Why I might be obsessing over brand Birmingham

Press conferences in Hong Kong are strange affairs. If the subject being questioned is not a politician, the default position of journalists is wildly deferential.

Now I’m not saying that’s altogether a bad thing, it’s just odd and makes the one British journalist stand out as a bit of a… well… tough cookie.

So, I was the big bad journalist when interviewing Tom Dixon, the former creative director of high-street furniture chain Habitat, at Business of Design Week in Hong Kong the other week.

Mr Dixon seemed less than delighted to find that, amongst the throng of polite Hong Kong and Chinese journalists asking to impart the secrets of his success, there was a British scallywag questioning his sincerity about environmental issues.

He had been saying how bad it was that design was focused so heavily on consumer goods. I found it a bit rich coming from a man who continues to make his money from the sale of faddy furniture – much of which has a high plastic content – so I asked him whether he felt guilty about it.

He answered the question well enough admitting that he was a hypocrite, but that he was trying to do something about it by developing environmentally friendly furniture as creative director of Artek. Not groundbreaking for a man who has enough money and influence to do something really incredible, but certainly a start.

What I found totally unacceptable, however, was the conversation we had when the press conference came to a close.

I can’t remember how we got on to it, but he had mentioned something about working with motorcycle firm Triumph (which was founded in Coventry). The rest of the conversation is how I remember it, not having my notepad open at the time.

Me: Yes! Thank you very much, that might be a Midlands angle. I’m from The Birmingham Post you see and I’m looking out for Midlands-related stories while I’m over here.

TD: You are from Birmingham? I feel your pain.

Me: Actually, I really like the place.

TD: Really? Why? It’s got a terrible reputation for design.

Me: I think you’ll find there are a lot of good design companies in the city working really hard and they are helping to build up Birmingham’s reputation.

TD: Are they? Well… good for them.

The last comment was said in such a patronising tone it made my blood boil. But there isn’t much you can say when you’re fighting old, ingrained stereotypes. Admittedly, I should have asked him if he’d ever visited Birmingham, but instead, flustered and cross, I just walked off.

Now, I know there are good things going on in this city. Those who work in the creative industries in Birmingham also know there are good things going on. But time and time again in this job I am faced with people peddling this anachronistic image.

I suppose you could say it doesn’t matter what these people think. We know Birmingham has a lot to offer, if others aren’t interested they can sod off.

Well… yeah… but the problem is they do. They sod off to other cities in the UK and we lose out. Our situation is exacerbated by condemnation from influential figures such as Mr Dixon.

This annoys me because there is absolutely no concrete reason why this should happen, except because of an outdated image.

That’s why I’m obsessed with brand Birmingham. If ever a UK city gets undersold, it’s Brum.

6 thoughts on “Why I might be obsessing over brand Birmingham

  1. I know what you are saying, but I am coming across this less and less. For example, I know organisations such as the Royal Institute of British Architects are producing a book which celebrates Birmingham’s role in that area. Fingers crossed it will keep going that way.

  2. hay Jo,

    cool blog, always thought you would make an excellent blogger! Found it by accident from facebook. How are you taking to wordpress? just asking as its the blog of choice that we use..

    Nice to hear your sticking up for good old brum, have come across it to from time to time but don’t think its just restricted to design, I think the City and the midlands in general still has a stigma and an image problem with people who haven’t visited the region recently.

    At our launch we had guys from up from London, and the first thing they said was how shocked they were at how colourful the city was;- red brick, canals, green spaces, not the concrete 60’s mess they were expecting.

    I personally think that there are still a lot of people out there who have a miss guided image of the city as being this tired run down industrial city. When anyone who has visited the city in the last 5years knows thats its a thriving city no just in the creative sectors but economically as well, you just need to spend some time loitering around Collmore Row and Brindly Place and you will be confronted by masses of business suits.

    Anyway have moaned enough, great blog !!! <- FROMAGE exclamations, pop round the office next time you in the area, you can see gill’s awesome mural of the city scape now if only we could convince the Council to fund something so creative..

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Hi Joanne

    As a Londoner originally I can remember my own misconception about Birmingham, but actually back in the early 90’s when I first came here it was pretty grim (although I loved the old Bullring). The only place to get coffee was Mr Egg or Spud u-like on New St. However the atmosphere was always extremely friendly compared to London.

    Within the 15 yrs I’ve lived here the city has transformed. But it takes a great deal longer to transform a reputation than destroy one (as I’m sure any PR /marketing bod would testify). Personally I don’t think it’s worth worrying about what those possibly ignorant to the city’s charms have to say. Ultimately things are much improved and improving, I imagine this is reflected in graduate retention but it is a slowish burn.

    Last night I had a nice chat with a lady who runs a local arts org and we were both of the concensus that B’ham is sometimes a little self-concious and contrived (Mr Bham even) in its approach. Me and said lady just felt like this is a fantastic place to live, we all just need to get on with it and really enjoy it. And by that I mean all the CI companies/orgs etc and really promote, celebrate the good stuff because slowly that will be the stuff that changes perceptions and reputations and in the meantime we get to enjoy our city rather than fret about it.

    Possibly rambling…

  4. Hi Charlotte!

    Not rambling at all! I think you’re probably right. I guess I’m annoyed because, being in a line of work that involves regularly talking to a diverse range of people about Birmingham, I am often faced with mocking out-of-date stereotypes.

    It’s disheartening and I know some graduates leave the city because they want to live somewhere with a better image. It’s seen as cool to live in Manchester, Leeds and even Sheffield nowadays. What I don’t understand is why on earth is it not the same for Brum?!

    If we keep on working hard, getting on and enjoying the place (which I hope I do anyway), does that mean one day we will just wake up and Brum ‘s slightly cruddy image will have disappeared? I don’t know… perhaps. Perhaps I’m just being impatient.

    I’ve just got this feeling that reputations are not built solely on somewhere being a nice place to live, they’re built because something exceptional happens – the Beatles in Liverpool, the fringe in Edinburgh – and then a city cashes in and partly trades on that.

    I suppose that’s why I’m interested in the Mr Brum idea. Contrived it may be, but it’s one way of filtering down to a couple of things we are really uniquely good at and then pounding at them to make sure everyone else realises we’re good at them too.

  5. hi Jo,

    I sympathise with your viewpoint but let me share with you my personal experience. Birmingham has a long way to go!!

    I was in Leeds and Birmingham visiting friends this festive season. I currently live in Edinburgh.

    My views on both cities:-

    Birmingham :- A confusing central area for the visitor – nothing in the bullring shopping area to distinguish it from any shopping area in any city in the uk.

    Groups of hoodies loitering in the centre, especially as darkness falls.

    Asked for directions to New Street Station – people were obliging but seemed melancholic in attitude. Perhaps it was the weather, as it was raining.

    New Street Station – looked very shoddy. The shopping arcade above it – is very 1970s.

    Cafe Rouge to meet a friend – nice staff and quick service – would recommend.

    Leeds:- Arrived at a lovely upgraded railway station. People definitely seem happier and always willing to assist with directions.

    Lots of evidence of a thriving commercial center. Beautiful new architecture.

    No evidence of hoodies in the center – though large gothic crowd at the corn exchange – no menace though.

    Walk down the briggate and on the headrow – very pleasant.

    Went to Red Chili Chinese restaurant – good food + ok service.

    Birmingham could learn a lot from Leeds!

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