Aaker on Brands: The Five Pillars of City Branding

David Aaker shares five strategic considerations for building a city brand. 

Cities are not products, but they still need branding. “The Big Apple” New York, “The Fashion Capital” Paris, “The Lion City” Singapore…these cities have left a profound impression in the minds of people worldwide with their distinctive identities, attracting tourists, talents and investments while becoming a hallmark of their respective countries. Why do cities need branding, and how should they go about it? 

David Aaker, Vice Chairman at Prophet,  recently shared his perspectives on branding cities at the 2023 World Cities Branding Conference in Macao, China. Aaker proposes that building a strong brand for a city requires strategic thinking in five key areas: 

  1. Clarify Brand Objective and Target Audience
  2. Define the Brand’s Value Proposition
  3. Create Brand Symbols
  4. Coordinate Brand Storytellers
  5. Build Partnerships to Strengthen the Brand

This article explores how Singapore has successfully branded itself using the key strategic considerations for building a city brand. 

1. Clarify Brand Objective and Target Audience  

A city’s brand usually aims to attract tourists (develop tourism), talents (develop high-tech industries) or investments (revitalize the local economy). It is thus essential to define the city’s development goals and understand the needs and characteristics of the target audience in order to guide actions. 

Singapore, often referred to as the “Lion City,” is a prime example of a “city-state” known for its thriving financial services sector and tourism industry. It is also the economic hub of Southeast Asia, leading the fast growth of the region. To cater to diverse international tourists, the Singapore Tourism Board explored the potential interests of tourists. By pairing these interests with the key characteristics of Singaporean locals, they were able to identify several key segments based on the lifestyles and interests of different target audiences, for example: Foodies, Explorers, Collectors, Socialisers, Action Seekers and Culture Shapers. The Singapore Economic Development Board, responsible for attracting investments, also recognized the importance of city branding and in 2017, they collaborated with the Tourism Board to jointly launch the “Passion Made Possible” campaign to accelerate economic growth. 

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2. Define the Brand’s Value Proposition 

Once the city’s brand objectives and target audiences have been identified, it’s important to develop a value proposition. All subsequent brand communications and activations will revolve around this proposition. 

Singapore’s brand proposition has evolved over time, from being known as the “Garden City” in the 1960s and 70s to “New Asia, Singapore” after the Asian financial crisis and “Uniquely Singapore” in the 21st century.  

Singapore is unique as it is both a country and a city. For other countries, it is crucial for stakeholders to consider a few key questions – How should the country balance the integrity of its national brand with the distinctiveness of its city brands? How could it leverage the positive image of the region to drive urban growth, and conversely, how should it align the diverse identities of its cities with the holistic values of the country?  

For example, Prophet partnered with the Abu Dhabi Culture and Tourism Authority to develop its brand and marketing strategy. We created the value proposition “Experience Abu Dhabi. Find Your Pace,” paying tribute to the cultural heritage of the UAE while emphasizing the local culture of Abu Dhabi. 

3. Create Brand Symbols 

Cities are an aggregation of complex symbols in time and space. In the communications of city brands, it is the symbols that provide audiences with intuitive and tangible experiences. They are symbolic elements rooted in a city’s cultures and communities. Identifying the most representative symbols can make the city branding even more impactful. 

In addition to the iconic Merlion and Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Tourism Board recently developed a variety of other cultural sites, such as Chinatown, Little India, Orchard Road, and Sentosa Island, to enrich the experiences of international travelers and strengthen the local communities. 

Image source: Unsplash 

4. Build Partnerships to Strengthen the Brand 

Typically, the local tourism board is responsible for overseeing the promotion of a city’s tourism ambitions. However, the tourism industry often involves a wide range of departments, including public management and cultural innovation. Moreover, the marketing budget and operational capacity allowed for one department is also limited. Therefore, partnerships across departments and the private sector should be leveraged for amplified results. 

The Singapore government coordinates urban planning to create an inclusive, green, sustainable, vibrant and convenient city. It also actively collaborates with leading enterprises to co-create the city brand. For example, Changi Airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports, plays a significant role as Singapore’s gateway. With impressive indoor features and efficient passenger experiences, it leaves a remarkable impression on international travelers. The construction of Terminal 5, currently underway, embodies the concept of “The Airport, The City,” as emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a recent speech. With partnerships across sectors, a city can harness social resources to continuously strengthen its brand image. 

Changi Airport (Image source: Unsplash) 

5. Inject Fresh Energy into the Brand 

Just as commercial brands need to capture consumers’ heads and hearts, the marketing of a city also needs to evolve with time, creating fresh experiences consistently. Singapore has introduced various events and festivals, such as the Marina Bay Singapore Countdown, Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix, and music festivals featuring international headliners, to keep its image fresh and exciting in people’s minds. 

Image source: Unsplash 

We recommend carefully evaluating and deploying the five key areas when it comes to city branding, in order to establish a city brand with lasting impact with resonating meanings. 


Cities as brands are on the rise globally. To succeed, they must learn from the best practices of influential city brands. Unlike consumer goods, cities endure over time, accumulating and passing down history. Therefore, the brands built for them must also transcend time and respond to the trends of the era. 

To learn more about building an impactful destination brand, contact us today. 

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