What is Smart City branding? 4 successful examples

By  | 2023

We live in an information-collapsed world, full of data, reports, and reviews, giving us last-minute news and trends. However, every time we need something specific, we know exactly what we are looking for: if I’m thirsty, I know what beverage I want to drink; if I need a pair of shoes, I know the ones that I like and suit me better. All these thoughts about concrete products or services come to our minds because they make us feel something, remind us of experiences, and give us an idea of what is our preferred option, no matter how many alternatives there are. And this is what branding is. 

Companies use brands as an effective way to communicate their vision, and their ideologies, and translate realities into emotions. And so do cities. Maybe they are not items, but cities have realized they need branding to position themselves on a competitive global map. Monuments, food, and lifestyle can be determinants for choosing your next summer vacation destination. Nevertheless, if we are deciding to invest, relocate headquarters, or set our new home, it is important to consider other relevant factors, such as a powerful future strategy, sustainable development, or economic competitiveness of the place we are going to. In addition to setting the goals they want to achieve, cities require a branding strategy that reflects each city’s own identity. This will translate into reputation, positioning, and differentiation from others.

Smart City Branding: a key for global positioning

For those cities that have gotten into the Smart Cities movement, branding has become an important ally too. In the last few years, so many cities around the world are claiming themselves as “Smart Cities”, and a very competitive market has been established. In this context, how can we distinguish Smart Cities from one another? How can these Smart Cities stand out and make a difference? As curators of the Smart City Expo World Congress, we see this challenge every year. Many global capitals around the world are competing between them in the event with one only objective: standing out. However, it is challenging for them to achieve this in the expected way. 

That is why Smart City branding is essential. All cities in the world -whether they are global capitals or small towns-, are currently developing a large number of projects in different areas. However, it is not effective to communicate them all without priority -which is what happens in many cases. It is key for cities instead to design a strategy and to communicate according to it, prioritizing quality over quantity.

In the complexity of this context, Anteverti has designed a new methodology for assessing and creating Smart Cities’ branding. The methodology is named PDMBP© (which stands for Purpose, DNA, Market Research, Branding and Positioning), and it aims to help cities to brand themselves as Smart Cities in a clever and effective way, gaining recognition on the competitive global map. 

4 successful examples of Smart City Branding

Recently, we advised Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to define a new brand that effectively showcases its strengths as a leading Smart City on the global stage. To achieve this, we first analyzed the Smart City brands of 13 world’s major cities and ranked them by means of our methodological tool, which allowed us to answer the following questions: 

  • — Do the messages and narratives these cities communicate through their brands reflect their Smart City models and strategies?
  • — How effectively do these brands transmit the cities’ Unique Selling Points —distinctive elements that differentiate them from competitors— and value proposition?
  • — Are they using the optimal channels and tools to reach their target audience—whether digitally or in-person?

Taking all these elements into consideration, we determined the communicational consistency of these Smart City brands. Out of these 13, we would like to share four of the most successful cases — which interestingly have found different but effective ways to respond to their specific needs.

🇸🇬 Smart Nation Singapore:

Merging the Smart City with national identity

Singapore is more than just a city; it is also a state. That is why its Smart City strategy is inseparably a Smart Nation strategy. Embracing this distinctive and unique reality, this country of Southeast Asia has crafted a brand that proudly presents itself to the world as the sole Smart City that embodies… a Smart Nation.

This strategic move —which highlights the country’s Unique Selling Point— is brilliantly positioning Singapore at the forefront. By incorporating the term ‘Nation’ into its core brand identity, Singapore automatically rises over its competitors, evoking a powerful mental image of elevated conceptual hierarchy and global relevance. As a result, no other city brand can match the impact and resonance Singapore creates on a global scale.

🇯🇵 SusHi Tech Tokyo:

A brand linked to an unmistakable identity

Japan is a boundless source of global icons, but is there anything more easily relatable to the Land of the Rising Sun than sushi? Aware of this, the creators of the recently launched Tokyo Smart City brand ingeniously leveraged this cultural asset to align it with the Smart City model promoted by the Japanese capital. Thus, the concept of SusHi Tech Tokyo (an acronym for Sustainable High City Tech Tokyo) emerges from this fusion.

The brand identity goes beyond wordplay, seeking to capture and showcase the essence of the city’s strategy and know-how. Mirroring the transformation of a simple fish into a delicacy through master artisanship, the SusHi Tech Tokyo concept embodies the city’s commitment to harnessing Japan’s cutting-edge technology, diverse ideas, and digital expertise to create a future made by and for people.

🇫🇮 Helsinki Smart Region:

Joining Forces to Compete Globally

Promoting economic vitality is a fundamental objective in Smart City Branding, and Helsinki’s strategy and brand, Helsinki Smart Region, align with this goal. Following in the footsteps of Singapore, the brand goes beyond the traditional city concept—the region—to accentuate an element that amplifies its competitiveness and international appeal.

In the case of Helsinki’s brand, the aim is to establish not only the city but also an entire innovation ecosystem as a global powerhouse, harnessing the potential of both its metropolitan area and its rural surroundings. Moreover, it involves leveraging the renowned reputation of the country’s capital to fuel economic growth in the neighboring and less known Uusimaa region. By aligning with the Helsinki Smart Region brand, Uusimaa can overcome the obstacles it would encounter when seeking individual recognition in today’s fiercely competitive global environment. 

Ultimately, this integration strategy is a win-win solution that maximizes collective recognition, expands the region’s global impact, and enhances the value proposition of both Helsinki and the Uusimaa region for foreign investors and stakeholders.

🇳🇱 Amsterdam Smart City & Circular Amsterdam:

Two needs, two brands

Is it necessary for a city to have a single Smart City brand? While it is commonly seen, there are no strict guidelines enforcing this. In reality, brands are created to fulfill specific purposes, sometimes broader or more general, and at other times very specific. In certain cases, cities have diverse communication needs that are effectively conveyed through different brands. Amsterdam exemplifies this.

On one hand, the Dutch city has developed the brand Circular Amsterdam, which aims to globally promote its groundbreaking city model. This brand revolves around the innovative strategy of the same name, with a vision to transform Amsterdam into one of the world’s pioneering cities based on a circular economy that respects the Earth’s finite resources by 2050. 

On the other hand, Amsterdam also promotes the brand and platform Amsterdam Smart City, with a strong focus on economic development. It serves as a hub for both public and private innovation professionals to exchange updates, explore opportunities, tackle challenges, collaborate on projects, and participate in events related to innovation and sustainability initiatives. This is how these two distinct purposes are effectively addressed through differentiated branding strategies.

Good Smart City Branding: a brief conclusion

What common elements do these four successful cases of Smart City Branding share? 

  1. Firstly, all the brands have a strong foundation in a comprehensive city strategy, originating from a firm political commitment at the highest level of the city —even the nation— government.
  2. Secondly, these brands effectively leverage and highlight a distinctive and defining characteristic of the cities they represent, which sets them apart and grants them uniqueness. 
  3. Lastly, all these brands revolve around a captivating and accessible narrative, enabling the global audience to grasp the city’s value proposition quickly and concisely. 

These three elements serve as the fundamental pillars of successful Smart City Branding.

🌇 Amid fierce global competition for investment and talent, #SmartCityBranding can be the key for cities to stand out. Discover 4 top-performing global cities embracing this trend in our latest #CitiesToBe post | #CityBranding by @anteverti: Clic para tuitear

The research included in this post was developed within the framework of a consulting project that Anteverti carried out for the Seoul Digital Foundation and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, with the support of the Yonsei University.

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About the authors

CEO at Anteverti | + posts

Cristina Garrido is the CEO of Anteverti, director of CitiesToBe – Anteverti's knowledge platform, and curator of the international spin-offs of the Smart City Expo World Congress, with more than 18 years of global experience advising cities, companies, and other institutions in creating their strategic vision and developing it through innovation, creativity, management, and communication.

Cristina is a regular speaker and keynote at international conferences organized by the UN, OECD, European Commission, Urban Land Institute, and the Seoul Leaders Forum. She writes for numerous publications and has been an associate professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. She holds a Master's in Urban Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London, completed the Ignite program in Business Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a BA in Visual Arts.
With a background in arts and urban studies, Cristina's expertise focuses on how innovation can be a tool for improvement, sustainability and strategic development of cities. She has written for several publications and, up until 2017, was an Associate Lecturer at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC).

Head of Communications & CitiesToBe Executive Editor at Anteverti | + posts

Sergio García i Rodríguez is an expert in strategic communication, internationalization, and new digital narratives with over 10 years of experience working for international organizations, the press, and the private sector. Since 2018, he has served as the Head of Communication at Anteverti, the executive editor of their knowledge platform, CitiesToBe, and a senior consultant.

Sergio's projects have included assisting Seoul in designing its new Smart City Brand, conceptualizing the narrative of the New Urban Agenda of Catalonia, and creating various concept stands for the city of Barcelona at the Smart City Expo World Congress. Before this role, he led and implemented strategies and initiatives at the UNDP, T-Systems, and Agencia Efe. He holds a master's degree in International Studies, a postgraduate degree in Digital Content, and a bachelor's degree in Translation.

Consultant & Senior Congress Specialist at Anteverti | + posts

Valeria Andrade is a multidisciplinary expert with 8 years of background helping organizations identify the opportunities shaping the cities of the future, managing projects, and organizing international corporate events. Since 2022, Valeria has worked at Anteverti as a senior congress specialist for the Smart City Expo World Congress, and provides support for other events related to urban issues, such as Barcelona ReAct.

Previously, Valeria worked at the association Barcelona Global, where she gained experience in projects focused on mobility, affordable housing, education, public-private partnerships, tourism, and talent attraction. She holds a degree in Political Science with a specialization in international relations, geopolitics, and global governance.

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