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Design Thinking Consulting: an actionable theory of brand design for urban futures

Design Thinking Consulting: an actionable theory of brand design for urban futures

Urban Design Thinking Consulting: From brand design to international marketing expansion in social media and social networks, cities require new models for a new marketing mindset.

In 1999, British author and practitioner John Grant defined a brand as “an idea people live by”. Leading “guru’s” of the decade that followed, like Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi, expanded this notion into concepts like “lovemarks”, those branding concepts that people do love beyond any rational motive. For example, according to Roberts, the “Italy” place brand, when it comes to tourism and culture. According to Italian past advertising master, Pasquale Barbella, there are not more than a handful of such “true brands” in the world, those brands that move our hearts and fire up our imagination in cultural terms. All the rest is just mere “management”. In this line of thinking, we do believe that brands are socio-cultural constructs and that their creation can offer to their beneficiaries and stakeholders unique opportunities to increase the quality of their lives as well as the success of their business, by focusing and multiplying their (perceived) value in their context. We do therefore believe in a notion of brand design as an agent of positive change, researching today’s reality to envision a better future.

It is an acquired fact that marketing techniques are central in determining those narratives underpinning our postmodern urban reality, even within the sphere of influence of design thinking consulting. In the last two decades, design has rapidly seen its relevance grow within this context as a “branding tool” for cities. There is, however, more to “design” than pure marketing exploitation and even than what designers or architects actually do/make on daily basis in their ateliers and studios. From a “branding” storytelling viewpoint, “design” can be described as a constantly-evolving articulation of coherent themes being processed within the immanent “space of flows” of our globalized network society. From an instrumental marketing viewpoint, “design” potentially becomes a mere tool in the hands of its stakeholders, preferably activating a measurable reaction in both external (e.g., prospect corporate investors or tourists) and internal (e.g., people living in the city being “branded”) urban audiences thanks to inferences, stereotypes and schemata. Of course, the most universal and immediate ambition for urban administrative entities is to simply leverage stereotypes and schemata from an instrumental city marketing perspective. When consciously adopted with such purpose, (experience) design and its facets might then be synthetically oversimplified in order to be mechanically managed as part of a pragmatic portfolio.

When looking at the universe of urban futures, and how cities will position themselves in the decade ahead, the challenge is to define the elements for an efficient, effective and actionable platform of branding theory, one that goes beyond any limitations of classic consumer marketing models. Within such context, a notion of “branding” as rooted in culture and articulated through “narratives” will be adopted, with “storytelling” as the key focus. The “power of socio-cultural driven brand design” should be leveraged, with the aim to stretch brands towards exceeding their mere marketing and sales purposes.

By articulating its positioning in the form of a manifesto and visual passport, the “place brand” might aim at acting as a “switcher” within networks, namely the determining factor to trigger the transition of a given urban entity from localized “space of place”, to a sustainable and superior iconic position in that global “space of flows” that connects value to information, through pervasive networked communication. It is with such ambition to reach a “tipping point”  of ultimate relevance within the larger communication context that “(brand) design” might end up being the perfect synthesis of both hyper-local grammars of aesthetics (reflecting local values, vernacular styles and popular genres in the context of communities) and those international factors that at any given moment determine the content and quality of “trends” as perceived by people.

(Earlier versions of this text were circulated in the context of NHTV University of Applied Sciences, Academy for Leisure, The Netherlands)


He is a researcher/lecturer in International Leisure Management at NHTV University of Applied Sciences on international networks, place branding and design. He earned his PhD on the role of design in generating urban futures at the Graduate School, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Tilburg University. He is the founder of Marco Bevolo Consulting. His portfolio includes projects for selected customers in Europe and Asia, including Philips, Municipality of Eindhoven, LightProjects (Leni Schwendinger), Lighting Design Collective (Madrid) and CitiesNext GmbH (Vienna). Until 2009 he was a Director at Philips Design headquarters in the Netherlands, where he was the driving force behind CultureScan, the cultural futures research program, and city.people.light, the urban futures global program. He works primarily in the areas of strategic design, people research and thought leadership. In his extracurricular capacity, in the period 2010-2016, he has been the Principal of Research Urban Futures for Philips Lighting in Europe, Poland, Czech Republic.