Identity issues: How two councils rewrote their narratives

May 19, 2022  

Narrative-building, rebranding, story-telling: all complex things, especially when it’s about something as big and mutli-layered as a whole place’s identity. But York and Hackney councils are examples of building purposeful, authentic place-based narratives – and what can be achieved as a result.

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose” – Dolly Parton

The charming, historic city of York may seem too established to warrant a rebrand. But this, perversely, was part of the problem facing Claire Foale when she joined City of York Council as Head of Communications in late 2017.

The city’s institutions looking for investment – from universities to businesses – complained about the same issue: York lacked a strong contemporary identity. It meant “something to everybody and therefore nothing at all”, and simply wasn’t attractive enough to people or organisations looking to invest in somewhere exciting and vibrant.

“Everyone knows York is beautiful and is loved by tourists,” says Foale. “There was a sense of: that’s great but we can’t just turn the city into a ye-olde theme park.”  

Wednesday 20th December 2017,York ,UK Picture Credit Charlotte Graham Picture Shows

Three-hundred kilometres down the country in Hackney, East London, the council had faced its own identity issues.

When Polly Cziok started at Hackney council in 2003, the London borough’s reputation was poor – even toxic; synonymous with crime and grime and bad education. The local authority was the second-most deprived in the UK, and was reeling from a Section 114, having also just received the worst Ipsos Mori resident satisfaction rating recorded to date. To add insult to injury, Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location named it the one of the worst places to live in the UK.

When London won its bid to host the Olympic Games in neighbouring Stratford, the need to revitalise Hackney and leap on investment opportunities came into stark relief.

So how do councils like York and Hackney remould their places’ narratives?

The idea of a ‘story of place’ taps into two very powerful human instincts. First – to feel rooted in a meaningful identity. Second – to understand this identity through collective storytelling. Creating this story may feel like powerful alchemy for a local authority to take on, but it can reap serious rewards: attracting new people and investment, and building pride and purpose among those who already live and work there.  

This is something we explore in our latest member-exclusive briefing Telling your Story of Council and Place, part of our Innovation series that aims to give local government the tips and inspiration to deal with some of the stickiest issues around.

Hackney and York’s experiences of narrative building are not without challenges, but both resulted identities that helped secure significant investment and meet long-term goals.  

The York Narrative centres around three values (see below) which meld its historic credentials with a forward-looking outlook. These helped to inspire and validate all sorts of initiatives and policy decisions, from the university’s marketing, to small-business grants during Covid, to an ambitious new social housing programme that prioritises communal living.

“Now there is a sense that we can’t let down our history,” says Foale. “We’re the city that had the first Almshouses in the 10th century and one of the first Homes for Heroes post World War I. Why would we just do the bare minimum?”

Hackney’s marketing plan centred on the strapline: “The Real Heart of London”. ‘Heart’ was a reminder to investors of the borough’s proximity to Central London. ‘Real London’ was “a bit cheeky”, says Cziok. “We were saying this is the real London – we’ve got heart and soul and communities.”

The narrative created a core script for how council staff talked about their place. It was instrumental in securing Olympic-related investment and winning a bid to turn the Games’ Broadcast and Media Centres into a technology and innovation campus after the flame had been passed on.

As you would expect from such different places, the councils’ experience of narrative building – and resulting narratives – are very different. But they share common insights that illuminate what separates a successful re-brand from a flop.

  • Both co-designed their narratives alongside institutional stakeholders and local people: these were not ideas thought up in a council vacuum or by an external branding agency.
  • Both were fuelled by a clear purpose. They benefitted from clear audiences, which led to clear aims and ultimately delivered clear outcomes.  
  • Both narratives are authentic, drawing out what is unique about their place. In fact, Foale and Cziok see their jobs here as less of writing a new story, more uncovering what is already distinct, attractive and compelling about their place and helping to solidify and amplify this.

In forming new narratives, York and Hackney councils were both seeking to defy existing stereotypes of their places: York as an antiquated city museum, and Hackney as a crime-riddled patch of outer London.

And each succeeded in flipping these stereotypes while remaining true to their place – both reflecting; and adding a bit of shine.

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