17/09/2009 - 00:00

Fragmented strategy hinders ‘brand Perth’

17/09/2009 - 00:00

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WRITER Guy de Maupassant dabs his napkin on his not-inconsiderable moustache to lift the remains of the restaurant's plat du jour.

Fragmented strategy hinders ‘brand Perth’

WRITER Guy de Maupassant dabs his napkin on his not-inconsiderable moustache to lift the remains of the restaurant's plat du jour.

He turns to his companion, expressing neither delight nor disgust for the cuisine he consumes each lunchtime, and gives no thought to changing his daily routine of attending the restaurant at la Tour Eiffel.

"It's the only place," he says, "where I don't have to see it."

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, critics of the 'monstrosity' were ferocious, with landlords quick to discard property with views of the Eiffel Tower. The outbreak of World War I was credited for saving the structure from being torn down, as engineer Gustave Eiffel was able to convince Parisians of its usefulness as a radio and telegraphic post.

Fast-forward more than a century, and the Eiffel Tower is the single most visited paid monument in the world, and has come to represent Paris itself.

And Perth's equivalent is ... the Bell Tower?

The comparison between Perth and Paris is probably unfair, as few cities can draw upon a history of monarchs, revolutions, enduring architecture, aristocratic winemaking and guillotines to create a global brand.

When Perth finds its way onto the six or seven main liveability surveys, it tends to do pretty well. Yet, there is still much to learn from the world's great cities.

Marion Fulker, the chief executive of the Committee for Perth, says perennial liveability survey leader, Canada's western city of Vancouver, consciously markets itself as the most liveable city in the world, and enjoys the economic benefits that flow from that image.

The Committee for Perth is a member organisation with a mandate from the business community to help drive sustainable development in Perth.

Another common front-runner in liveable city surveys, Sydney, is primarily branded as an economic hub with a formidable harbour backdrop thrown in. Branding sceptics need only look at how Sydney wrestled control from Melbourne as the country's corporate capital to see that a city's image can change.

Vancouver and Sydney are two of numerous global cities to have published vision statements widely supported by the various existing authorities.

"Almost all of these statements have been prepared as part of strategic planning exercises undertaken by city local authorities and are therefore backed up by goals, strategies and actions to achieve the vision," a Committee for Perth report says.

Ms Fulker questions whether the lord mayor's office, Tourism WA and suburban councils are working in that type of unison.

"Perth is quite fragmented and we don't know what it wants to be," she says.

The obvious solution is to link the image of Perth to the state's resources prowess.

"Oil and gas capital of the world? I don't know how well that would sit with our citizens."

And it probably wouldn't do much to attract the highly skilled professionals a progressive city seeks.

A lump of iron ore

Attendees at a recent public lecture at the University of Western Australia - given by visiting Swiss professor of marketing, Jean-Claude Usunier - were told consumers linked products to particular regions or countries.

The message was that when people hear the word 'perfume', for example, they link the product to France. Russia has its vodka, Brazil is known for its coffee, Switzerland its watches, and the list goes on.

This link is valuable for exporters promoting their wares and those trying to attract people and investment into their cities.

Professor Usunier says the link between a product and region can be promoted by industry and government, but not without substantial effort.

"I think it's possible to cultivate if there's something already there," he says.

Professor Usunier's studies in this field found most people around the world associated wine with France, however there were pockets, such as in the UK, where consumers associated wine with Australia.

Because the image of a lump of iron ore may not attract business and tourism to Perth, it will probably be these other industries that brand experts look to when considering what qualities Perth and the regions want to be known for.

One thing that seems to need fixing is that, when the phrase 'art and culture' is mentioned, no-one thinks of Perth.

The development of Perth's arts scene is not simply about 'art for art's sake' either. Ms Fulker argues that a vibrant artistic culture is key to attracting business talent.

"At an executive level they are worried about education for their children and arts and culture for themselves," she says.

"We believe arts and culture should be part of our everyday life. At the moment it's a bit high brow."

Venice-born Stefano Carboni was lured from New York to become the director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia about one year ago.

Dr Carboni says professionally and personally it was the right time to leave New York. (Having a wife who grew up in Australia might have also helped the power brokers of the local arts world secure his appointment.)

"My main focus is to make this institution more of a destination. I also feel it is important to be a strong voice in the community," he says, referring to building up the local arts scene.

Dr Carboni cites the popularity of the British Museum, which recently became Britain's most popular tourist attraction, as evidence of how attractive art and cultural institutions can be to locals and tourists alike.

Closer to home, he says Brisbane's development of the South Bank should be commended.

Architectural feat

The power of an architectural feat or work of art should not be underestimated, according to supporters of the sector. The 2008 purchase of a $200,000-plus Steinway piano for the Perth Concert Hall - paid for out of a former state government pledge to Perth Theatre Trust - generated enough media coverage that it could be argued the free publicity paid for, or at least heavily subsidised, the purchase.

Dr Carboni says the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum is another example of a structure that has mass appeal. Tourists now flock to the northern Spanish city that garnered very little attention prior to the construction of the glass, titanium and limestone-clad museum.

"That was like winning the lottery for the city," he says.

In fact, it's worth a lot more than the lottery, which is why Geelong in Victoria has pushed for one of the major international art museums to be built within its borders.

That's not to say all structures should be constructed for construction's sake. The Perth Ferris Wheel, for example, hasn't quite captured the hearts - or dollars - of locals and tourists.

At a recent Committee for Perth luncheon, historian Geoffrey Bolton spoke about a need for a clear vision for Perth and warned against simply trying to copy another city.

"Historically, Perth has looked elsewhere for models but the city is big enough, old enough and sophisticated enough to be able to develop its own vision," he said. "Even now it is being suggested that we look to Dubai for inspiration, but this needs to be resisted. Perth needs to find local solutions for local problems."

Perth's skyline gives away the fact it is a metals and mining town, as the corporate logos of the big miners catch the visitor's eye right away.

But this is not something to shy away from. Rather it is just something to work on, according to a joint UWA-Committee for Perth report.

"However ... by inference the city is based on nothing more than a 'dig it up, ship it out' economy," the report says.

"Of course, what this overlooks is that the minerals and energy cluster in Perth makes the city a site of considerable knowledge, skills and innovation."

The fact is, most cities specialise. Sydney could be critiqued for being too finance heavy, while Melbourne is the corporate headquarters to more than its share of pharmaceutical and health care companies.

Successful cities tend to spend plenty of time managing their brand, although they also seem to stumble across iconic features, much to the dismay of the citizens of the day.

Cost blowouts and huge delays fuelled criticism of the Sydney Opera House, which were at times as vicious as those launched against Monsieur Eiffel seven decades earlier.

Perhaps residents with a view of the Perth Ferris Wheel shouldn't sell their properties just yet.

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