Marketing Edinburgh

What does Edinburgh need to get its message over and is the body charged with that task up to the job, asks Gavin Corbett?

I’ll be honest and say that, until recently, I had never given that much thought to how Edinburgh should be marketed.  As a city, it does not lack visitors or people who think positively of it (although complacency is a number one enemy here).  The population is rising steadily (although not quite as much as thought, according to early Census results).  And, certainly, landmark events, like our Festivals need to be relentlessly promoted as there is always somewhere else envious of Edinburgh’s culture crown.

But what of the city itself?  Different sectors – business, investors, tourism, culture, property – all have an interest in how the city is perceived and presented.  These interests vary, they might compete with each other.  At worst, they might trip over each other.  So the conception of a single body – Marketing Edinburgh – is a decent one, in an effort to create a hub for communications about the city.  At arms-length it should have some of the freedom to pull in major institutions like the universities or industry to co-ordinate and sharpen the marketing effort.

Marketing Edinburgh has had a troubled year. A widely-ridiculed branding slogan “Incredinburgh” was followed by the departure of senior staff.  A couple of months ago the organisation came back to the Council seeking an extra £122,000 in its agreed grant to plug a financial hole, a plea which I argued and voted against, at a time when other budgets were being cut.

The funding package for 2013-14 is just over £1 million from the City Council.  At the Economy Committee this week we were asked to sign off a service level agreement setting out key aims, with more detail to follow in a business plan that we have not yet seen.  I was deeply disappointed by the service level agreement.  It contained 12 “strategic” aims, some of which were more waffle that I can digest at a single sitting.  For me an organisation of this size which has 12 “strategic aims” is seeking to mask utter confusion about its central purpose and role by simply creating volume.  “Never mind the quality, feel the width” seems to be the message.  I invited my fellow councillors on the Committee to recognise that what we still had was an organisation that did not know what it was here to do.  I argued that we were being asked to commit to an organisation the aims of which were loose and impossible to measure and a business plan that had not yet been seen. Other opposition groups backed that message but Administration votes won the day.

I really hope I am wrong.  I really hope that underneath the waffle of the current service level agreement there is clarity of purpose.  If so, I expect to see that in the business plan.  If we are to have an integrated marketing hub for the city, it needs to be able to command the confidence of the city as a whole.  Equally, we need greater clarity about what we are marketing.  Is it stag ‘n’ hen tourism, bloated on cheap flights, booze and creating havoc in residential neighbourhoods?  Is it “bigger is better” Edinburgh, irrespective of the impact on transport, services and pressure on green and open land?  Footloose multinationals with an eye on funding incentives but loyalty to nowhere? Or is it to attract investment in sunrise, sustainable industries which would see Edinburgh take its place at the top table of low carbon cities?

These are very different choices, very different audiences and very different messages.  I want Marketing Edinburgh to work but the jury is still, I am afraid, very much out.