Why Nottingham? Matt Davies gives his assessment

As one of our featured articles this month, we sit down with brand strategy expert, Matt Davies to find out why he loves living and working in Nottingham, as well as to find out what more could be done to improve the stature of our great city.

Q1: When did you first start to work in Nottingham?

I moved to Nottingham from London when I was 19 back in 2004 – so I guess I’ve been here just over fifteen years. I began working as a freelance graphic designer working in multiple marketing and creative agencies across the city. I do sometimes miss the simplicity of those days – I was just a working class kid from the suburbs of South London, armed with a laptop and a dream! I now don’t do so much of the tactical design work having developed in my career into brand strategy and business development as a consultant. Thankfully my drive and energy still seem to be with me. I’m still that kid from London though at heart.

Q2: What first attracted you to the city?

The people. I did quite a few things before my time. I wanted to get married (yep at 19). My future wife was from Leeds but didn’t want to move to be with me London (and to be honest we probably couldn’t afford to live there) and I didn’t know anyone much in Leeds. However we both had mutual friends in Nottingham. We’d both spent time in and around the city and loved its relaxed, friendly and welcoming atmosphere. The creative areas, like Hockley and the Lace Market attracted me personally as I knew creative opportunities would exist and I was keen to develop experience in marketing. I also loved the “smallness” of the city. It was large enough to have hustle, bustle and attract business – but not too big – meaning you could jump in the car and be in country side within 30 mins. Oh – and of course there was the touch of Robin Hood whose antics in Sherwood Forest I grew up with reading about and who inspired me in my childhood stories.

Q3: How has it changed during your time here?

When I first came, Market Square was tatty and tired. There were not so many modern buildings around. The trams didn’t exist. I think the investment in building over the course of the fifteen years I’ve been here has improved things loads and its great to see the developments that are happening around the city. The future looks bright. There’s still work to do though to build vibrant business communities and attract larger businesses to the city. Attracting top talent and top businesses will require a unified approach.

Q4: What is/are the biggest challenges we face as a city compared with our regional “rivals” and nationally

Our brand. I think the biggest challenge we face is to determine what it is and then align around it. I worry that somehow our brand, “Brand Nottingham”, has got a little lost. Despite pockets of effort, we are certainly not leveraging its power – either regionally or nationally.

For me a “brand” is the meaning people attach to you and your offering. It’s not simply a logo and some fonts. It exists in the hearts and minds of an audience. “Branding” is the game I’m in – which is “the attempt to manage that meaning”. As a city we therefore have a brand – but are we managing its meaning? How best do we mange its meaning?

Brands come into our lives like characters in our story. We gravitate to those brands which align with our belief system. So the city has some questions to ask itself. What kind of place are we? Why do we exist? Who do we exist to serve and why should they care? What value are we bringing? Are the stories of Nottingham being powerfully told and how could we tell them better? How could we give people such amazing experiences that they all told their own version of our story? What is our shared narrative?

Unlike most cities we have connections to a legend rebel in Robin Hood and powerful connections to real innovators and mavericks such as Lord Byron, DH Lawrence, Jesse Boot, Ada Lovelace, Dr Stewart Adams, Sir Peter Mansfield and Sir Paul Smith. We punch way above our weight housing some of the UK’s most innovative and disruptive businesses such as Experian, Capital One, Boots, Speedo and Raleigh. Are we unified behind this pioneering and rebellious identity of what has gone before? Can we lean into a story of a city which is all about enabling maverick, pioneers to disrupt and succeed?

Whilst preparing a talk entitled ‘The Power of Brand Nottingham’ for the 2019 Nottinghamshire Visitor Economy Summit I became aware that Marketing NG, an arm of Nottigham Partners, did some work in this area – it’s perhaps not taken off or been adopted as much as it should. Check out their ‘Place and Brand Kit’ here which was put together by Brendan Moffett, Chief Executive of Marketing NG at the time: https://www.visit-nottinghamshire.co.uk/place-brand-book

This kit is a great start but I feel we need to do more. “Branding” is not simply a veneer. The actual experience and what ‘Brand Nottingham’ does for its inhabitants needs to deliver on its brand story. This is not a story to be told by an advertising campaign. It’s a story to be told by real people having real life experiences. Therefore somehow we need to embed a simple brand theme into urban development, tourism, businesses, education and more.

I think the biggest challenge in this is leadership. How do we get the big players in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire to unite together? How do we get business, universities and public sectors to have a joined up vision? Is there a will and a drive to get this together fr the greater good? If so who do we rally to? Who can cut through he politics and help our city to level up? Could a steering group be put together that has real power to inform and deploy against a brand strategy? A group that is committed to putting our great city on the map?

When you look at cities like Amsterdam, New York, Melbourne and Paris the components of their cities seem to be very aligned with a clear story and visual identity. Even with smaller cities like Porto and Helsinki have got clearly articulated brand identities. An example of a small city articulating a powerful identity and story is ‘The City of Covington’, in Kentucky in the US. Check out their logo on their website here: https://www.covingtonky.gov/. These cities seem to have defined their story and are working at aligning around it and tell their story consistently through a visual language.

I’ve heard rumours that our local East Midlands rivals in Leicester and Derby are all thinking about their brands. Cities around us like York are spending time on their place brand. We therefore need to ensure we don’t get left behind.

I’m sure its not easy – but we can do it. Surely?

Q5: How long is your daily commute and how do you get into the city?

I live in the countryside out towards Eastwood and commute in via train most days when I’m working with clients in the city. I’m usually in town in 30-40 mins – however as a solo consultant I work with clients all over the UK and occasionally globally so I don’t commute in as frequently as I used to when I was employed.

Q6: What are your favourite places to eat and drink for business and pleasure?

There are so many great places in Nottingham. Forthergill’s down by the Castle is a favourite of my wife and me to have food. I also do love Annies and Pieminister. Kean’s Head, Pitcher & Piano and The Cross Keys down near the Lace Market are also super places to frequent for a drink. For a working lunch Antenna is brilliant. For a light lunch I’d recommend Delilah’s. One of the most inspirational places though I think is Cafe Sobar on Friar Lane (run by Double Impact). I love it because it has completely reinvented a category being the only bar in the whole of the UK to not serve alcohol – check out their website: https://www.doubleimpact.org.uk/cafe-sobar/

Q7: Finally, if you had a blank canvas, what would you like to see happen in the next 12 months?

I assume you mean for Nottingham?! For me it would be movement in the “brand Nottingham” space. I’d love to see a leader emerge who could tie together the public and private sector. Get a steering group together of “Brand Nottingham Champions” who would help to define and shape an overarching brand strategy for the city. This group would be supported by the biggest businesses in the city, the universities and the council. It would hold events, inspire and create a unique story and identity for the city which we could all get behind. It would produce a unique visual language and brand identity which we could proudly get behind. It would bring alignment and confidence. In the future it would look at new ideas for the city from the context of those who will experience them. It would have power to feedback on initiatives that connected to the brand strategy and be used as a brand sounding board.

I think “brand Nottingham” would then be able to begin to pull in more investment and attract the bigger players that we need to thrive as a city. It would put Nottingham on the map. It would help us to manage our meaning.