DARWIN SHREWSBURY – Personality Association and Place Branding

DARWIN Festival Shrewsburyby Prof. Gary Warnaby,

Recently I gave a public lecture as part of the DARWIN SHREWSBURY Festival, celebrating Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species, in which he introduced the theory of natural selection, whereby populations evolve over the course of generations. Published in 1859, this book, considered to be a foundation of evolutionary biology, has been voted the most influential academic book in history.

So what is the connection to the town of Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, in western England? Shrewsbury was Darwin’s birthplace, and he spent his formative years there. The DARWIN SHREWSBURY Festival (see http://www.originalshrewsbury.co.uk/darwin-shrewsbury-festival ) is a two and a half week programme of events celebrating the town’s link to Darwin, aimed at ‘celebrating Shrewsbury as the origin of independent thinking’.  Shamelessly drawing on as many analogies from Darwin’s work as I could manage, my lecture was on ‘The Evolution of Place Branding’.  Humour aside, the fact that this festival was taking place raises some very interesting questions about how places can use associations with their famous sons and daughters for the purposes of marketing and branding.

In its branding activity, Shrewsbury embraces the need (long established in the academic literature) to communicate a perceived place differentiation.  The branding strapline ‘Shrewsbury  –  The Original One-off’ addresses this quite explicitly, and indeed resonates with the notion of ‘independent thinking’, as exemplified by Charles Darwin.  Thus, one can appreciate the logic underpinning all these related place-based activities. However, the DARWIN SHREWSBURY Festival perhaps highlights another important aspect of using personality association within the context of place branding, namely the extent to which the link between person and place is widely known.  Many people would not know of the connection, and hence, the reason for the festival in order to communicate it more widely, as well as providing a specific focus to a series of activities in the town aimed at a range of different audiences.

Indeed, the issue of using personality association to market and brand places is a complex one, which has been explored in detail by one of the leading place marketing academics, the late Greg Ashworth.  In a chapter in the collection he co-edited with Mihalis Kavaratzis, Towards Effective Place Brand Management: Branding European Cities and Regions  (published in 2010 by Edward Elgar), Ashworth suggests that success in using personality association depend on the posing and answering of a series of questions before embarking on the branding activities:

  • Can we find a person with whom to associate?
  • Does this selected person have desirable associations or connotations or, if not, can these be shaped?
  • Is the person already known and if so, to whom (and related to the former question) for what?
  • Is this personality association durable (at least for the period that the policy is expected to operate)?
  • Can the association be supported by other policy instruments (e.g. signature buildings, hallmark events, urban design or planning actions)?

In the case of Charles Darwin and Shrewsbury the answer to all the questions is ‘Yes’ to a large degree.  Darwin has an obvious connection to Shrewsbury, the associations and connotations are positive, the link is durable and is supported by hallmark events (such as the recent festival) as well as more permanent manifestations such as Mount House, the Darwin family home. Interestingly, this building is currently occupied by the Valuation Office Agency, and visitors can only be accommodated by appointment during office hours.  However, there are current attempts by the local council to acquire the property, with a view to turning it into a Darwin museum to further cement the association.

Indeed, perhaps the one area where more work needs to be done is in increasing the wider awareness of the connection between Darwin and the town, which comes back to the whole point of having the DARWIN SHREWSBURY Festiva