In 2016, Stockholm featured as the third most sustainable city in the world in the Sustainable Cities Index. Photo by Luke Insoll on Unsplash

There is a symbiotic relationship between a place’s brand and the commercial brands within its boundaries.

Such a relationship implies a mutual reinforcement of associations where a geographic territory and its internal production are constantly informing one another.

For example, until the Meiji reformation (1868 – 1912) Japan would have been defined by words like: samurai, kimono, geisha and others associated to its folklore. Japan’s industrial revolution opened space for a new word and world: modern.

However, Japanese modernity only became memorable when associated with brands like Hitachi (1910), Panasonic (1918), Fujifilm (1934), Toyota (1937) and of course Sony (1946) and the Walkman (1979) among many others.

The unspoken truth, however, is that the Meiji era held a powerful metaphor – the era of light – serving as the northern star of Japan’s progress. From ancient Greece through the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution, light has been a synonym to the sciences and technology in the western world.

For Japan this transformative journey began in 1871 when a group of Japanese politicians known as the Iwakura Mission toured Europe and the US to learn western ways. The projected new destination was then sealed when Emperor Mutsuhito, who was to reign until 1912, selected a new reign title – Meiji, or Enlightened Rule – to mark the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. To further dramatise the new order, the capital was relocated from Kyoto to Tokyo.

The result was a deliberate state led industrialisation policy that enabled Japan to rise as one of the world’s superpowers, legitimised by global brands, in the 20th century and still today. Interestingly, the metaphor of Japan as a technological and scientific light upon other nations became so powerful that unrelated events such as Fukushima’s nuclear disaster were framed more in terms of the relationship between man and machine (was it human error?! Should nuclear energy be reconsidered?! Do we need better tech?!) than its triggering Tsunami that had a lot more to do with environmental causes.

Fast forward and the imperative is now to make progress catch up with prosperity, hence the Sustainable Development Goals, set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to be reached in the year 2030.

Among the 17 goals, SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities is one that, in my view, underpins everything else given that there are already more people living in cities than rural areas, with no signs of slowing urban growth.

Well, that gives us just 11 years to project and reach a desired future for Earth’s urbanites. Cities and communities also have distinctive features and carry universal metaphors. Rome is the Eternal City, New York is the Big Apple, Paris is the City of Light. These metaphors do represent the mental associations and constructs we create when thinking of those cities just as much as how their inhabitants may see themselves; these are their place brands.

Taking Paris as an example, the city gained the nickname La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Light”) when in 1667, Louis XIV started installing lanterns on almost every main street and asked residents to light their windows with candles and oil lamps in an effort to reduce crime rate.

But the nickname really gained the most traction to becoming a brand during the Age of Enlightenment that followed. From the late 18th century to the 19th century, the city of Paris became increasingly known as a centre of education and ideas throughout the whole of Europe, inspiring poets, philosophers, engineers and scientists galore.

As well as the gradual increase in wattage, this context of innovation and enlightenment is what helped reinforce the symbolic significance of Paris as The City of Light.

We learn about the past to reflect upon the present and project our desired future. In the discipline of Strategic Foresight, the employment of metaphors that indicate a possible scenario is not uncommon. In fact, Professor Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO’s Chair in Future Studies, pioneered the Causal Layered Analysis, a four-layered approach to bring about transformative change. Importantly, the deepest layer of the framework is one where myths and metaphors present themselves as main causation drivers of the future.

In Professor Inayatullah’s own words: “Most strategies focus on the real world: implementation. But they forget that culture eats strategy for breakfast. To ensure that this does not occur, futurists focus on narrative.

Narrative has two parts – the worldview that supports the vision and the core metaphor that helps create the desired future. Recently while working for the People’s Republic of China, we focused on educational futures. The current system was seen to be rigid, institutionalised with the worldview of “good education leads to a good job.”

The metaphor was the dragon bounded by the great wall. As we examined digitalisation, the rise of peer-to-peer learning and globalisation, it became clear to participants that a far more flexible system was required. It needed to change from copy and paste to learning about self, others and the future.

The new metaphor was the dragon pulling China to global education. The metaphor thus guides our way to the new desired future. Similarly, with the government of Malaysia we explored how to transform the current educational system, which was built to catch-up with the West, to a new system that could spearhead innovation.

However, the tensions between stakeholders poses a challenge to finding a new story. The current reality was the regiment where the lecturer and the system defined roles strictly. Students, however, favoured co-created curricula.

But their story was that of the tug-of-war, caught between parents, lecturers, the market and the administration. The new guiding metaphor that emerged was the orchestra in harmony, working creatively together. This meant new metrics beyond the exam and a new culture beyond learning defined by the factory.”

Above and beyond this understanding is the fact that place brands and their commercial brands have an opportunity to mutually benefit one another. Oatly, a Swedish plant-based milk company, originated in the 1990s from a patented enzyme technology used to position itself in terms of its benefits. Its packaging was covered on claims like “calcium-enriched, dairy free, lowers cholesterol”. But following a 2014 relaunch, Oatly became about “making it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process.”

The impact of the relaunch was immediate. “People started to share everything we did – including sharing the values that we have,” says Oatly CEO Toni Peterson at this year’s the Retail Week Live conference.

Oatly before relaunch (left), Oatly after relaunch (right).

And the business has expanded, from one factory in the south of Sweden to four across three continents. Oatly’s growth rate is more than 100 per cent and they’ve been ranked as one of Fast Company’s ten most innovative companies in the world.

From the perspective of its host brand – Sweden – synergies abound. For years, Swedish companies have been regarded as among the best in sustainability reporting, confirmed in both academic research and comprehensive reports like major accountancy firm KPMG’s on global sustainability trends.

Volvo’s business model is built on three pillars: economic, social and environmental. Assa Abloy – the world’s largest lock manufacturer with a market cap of US$22.6 billion (AUD$33.06 billion), highlights sustainability in all processes from innovation and product development to logistics and sales in its business model.

Aside from what’s happening in the place, timing is also key. In 2013, the year prior to Oatly’s relaunch, Sweden earned Most Sustainable Nation by the Country Sustainability Ranking, which it then repeated in 2015.

In 2016, Stockholm featured as the third most sustainable city in the world in the Sustainable Cities Index. In 2017, IKEA won the coveted Beazley Design of the Year (for 2016) for its outstanding contribution towards the global issue of population displacement (supporting SDG 11) with a flat-packed refugee shelter. 2018 was the year when Sweden enacted “the most ambitious climate law in the world” and when Greta Thunberg gained worldwide media coverage for protesting outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. This year she may even win a Nobel prize.

The point is, places just as much as their output are, to a large extent, byproducts of the zeitgeist they inform and are informed by. And, when it comes to authenticity, neither Sweden, nor Stockholm, nor Oatly are jumping on any bandwagon but rightfully stepping up as steering wheels in the sustainability movement.

The metaphor? The march. From Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate to a stampede of Swedish brands waving their green credentials and militant citizen-consumers one could almost imagine H&M (a Swedish brand) launching a collection of compostable textiles with military motifs branding it.

In the recently published BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brand for 2019 “the determining factor to increasing value is ensuring the brand has the widest set of positive associations that are meaningful to consumers.”

Sustainability is one of the most meaningful concepts of today. Yet, different cultures and contexts may require different interpretations, metaphors and brands able to fulfil the goal of making cities and communities sustainable.

In the free markets, brand allows dynamic exchanges of capital and ideologies. 2030 is just around the corner, pressing corporates and the public sector to select the appropriate metaphors (and accompanying brands) that will help propel their respective green agendas where prosperity and profit are wisely considered.

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