Time for a new image? How to promote Sheffield City Region to the world

It is phenomenally difficult to change the image of a place '“ but not impossible.

Thursday, 4th August 2016, 9:54 am
Updated Thursday, 4th August 2016, 10:59 am
Attractive: Sheffields Peace Gardens and Town Hall at night  but how should the entire region promote itself? Picture: Chris Etchells

I recall one conversation with a Liverpool official who felt they would have to wait for a generation to move on before perceptions changed across the country, especially in London.

And he summed it up in one word: “Hubcaps.”

This was last year, long after it had very successfully been European capital of culture in 2008.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

For the record, I think Liverpool’s a fantastic go-ahead place that is blessed by stunning architecture and the beauty, drama and history of a border with sea.

But that’s the point – most people in the UK, let alone the world, will never go there. So they are left to form an impression from second-hand sources.

Essentially, that means if you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you.

But once you’ve decided what you are, you have to persuade everyone else that that’s the real you – to the point where it overshadows everything else.

A huge piece of work, then. But few would disagree that Glasgow managed it.

The city was probably at its lowest ebb when a campaign to change its image was launched in 1983. But ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ was just the start.

The Garden Festival followed in 1988 and it was the European Capital of Culture in 1990. Certainly by 1999, when it staged the Festival of Architecture and Design, change had bedded in. Today tourism is huge. But it is also one of the top 10 European financial centres, following the creation of the International Financial Services District on the banks of the Clyde in 2000, and it is one of the biggest shopping destinations outside London’s West End.

Read all that and memories of a less positive side to Glasgow – personified by Rab C Nesbitt – simply evaporate.

On a smaller scale, Chesterfield in Derbyshire is widely seen as having swapped its image of a former mining and Sheffield dormitory town to a thriving market town with a strong business, cultural and educational community.

The figures back it up too, with employment back up to the national average and above average occupation in the town centre.

It did this with £600,000 of European cash spent on an overarching marketing campaign. It is controlled by a central organisation – Destination Chesterfield – which runs promotional activities including a manufacturing week, food and drink awards, a half marathon and even training for taxi drivers in key facts.

The move is being copied – with Doncaster, Worksop and Bolsover now spending money on ‘place marketing’.

But being geographically distinct and, in the scheme of things, small, their task is clearly defined.

Sheffield City Region on the other hand is a trickier job – but a vital one.

The Local Enterprise Partnership is poised to tackle the issue professionally after years of hand wringing by bosses and council chiefs stating the region “doesn’t shout loudly enough about its successes”.

Most agree that modesty is the prevailing attitude in South Yorkshire generally and manufacturers specifically.

But the writing is on the wall. Manchester is often held up as an exemplar of joined up marketing on an international stage and it would seem a similar move is irresistible.

Andrew Gates, head of policy at the LEP, says that from late autumn the first £30m of devolution funds will land – there will be 30 payments a year over the next three decades – and some of it will be spent on updating and promoting its image.

The move fits with devolution in Sheffield City Region which is increasingly uniting its towns. And it chimes with the need to be more outward facing as Brexit looms.

Dan Fell, chief executive of Doncaster Chamber, is a convert.

He says: “Getting our brand and message right is not just the icing on the cake, it is a fundamental tool when promoting our region for export, inward investment, tourism and skills.”

Advanced Manufacturing stands out. It’s generally accepted that plans for an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District – a sort of Silicon Valley – on the Sheffield/Rotherham border will put the region at the forefront of global activity.

There’s also the well connected and fast growing Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The digital industry is up and coming too, as is the financial services industry.

They don’t all have to be USPs, says Andrew Gates, the LEP’s head of policy.