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How to brand a city: Christchurch learns some lessons all the way from Tel Aviv

Hila Oren is the CEO of the Tel Aviv and founder of Tel Aviv Global. At the age of 25, she was hired by the city’s mayor to come up with a story, or brand, for Tel Aviv. Now, Tel Aviv is globally recognised as a hotbed of innovation, while Oren is world-renown for her work in elevating the city to be recognised globally for its start-up culture. On a recent trip to Auckland, she discussed how to pinpoint the key qualities of a city’s identity, how New Zealand’s cities can become better recognised on the world stage, and more.

Firstly, where do you even begin when it comes to coming up with a brand for an entire city? With Tel Aviv, how could you tell it was its start-up culture that was the factor to pin point?

Every city has lots of ingredients to the story, but you have to look for that one unique selling point that you can find only in that city in an extraordinary way. You can find the quality in other cities, but that ingredient is what the city is known for – like its urban identity. It’s that specific thing that is concentrated there and the people – the residents – feel that this is their identity, because city branding is not like a commercial branding. With commercial branding, you take a chair or a phone, and you brand it. With a city you can’t do that, as there’s people there and there’s history there. The city was initiated some x years ago and you need go check what’s its story and what the legacy is. What’s the legacy of New York? What’s the legacy of Shanghai? What’s the legacy of Tel Aviv? What’s the legacy of Christchurch? Why do people choose to live here and not there? Branding cities is not about logos and slogans, it’s all about city making, city identity.

Was it easy to decide to run with this identity? Do you think you had a unique perspective on it given your background as an entrepreneur, and you knew what needed to be done?

It took me three years to find that unique selling point. It wasn’t an easy task. When I came to Christchurch, it was easier for me as an outsider, as sometimes as an outsider it’s easier than being an insider because you feel all the ingredients that are a part of your story and it’s hard to just pick that one specific one. For Tel Aviv, the book Start-Up Nation helped this. We’ve got this ecosystem there and this is our identity, and in a way, everybody who is there is from a start-up background, from who started the city – 66 families – to everybody today. That’s our culture, our identity. We’re not afraid of taking risks and we know we’re going to fail, whereas some places are more conservative and avoid failure. In our culture, we see it as another step to success.

We’re in the cities era: Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, New York, Shanghai, London, Toyko, whatever. It’s not USA versus USSR anymore. It’s the cities era, so we should be talking cities, not your nation. We should be talking Auckland, not New Zealand, or Christchurch.

What did you see with Christchurch?

Christchurch was much easier because I came there already knowing the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton (a British explorer who led several expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s) and the explorer themes – people always go there as the gateway to Antarctica. So when I went there, I thought ‘this is it’. Where ever you go in Christchurch, there’s the spirit of explorers around. People came here in 1850, people came here in 1900, and the people that are coming now for aerospace – there’s an innovation ecosystem there around aerospace, like Google’s Project Loon. They don’t come to Auckland or Wellington to explore, they come to Christchurch. It was right in my face, so it was easier.

So it’s often a historical element that is weaved into the city’s modern identity?

Exactly. You always have to go and look at the legacy – look at the coat of arms, 100 years ago, they had already captured Christchurch. Now, cities around the world are rebrand themselves – New York with the Big Apple. But even then, that was the 1980s and they’re rebranding again. London and Moscow are rebranding. Some do better jobs, some can improve, but everyone understands that if you want to attract talent and if you want to attract business, this is what it’s all about. By 2050, 75 percent of the world is going to live in cities – so how are we going to live in those cities? How are we going to eat, take transport? The story needs to capture that.

When Tel Aviv created this brand for itself, did it give people more permission to engage in being a part of this start-up culture?

Absolutely. In the beginning, people told me, ‘I’m not a technologist. I don’t feel comfortable around the start-up scene.’ And then it was understanding during the process that this is a state of mind – it’s not about technology. Exploring is also a state of mind. You don’t have to go to Antarctica to be an explorer, you can be an explorer on your couch at home going through the internet and exploring new things, or in your kitchen, finding new dishes to make.

You’ve spoken of needing to disconnect Tel Aviv from the national brand of Israel previously. Why was this necessary?

The issue was not to disconnect, the issue was to brand Tel Aviv. We’re in the cities era: Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, New York, Shanghai, London, Toyko, whatever. It’s not USA versus USSR anymore. It’s the cities era, so we should be talking cities, not your nation. We should be talking Auckland, not New Zealand, or Christchurch. Of course there’s the issue of Israel and the conflict there, but if you want to talk about Tel Aviv, it’s not necessary to talk about Israel. It’s like when I talk to people in Christchurch and they’re still saying ‘the earthquake’, ‘pre-earthquake’ and ‘the rebuild’. I told them, ‘forget about it. If you want to brand your city, talk about the city. Tell your story.’

Do you think Tel Aviv’s story is strong enough to overcome people’s fears or misconceptions surrounding Israel’s political unrest?

Absolutely. I see people that come over, and I see the way I’m invited all over the world. In order to be here, I had to turn down other invitations, such as to go to Mexico, China and Rome, Italy, just in this month alone. When I was in Moscow, I was on a panel because Tel Aviv is an interesting best practice and urbanists around the world and people who have passion for their cities – they’re not interested in politics.

A ‘smart city’ can get lumped in with other buzzwords around technology, but what does the term actually mean to you and what does the city have to deliver on in order to be ‘smart’?

Listen to its residents – that’s the most important thing. And how do you listen to them? Not only technology wise, because sometimes people 60 to 70-years-old don’t feel that comfortable around technology. Invite them to round tables. In Tel Aviv, we had 2000 round tables in the square and invited the whole population to just sit and talk. People don’t just want to be connected by a screen, a smart city is a city that’s aware of the different communities and help them give themselves the answer, you don’t always have to give them the answer. Ten years ago, you had all these professions – CFO, CTO, education manager – but now cities are like live organisms, and the managers of the town need to take off the red tape. In order to have recently put 700 scooters in Christchurch, the Council had to say yes and it’s not easy to saying yes, as they have to make sure that it’s safe. All their attorneys probably said no, but as a city maker, you have to make the most of these opportunities – and it fitted perfectly into the explorer theme.

What you see on the movies featuring New Zealand all the time is the most beautiful nature, but it’s not about nature when you come to cities, so my first tip would be promote the fact you have cities here.

How do you think we combat short-termism thinking when it comes to designing cities? It’s always difficult to plan 50 years from now, or 100 years from now.

I don’t think we need to plan 50 years from now. I think we need to plan five years from now. Me and you – we couldn’t imagine this [gestures to iPhone]. This is a camera, this is a navigator, this is a movie theatre, this is a phone, this is so many things. Ten years ago, we couldn’t even imagine this so why do we have to make plans 50 years from now? I’m not against plans, but I think we can plan to a degree and if we see that something is wrong, we change it. It’s okay. Plans are made by man and can be changed by man.

Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind Christchurch’s new branding? How did you help update the narrative surrounding the city’s identity?

Christchurch’s brand prior to this was confused because it was the city of gardens, while it also had other things going on like the Christchurch Cathedral, so there wasn’t one story. Now, ChristchurchNZ has a new CEO, Joanna Norris, who is brilliant. The whole team is aligned to this one issue: they’re opening the new library and that is going to be the hub of exploring and will speak of the city being a gateway to Antarctica. The council voted on the scooters and I talked with them about being city makers and looking at these scooters as exploring vehicles. I’m so happy to hear this morning that they have voted yes, because this is all part of understanding your brand. If you don’t focus on city-making and making sure that your brand is what the reality is, then it won’t work. Voting for the scooters is promoting their brand and continuing that story. I can talk about Auckland a little bit too. It is known as the city of sails. Now if it is, why don’t I feel it? I see it out there [the viaduct] and it’s beautiful, but it’s just there – it’s not a part of my city making. City making isn’t just what the council does, it’s what the private sector does to reflect this, too.

In order to have recently put 700 scooters in Christchurch, the Council had to say yes and it’s not easy to saying yes, as they have to make sure that it’s safe. All their attorneys probably said no, but as a city maker, you have to make the most of these opportunities – and it fitted perfectly into the explorer theme.

How can New Zealand aspire to have a global city that’s on par with Berlin or New York? What does it – or people making the decisions around it – need to do to get this underway?

I think there are at least three tiers of global cities. There’s London, New York, Toyko, Paris. Tel Aviv and Christchurch and Auckland will never be tier one, but it’s okay, we don’t have to be. To be tier one means you need to have a mass of people and a mass of business, whereas tier two and three, its more, lets make the best out of the city. Tel Aviv and New Zealand’s cities would be tier two or three. New Zealand has a very vibrant business sector, markets at night. Auckland combines business and a local authentic vibe with the city of sails, and that works because who doesn’t want to go on a sailboat? But you need to tie that all together.

And can I ask out of interest, before you came to Christchurch and did any research, what did you know about New Zealand and its cities?

Nothing at all. I couldn’t remember the names of the four cities I travelled between from North to South, and that just shows how the rest of the world struggles. To find a way to stand out, Auckland needs to find a way to stand out. What you see on the movies featuring New Zealand all the time is the most beautiful nature, but it’s not about nature when you come to cities, so my first tip would be promote the fact you have cities here. Have photos being shown of them, too.

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