Successful branding is synonomous with differentiation. It's a paradox but place brands in the quest for commercial success are in danger of sacrificing their differentiation - and surprisingly branding is the problem. It will be a brave place that bans the brands and the one that does will truly be a 'place brand', rather than a branded place.
*All of the above brands were photographed on a recnt trip to Prague
It all started with this cup of illy coffee. I suddenly became aware of being surrounded by brands that had no Czech provenance whatsoever. In Prague there was a branding contagion that reminds me of Dutch Elm disease that can infect a place and take away its identity street by street. It strikes me as a little mad that we spend money and Co2 to escape our surroundings to explore cultural difference, to then be exploited by our desire to be surrounded by the familiar and spend more money on the things we could quite happily buy at home... strange.
From East European anonymity to popular city break in less than ten years… and the price maybe the city’s sense of identity. Prague has taken its place amongst the pantheon of Eurocity ‘place brands’.
Where did the communist era go? In four days I saw one Trabant car dressed up as a novelty. No insignia, no hammers or sickles. One small monument to Nazi oppression in an obscure park that no-one visits. And the largest ever statue of Stalin in the world replaced (probably had a point here…) by the largest and most irrelevant metronome in the world. Is this history by erasure? A history the people wish to distance themselves from? Or an unmarketable product for visitor taste? One clue to Soviet Prague’s past is the trams that are the same as those in Moscow, Warsaw and Volgograd and would be iconic in any self respecting cold war spy thriller – these were definitely the most romantic boy-thing on view - all poisoned tipped umbrellas and Barretta pistols…
The Prague story is now a concoction of distant events – thirty years war, Good King Wenceslas et al – and more than a nod to western ‘consumer culture’ - the winners definately won. Recent past is conspicuously absent. Even the quintessential Czech brand Skoda has undergone German ‘re-education’ and its true identity usurped. The brandscape today includes:
US fast food brands – Pepsi, Coke, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, KFC, TGI Fridays, Haagen Dazs etc. I almost admire Burger King for their apparent absence. If America is branding the world’s eating habits I despair on so many levels…
Swiss - Swatch
High street names – H&M, M&S, Tesco, Zara
Asian electronics – Samsung
EU mobile networks – O2, T-mobile
Consumer products – Panadol, Evian, Lego,
Irish beer – Caffrey’s, Guinness
German and Japanese cars – Audi, VW, BMW, Toyota, Honda
Czech brands did not feature. Unless you count the local lager. It all begs the questions. Do cities in searching for commercial success, demean themselves on the alter of international mega-branding? No-one can fault the search for financial security that tourism brings but how do you protect the soul of a place? Is it a problem when high culture is sacrificed on the alter of consumerism? Do we care? Was it always so? Or should we just shut-up, enjoy the beer and the carriage rides just like the everybody else?