The rise and fall of homogeneity

Brand New

In the latest in a series of extracts from his new book, 'Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come ’(coming out 7 April 2014) Wally talks about how homogeneity impacts people and places - and how people and places are fighting back.

Dnepropetrovsk is a large industrial city in Eastern Ukraine. It’s not outstanding for its wealth or its beauty or its history, or anything much else. But it has many of the same shopping malls that you will see in Dallas or Dusseldorf, or, for that matter, most of the world’s large cities.

Inside these shopping malls and dotted around the smarter streets, you will find Zara, Benetton, McDonald’s and the rest of them, all looking alike and selling the same stuff as they do everywhere else in the world. And the families of Dnepropetrovsk, like families everywhere, enjoy strolling about in the summer. The daddies wear T-shirts adorned with huge Nike logos, slurp Magnum ice cream and swig from cans of Coke as they check their Blackberrys and iPhones, push their massive baby buggies and gawp at the window displays. And if they don’t see whatever they are looking for in the shopping mall or on the High Street, they know they can always look it up online.

In other words, global branding is Big Time in Dnepropetrovsk. And you can reasonably assume that if it’s a Big Time brand in Dnepropetrovsk, it’s Big Time in more or less every other large city in the world.

There’s increasing homogeneity in the main streets of most big cities in most countries. But if we look a bit closer, we can see another pattern emerging as well. Does Britain have a Dnepropetrovsk? Maybe it’s Hull. Hull, of course, has its full quota of global brands – Benetton, Zara, KFC and the rest of them – even though the city is also a byword for dreary, down-at-heel, poverty-stricken hopelessness. Interestingly, though, out of the grime something different seems to be emerging – creativity. Hull is looking to become the UK’s Capital of Culture in 2017. Hull, it seems, is also looking inside itself to see what it has that’s different and attractive and unique. It’s exploring its own home-grown talent. And that means unprecedented opportunity for local people.

Derry in Northern Ireland is another interesting example. It was the UK’s Capital of Culture in 2013, its strength based around the economic success of the Republic of Ireland just down the road. But when Ireland’s economy collapsed, so did Derry’s. The statistics for joblessness and child poverty were shocking. But depressed Derry is fighting back, by mixing technology with the arts. And if there’s that much talent in Hull and in Derry, too, how much undiscovered talent is there everywhere else in the world, including Dnepropetrovsk?

Even while Big Brand continues to thrive and grow, this story of remarkable creative activity and renewal is being played out all over the place, including in many of the most deprived cities in the world. You can find it everywhere.

Detroit, once the global capital of automobile manufacture and the home of Motown, fell to pieces as the US auto industry collapsed in the last quarter of the 20th century. The city went officially bankrupt in July 2013 and has become a byword for chaos, crime, deprivation and depopulation. And even in Detroit, however, there are signs that the city is changing. Young creative groups are rebuilding decayed areas, turning them into artists’ quarters. The city is beginning to show signs of new life, as innovators with very little money but a lot of ideas attempt to revive and renew it.

This kind of thing is happening all over, whether pop-up shops or new kinds of places to go to that are restaurants but simultaneously galleries and theatres. All sorts of new, exciting ideas are emerging everywhere, especially perhaps where you wouldn’t expect. Paradoxically, as big cities become more homogenous the world over, they are also becoming more individual and more different from each other. This seems to be especially true of the cities that have been through precipitous decline or trauma.

And all this means we are living in a strange time for branding. While, on the one hand, Big Brands are becoming more powerful and ubiquitous and they are both homogenizing and connecting the world, on the other hand new brands, created by courageous young entrepreneurs, are popping up absolutely everywhere. They are complementary to, and sometimes competitive with, Big Brands. They are the flagbearers of heterogeneity.