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The Second Wave of Brand Urbanism

No longer are advertisements pushed to the arterials; the city itself is now a billboard.

By IBI Insights


September 6, 2018

From Beijing to Boston, cities across the world are investing in bike share programs, and rightfully so! While cities have been keen to support these initiatives, these programs are expensive investments.  Corporations such as Nike have seen this as an opportunity to get involved, re-defining the relationship between brands and cities.

No longer are advertisements pushed to the arterials; the city itself is now a billboard. Portland residents commute to work on Nike bikes, while Londoners use the Emirates Air Line cable car. AzkoNobel’s Let’s Colour campaign paints a slightly different coloured story of this trend, but none the less, they all make up what’s known as brand urbanism.

As opposed to traditional branding that uses media as a means of product promotion, brand urbanism uses human experience as the medium for marketing. While the goal of advertising has always been to tap into the emotions of its audience, brand urbanism takes this out into the world by creating either Instagrammable pop-up (re: exclusive) experiences rooted in happiness and surprise or long-term projects that invest in community. The latter form of brand urbanism seeks to promote a reliable and friendly image of a brand, almost as if to say “I’m here for you.” Domino’s current Paving for Pizza Campaign is a prime example of this approach.

While brand urbanism first took to the streets in a lighthearted fashion, this trend has elevated and corporations have more influence than ever on the urban experience. Back in 2017, Apple announced that it would now refer to its new stores as “town squares” and would transition into convergence sites for retail, education, and public life. While the world was not exactly sure what to expect at the time, the first wave of Apple stores (all designed by Foster and Partners) are now complete and have set a new precedent for both the future and function of retail.

Walking by the retailer’s premier Chicago Town Square, one could easily enter the space without knowing that it was an Apple store. The building is walled entirely of glass and hides its retail space behind a theatre-sized screen that’s tucked away on the lower level. Rather than pressuring its visitors to buy things and move on, the space is inviting and designed for people to sit and enjoy its warm, biophilic environment. The store’s press release emphasizes the interest in revitalizing “important urban connections within the city” touting “community” over commerce. The store is heavily programmed with free events and workshops for people of all ages to learn more about all things related to technology and design.

Apple has adopted this model in all of their newer flagship locations, leading up to the most recently opened Piazza Liberty in Milan. Though Apple’s Town Squares underline community and public life, their proposed Melbourne store is stirring up quite the controversy over this idea. Their proposal remains in turmoil after a recent rejection of the updated plan for the city’s Federation Square building. Apple’s plans involve demolishing one of the original buildings to the plaza which infringes upon what is already public space. Though it’s still up in the air whether or not the store will come to fruition, it raises important questions about the relationship between commerce and community. As brands grow to have more influence on our cities, it’s important to reflect upon these practices and explore whether or not this is how we imagine our future communities to be.

Photo by Paul Wallez on Unsplash

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