Interview with Luc Speisser: The promise of a city

How do you brand a city when a city doesn’t yet exist? This was the challenge Landor brand consultants were faced with when developing the identity for the new urban community of Lavasa in India. Luc Speisser, managing director of Landor’s Paris office, took some time to talk with Brendan Cormier, managing editor of Volume magazine, and Paul Kroese, strategic advisor at International New Town Institute, about the nuances of city branding and Landor’s specific approach to Lavasa. For Speisser, the key to a successful brand lies in communicating a promise rooted in both relevance and difference. Delivering on that promise is one of Lavasa Corporation’s biggest challenges.

Paul Kroese: To start, can you tell us a little bit about Landor and yourself?

Luc Speisser: We are the world’s preeminent brand consulting firm. Walter Landor, considered a pioneer of branding, founded our company in San Francisco in 1941. Today we are a “small big company” with 750 people working closely together across 27 offices. There’s no category of brands in which Landor doesn’t have credentials. Our goal is to help the world’s best brands stand up, stand out, and stand for something.

Brendan Cormier: I was wondering about city branding and Landor’s engagement in that practice. Was there a specific period when city branding emerged as a practice, and how much of your portfolio is involved in that?

LS: I wouldn’t say it’s a big part of our business because we work for all kinds of brands. City branding emerged about 30 years ago as cities began to develop their own logos. But a logo alone is not branding. If you look at Landor’s definition of what a brand is, we espouse that a brand is a promise. Yet the logos of most cities around the world are primarily descriptive and do not have an embedded promise.

PK: Could you expand on that difference, and to what extent is city branding changing?

LS: I will use a current client, the city of Paris, as an example. Cities are realizing that they are complex organizations. There are 56,000 people working for the city of Paris alone. That’s a huge number. And cities, like organizations, now realize that they have to engage employees in a common goal. If you ask an employee working for the city of Paris what the purpose of her work is, she will tell you public service—which is the same thing you’ll hear from someone working for Marseille or any other city. It’s not differentiated.

Cities today also compete with one another the way private companies do. Look at the Olympics: Paris lost to London. Yet until recently, public organizations only thought about their service to citizens. A strong brand is made of two elements: First is relevance toward the people you want to be your customers—your clients or your citizens. The second is differentiation, and difference has historically not been an objective for publicly run cities.

PK: Do you create that difference, or do you find the difference?

LS: We approach the task differently when we’re helping create a new brand or revitalizing an existing brand. When we work for an existing brand we have to take into account the history of the brand and its personality. We cannot create difference from scratch. We have to dig into the depth of a brand and its attributes, then look at opportunities that can be leveraged.

PK: That’s an interesting point—identity and difference from scratch. That’s exactly the difference between a new town and an existing city.

BC: Yes, could you tell us about Landor’s work on Lavasa, and the challenge of making a brand from scratch?

PK: Landor created the name, identity, communications, and brand universe for Lavasa, correct?


LS: Yes, and I would add something we call a Brand DriverTM, or brand positioning, which inspires all the other components of a brand. Basically, as with every project, work starts with a creative brief and a vision from the people at Lavasa Corporation. Originally the project was called Lake Town, and its goal was to provide quality and affordable living to one and all, to simplify and enhance life for residents and visitors. At that time there had been some like-minded projects that had failed, and our clients absolutely didn’t want Lavasa to look like them.

PK: The name Lavasa was invented. What is important when you invent a name?

LS: The name starts from the Brand Driver. A Brand Driver encapsulates the promise that a brand makes to its customers. If you are an airline company or a new city, the difference and relevance that you promise is important—those things separate you from competitors and make you relevant to your audience. From the various options we presented, the client chose the Brand Driver Life in full—a unique place in India where you can live, work, learn, and play. This idea became the foundation for the entire urban project, including its name.

Names can either be descriptive or evocative. France Telecom, for instance, is descriptive; it means the telecommunication company run by the French government. On the other end of the spectrum is Orange, a name which is evocative and much more emotional. Another example is IBM versus Apple. Neither approach is better than the other, but emerging brands that aim to challenge existing leaders usually choose evocative names.

Going back to Lavasa, its name is evocative and emotional. Landor wanted to create an emotional bond between the community and its residents. Life in full  is not about something rational, it has a strong emotional effect. The name “Lake Town” is rational and descriptive, describing a town near a lake. If I told you, “I bought a house in Lake Town, come for the summer,” I’m sure your brain would react in a very different way than if I told you, “I bought a house in Lavasa, come for the summer.”

When you choose an evocative name, you need to be sure to create a complete brand universe that captures the idea of Life in full, so that the name is not misinterpreted. Again, a brand is not just a logo. A brand starts with a promise that extends into its name and all other brand elements.

Lavasa identity

How does Lavasa’s brand promise translate to a visual identity? We used the image of a person evolving and transforming into a bird, which represents freedom, which is fulfillment. Many city logos just depict topography, and, unlike Landor, another branding agency might have drawn a nice lake with a couple of houses around it.

PK: You said before that a brand is a promise, and a great brand keeps that promise. I want to jump to social media, because social media has changed advertising. Lavasa is one of the first cities with a very active Facebook page. What role does social media play in community development and city branding, and what are your expectations for the future in this regard?

LS: A brand today has to tell the truth; this is a departure from the past. Social media can be a wonderful opportunity to create a bond with your audience, but it can also be a huge threat. If you lie, people will know very quickly. If you come up with a promise you can’t keep, people will point that out to you loudly. This didn’t use to be the case, because people didn’t have a means to publicly express themselves en masse or exchange knowledge in a network. At Landor, we always remind our clients that a brand is what a brand does.

Look what’s happening with hospitality. Before booking a hotel, people go to They go there first because they know there will be some guy who wrote a review, made a video, and posted some photos about the place they are thinking of visiting—and people will trust him. If his reviews and photos aren’t appealing, people won’t visit. In the case of Lavasa, social media works well because it is a brand and city that is delivering its promise. I went to Lavasa’s Facebook page yesterday, and they have many fans sharing pictures of sunsets and the like.

BC: If you are branding a promise, how do you make clear to a viewer that this is a promise and not yet a reality? So that when they look to Lavasa they don’t expect your promise to materialize immediately but some time in the future.

LS: If you go to Lavasa’s Facebook page, you will see a 3-D movie. The movie explains that it is a long-term project. Although Lavasa is not yet finished, people will nevertheless judge it on its promise. You need to convince people to think: “It’s not done yet, but I can see how they will get there; I can see why they are claiming that.”

PK: What is the end goal of branding a city? We see many new towns in Asia and the Middle East focused on attracting capital or increasing capital value. For new towns in postwar European cities, the goal was attracting future inhabitants and creating a local community. Do you think that end goals have changed?

LS: I was working in public health at the beginning of my career, so I know how branding is perceived when you work for a public organization. Most of the time it is viewed with skepticism, as something manipulated by the private sector for its own gain. It’s not seen as a noble endeavor. This perception is gradually changing, but of course it can only change if brands are doing their work properly: not lying to people, and not making promises they won’t keep.

PK: New Songdo in South Korea positions itself as a “city in a box,” where the city is perceived and sold as a big product. Is branding a city the same as branding a consumer good like a chocolate bar? What is the difference, apart from scale?

LS: To be successful, brands have to follow the same rules: Whether Paris or Pampers, a brand has to be different and relevant to be strong. Take Google. When it launched, it was different and relevant; a search engine that worked differently than others. But working differently is not enough to make a brand strong. So Google invested its resources in making searches more relevant to its customers. With Google, you don’t have to use clunky computer language to start a search—remember Alta Vista?—you can just type in a question and Google will give you a string of possible answers.

BC: We were wondering if Landor ever acts as a shareholder in the products it brands. I ask this because we saw some models at the conference [New Towns New Territories] where service providers for these new cities then become shareholders, with the idea that if they were interested in making the city a better place they should also profit from it.

LS: We cannot be shareholders of any of our clients; this is forbidden by our rules. Nevertheless, there are ways to introduce a kind of incentive that is linked to results, and it’s most feasible when it’s an innovation product or service. We might reduce our upfront fees and build in a reward, so that if the brand we helped develop does well, we earn more.

PK: You also touched on the subject of added value. How do you measure your added value, or your brand value?

LS: There are multiple ways, but it’s not easy because the success of a brand depends on so many things happening in tandem. If you come up with a wonderful positioning, identity, name, and brand universe, but the communications devised by another agency falls short, then the brand fails.

For Citroën, we created a whole new retail experience based on the positioning Creative technology, and Citroën enjoyed a 20 percent increase in revenue. Our concept had a great deal of influence on Citroën’s success, but so did the Citroën employees and mechanics who lived the brand and did a great job welcoming customers and repairing their cars. It’s all connected. You need to make sure that employees understand a brand’s promise and values and know how to bring them to life. At Landor we call this “internal brand engagement.” To measure efficacy, we can look at business results. But we can also look at the people within the organization. With a before-and-after study, we can see if they understand the brand promise and know what it means for them in their daily jobs.


PK: Going back to cities as products, how can we enhance the quality of urban life and urban development in the future, and what is your role in it?

LS: Our role is deceptively modest. It is to make sure that we create city brands that are more than logos, that are differentiated promises. When we started working for the city of Paris, we analyzed 24 cities around the world, including their branding. We found that most cities have done little more than develop a logo, and most of those logos simply play with the touristic dimension of the brand and name. For example: I AMsterdam, LondON. OK, so what? The future of effective city branding should be the same as any other brand: difference, relevance, and promise.

Lavasa is a great example of a promise kept, because we did the work in 2003 and now this city really exists. It is still under construction in some areas, but you can see that Lavasa Corporation delivered on its promise. For me that’s the future—that should be the future.


This article was first published as “The promise of a city” in Volume 34 (January 2013).

© 2012 Archis, Amsterdam. All rights reserved.