Opportunistic appropriation? Is Barcelona benefiting from these brands? Or are these brands benefiting from Barcelona? Certainly there is a give and take but when pushed too far the product’s credibility starts to fall apart. This goes for beer just as much as it does for cities. If Estrella is “The beer from Barcelona” (poster by Alex Trochut), what is “Barcelona Beer” (design also by Trochut)?
Woody Allen’s film ¨Vicky Cristina Barcelona¨ is another interesting case. After some local advice, Allen modified his original script so leading man Javier Bardem’s character was not a “torero” (bullfighter) but rather a bohemian painter. Probably a wise decision as bullfighting is not legal in Catalunya anymore. The film may not be the most accurate portrait of the city but the fact is that Barcelona’s City Council sponsored it as part of its marketing efforts.
Tourism is a key element to Barcelona’s livelihood, as Allen subtly captures in the film. In the documentary Bye bye Barcelona the viewer learns that in 1990 1.7 million tourists visited the city. Fast forward 23 years and now more than 8 million tourists make their way through Barcelona each year. Tourism generates close to 20 million Euros each day in the city. And while the cash flow is definitely positive there are also perils as the documentary succinctly explains. And you don’t have to look far to find them.
Some years ago the campaign “Barcelona la millor botiga del món” (by Tandem DDB, photography by Tanit Plana) was a controversial branding campaign that painted Barcelonians not as citizens but rather as customers. It was undoubtedly a questionable decision for the city to call itself “the best shop in the world” but the campaign was “nicely” designed. Of course.
More recently the City Council sponsored “Living Barcelona”, a music video also starring a tourist. Self promotion can be self destructive if you are not doing it the right way.
At least Barcelona also seems to have a sense of humor and appears to be at least a little self-aware. In 2012, the photographer Martin Parr was commissioned by Barcelona’s Contemporary Cultural Center (CCCB) to produce “Souvenir”, a tongue in cheek body of work documenting the expanding tourist industry in the city.
All of this points to the complexity involved in branding what is, essentially, a living, breathing, and remarkably dynamic organism. What’s interesting about Barcelona (and really, any other city) branding is the combination of the tangible elements (Gaudi’s architecture or the new Barcelona Design Museum) with the emotional components (local football team’s wonders, the taste of the local beer, cool music festivals, mediterranean lifestyle etc).
And if this is not complex enough, city branding is not only about focusing on the city residents’ pride but also on potential visitors’ interest. Barcelona as a brand must have done something right to have a seemingly never-ending stream of visitors and such continual good international press. But the question now is, can Barcelona keep being the best design “shop in the world” without losing its soul?