(Western Mail (Wales) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Questions of belonging over council changes ; Following the publication of the Williams Commission, report, council reorganisation could spell an identity crisis for Wales, says branding expert Chris Carpenter
RECENT news reports of the proposed restructuring of the 22 local council authorities in Wales have been largely focused on the potential cost savings those changes may bring to taxpayers.
But it is dangerous to contemplate an exercise of this kind without first considering the branding implications such a major shake-up could bring.
The current structure of 22 different local authorities does present a marketing challenge for Wales because it creates a fractured brand message. Over the years, each region will have invested heavily in the creation and promotion of its own distinctive brand identity.
While one region might be known for its rolling landscape, farming heritage and rural values, another might have built a name for itself as an industrial hub for business with a more commercial personality. Try merging those two regions together and straight away the brand messages start to clash.
The existing administrative boundaries help to define the distinctive qualities of each region. Shift those boundaries and the fundamental identity of that area starts to change. Why is that important? Because a strong place brand can help to attract tourism, business and other investment opportunities, as well as creating a positive sense of community among its population.
Shifting that identity is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can sometimes be an incredibly positive move.
But it's crucial that these factors are considered as part of such a signifi-cant plan.
I am sure that brand synergies are not being considered as part of this council reorganisation exercise. Take Monmouth and Newport for example.
The proposal is to merge these regions, but they are about as wellmatched as a Range Rover and a Ford Fiesta.
Even Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion which, on the face of it, seem to share a common coastal landscape, are actually very different culturally.
This is not just about identifying geographical synergies - it should also be about recognising social, cultural and economic connections that will create a strong and marketable brand position for the future.
The impact of the proposed changes upon the people of Wales should not be underestimated. The area in which we live hugely shapes our own sense of identity.
Even in such a small country as Wales, the cultural perspective can shift quite significantly from area to area, region to region. There is often a sense of common values, a shared outlook, even a feeling of communal experience that can bond people in a particular area. We feel protective over the place in which we live and the prospect of that place morphing into another is more than slightly uncomfortable.
So community engagement will be key to these proposals. The people of Wales will want to be a part of this process. And they need to be. They must understand why it is happening and the impact it will have on their lives.
We don't know whether the new merged regions will be renamed or not. Have we learned nothing from the reorganisation of local government in the mid-70s when rural Cardiff, the city and the whole of the Vale of Glamorgan were lumped into one huge authority under the banner of South Glamorgan? There was a distinct lack of joinedup thinking then - as there was in the creation of Gwent, Mid Glamorgan and Dyfed at the same time - causing a vacuum in the feeling of belonging among the very people those councils were supposed to represent. It's certainly true that from a branding perspective Wales is too small as a nation to justify so many different regional messages. We do need to assess the value of these regional place brands and establish a plan for rationalisation. But this shouldn't be just done by accountants or politicians.
This is a strategic decision with significant implications for both the regional and national brands. We need to think about the bigger picture for Wales.
At the moment it's not clear where the proposed city regions fits with this plan. Are these two proposals being considered alongside one another? Can both plans co-exist? And if so, what is the branding implication? There are many questions yet to be answered.
At the heart of all successful brands there is a mission, a vision, a welldefined market position, a set of core values and a recognisable personality.
Does Wales have this, and does it give itself the best opportunity on the world stage? No, as it has a contradictory and fractured brand proposition.
We have confused messaging from 22 unitary authorities, the brand legacy of old council areas, the potential launch of city regions, the looming possibility of another 12 or 10 new brand entrants in the shape of the new council regions.
Confused? I'm sure the "Welsh customer" is.
Chris Carpenter is managing director of Cardiff-based Stills Branding.
(c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.