Heading the new branding of Belfast (The Vacuum)

I enjoy the irreverent attitude of the monthly free newspaper, The Vacuum, which used to be subsidised by Belfast City Council until both partners fell out over taste. The Vacuum has a print run of about 15,000, and a scattered distribution throughout the city.

My lack of excitement over the new logo to promote the city of Belfast is because I don’t see much originality about it. The heart logo is immediately recognisable from the “I (heart) New York” campaign of the 1970s, and I expected something, anything, that one could associate with Belfast, or with some visionary campaign.

Colin Graham’s article in the November issue of The Vacuum justifies my dissatisfaction, with an investigative probe to the utter unoriginality of the campaign. Apparently, the English cities of Blackburn and Barrow also found themselves with the letter “B”, courtesy of designer Lloyd Northover. I let Colin explain the rest:

The branding of towns and cities in Britain and Ireland has one continual and worn-out reference point — Glasgow’s 1983 campaign “Glasgow’s Miles Better”, which used nothing more than this phrase, plus Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Happy to reinforce the miles/smiles pun, to persuade citizens, tourists and investors that Glasgow was misunderstood. By 1989 Glasgow was “Alive”, rather than smiling, or dead, but the “Miles Better” tagline was reintroduced in the 1990s and still occasionally makes appearances today.

Belfast’s version was “Belfast is Buzzing” (as does a bee — keep the bee in mind, reader, for it has returned). And like the many lives of Glasgow’s Mr Happy, the buzzing of Belfast goes on long after the campaign ended. Tourist literature about Belfast, both commercial and in newsprint (The Independent, International Herald Tribune, for example), still uses the alliterative BB phrase to describe the regeneration of post-Troubles Belfast.

The BBC (which might have a vested interest in the catchiness of repeated Bs) still uses Belfast is Buzzing as a hook (followed by the bewildering statement “It’s full of culture”). Apparently a Junior Minister in the NIO once suggested that Derry should adopt “Londonderry is Leaping” as a counter to Belfast’s buzz, showing a fair mindedness on his part as regards the second city, and a grasp of the alliterative principle involved in the science of PR, though he might have remembered that not everyone in Derry alliterates the first initial of the city as an L.

When I was employed by Queen’s University a few years ago there was much puff about the new corporate logo, and staff were invited to a launch presentation by the designers. The first event was cancelled because of fog at Heathrow, I seem to remember. The designers eventually turned up and unveiled … a Q. Which is a clever use of an initial, and not a reference to Spike Milligan’s surrealist tv comedy show.

Rumour had it that the Q cost £1 million, though this might have been a campus myth. In any case, the university should be glad the designers didn’t opt for the more recognisable QUB, which would presumably have been three times the price. The Q was such that if the university had put it on a stand on University Road, cars would have pulled in for petrol.

Now Belfast has a B, designed by Lloyd Northover. The B replaces the feeble extended f in Belfast which doubled as a smile with two eyes hovering above, making it a sheepish grin rather than a Glasgow smile (which itself replaced the Glasgow kiss, possibly?). The B, as well as following the now well-established practice of using an initial letter, is also a heart (with connotations of “warmth and vibrancy”, according to Lloyd Northover’s market research, and with no reference to the levels of heart disease in Northern Ireland).

This in itself is not a very original moment in the history of city-branding, deriving from Milton Glaser’s famous “I love New York” campaign of 1977. Even less original is the B as the initial letter of a town/city which is made to look like a heart. As the Design Research Group point out, Blackburn and Barrow both have a more or less identical B/heart as their logo. All three were designed by different companies, and all three were launched this year (and all three look very similar to the heart replacing the “a” in BB Saunder’s logo for Heart FM).

Blackburn paid £60,000 for their heart. In the previous Vacuum, Daniel Jewesbury wrote about his Freedom of Information request to Belfast City Council, on the cost of their design. The information which he got in response suggests that BCC will spend £180,000 for their B/heart, with the overall cost (not all met by BCC) rising to £250,000 when “rollout” is taken into account.

In addition to the B, Belfast also got a specially “bespoke” font for the project called “Moment” (because, as Lloyd Northover likes to say, “This is Belfast’s moment”).

Actually, the bespoke font seems to be daringly close to being a mixture of two Chalet fonts (Paris 70, with a few Paris 60 letters scattered through it), which were developed specifically for advertising purposes. Chalet’s names for the differing versions of his fonts, such as Paris, New York, Tokyo and London, can now have Belfast 00 added to the list, and you can download the font if you wish to start using it in a fit of civic pride, though, given its rather bulbous shapes, your prose will take on the aura of a teenager who puts little circles rather than dots above each i.

Lloyd Northover didn’t do the Queen’s Q, but I do wish that they had been asked, because their work with universities is fantastically corny. Much as Belfast, Blackburn and Barrow all ended up with hearty Bs, so the University of Manchester and the University of Bedfordshire each got a similar treatment, involving in each case a rendering of part of their name in a different colour, creating a word within a word.

So for Bedfordshire it was the “for” (rather than “bed”), which could then have “innovation”, “support” and so on placed cunningly underneath it. In Manchester’s case it wasn’t the hidden words “man” or even “chest”, which would have been interesting, but “est” to which is appended, underneath, 1824, showing how old the institution is.

Obviously, Lloyd Northover feel they are on to something here, in the condensation of syntax, and so they have made the Belfast B work as a multivalent verb. The Lloyd Northover final pitch to the city council depicts the B on one of Harland & Wolff’s cranes, where it’s “B on top”. And on a bus, “B moved”. The possibilities open out. The PSNI could use it on all their vehicles: “B special” would be good.

The new Belfast B is not, then, very original. Nor is it distinctive. And whatever spin we might wish to cut through, whatever bland-brand is attached to Belfast, don’t we all love Belfast enough to not really want it to B like Blackburn and Barrow? Let’s return to the best branding of the city, the one snuck in by Bill Drummond (he of the burning of £1 million on Jura) when he attached the “Twinned with your wildest dreams” sign to “Welcome to Belfast” on the M1. Then we can bring out the “elf” in Belfast.

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