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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Carlisle cannot just rebrand 2,000 years of history

Branding and marketing nowadays is more important than ever. It seems we judge things not just by how they look, but by how they sound.

John Wyllie photo
John Wyllie

Places are weighed, measured and assessed by their tagline, the phrase they use to market and sell themselves.

The new leader of Carlisle’s city council reckons it is time to change the way people think of the place. Dr Joe Hendry has called Carlisle’s long-held tag as ‘The Great Border City’ insular andold-fashioned.

He told a conference about broadband that he wants the city to be more open and project itself as a modern, global city, drawing on what Carlisle College and the University of Cumbria has to offer, rebranding itself as the ‘Knowledge City’.

He has been backed by Conservative MP John Stevenson and John Mallinson, head of the Tory group on the city council, who has said the tag is “tired” and thinks it is time to “move on”.

But Dr Hendry’s call has sparked outrage among readers of The Cumberland News and our sister paper the News & Star.

And he has prompted a backlash from local historians.

Carlisle’s label as The Border City is as pertinent as ever as the Scots gear up for a referendum on independence, according to one.

“Dropping the phrase would be denying our history in a lot of ways,” warns Tim Padley, curator of archaeology at the city’s Tullie House museum.

“I don’t think we should change it. From AD 122 we have been the Border City. It sums up 90 per cent of our history.

“For most of our history we have been a border city. It is not being defensive or looking inwards, it is a statement of fact.

“The Scots are planning a devolution referendum for 2014 and we may well be a true border city again.

“It is still an issue that is live with Scottish nationalists.”

The historian argues that the well-worn and well-known tagline for Carlisle is a more accurate and more powerful marketing tool than trying to rebrand it as a ‘Knowledge’ city.

“Does it help us in marketing terms? It gives us a more unique selling point than the suggestion of a learning city.

“That is not something people associate with Carlisle yet, we have a young university that does not have the profile of Oxford or Cambridge.

“To look forward is much more difficult and I’m not sure learning would be the right epithet.”

And Dennis Perriam, historian of The Cumberland News has said: “Border City is very appropriate. It describes what is in the can.”

Rebranding is nothing new to Carlisle.

It declared itself a ‘Learning City’ in 2005 in a bid to improve its profile and economy and lobby support for the creation of a University of Cumbria.

It was also hoped it would help develop new courses for city apprentices and encourage Carlisle people with few qualifications, or who have been out of education for a long time, to return.

But historian and proud Carliol-ian John Wyllie also felt the need to speak out against the proposal.

Mr Wyllie, who runs the education agency Alphatutors, based in Bank Street, says the timing by Dr Hendry is badly flawed.

And he says the council should do more to exploit the rich history of the region, rather than try to sweep it away.

“An interest in times gone by is on the rise; recent figures show that student numbers for ancient history are on the increase, you cannot turn on the television without being told what the Romans did for us and researching our ancestry is one of the most popular activities on the internet,” he argues.

“Is the council about to sack Elvis, just as the world embraces rock and roll?

“Not only would a change of emphasis to a more ‘knowledge-based’ marketing thrust fly in the face of the identity of the city and its surrounds – fortified keeps, place names, monuments and traditions – but would betray all those businesses who have invested, or are about to invest, in new heritage/tourist-based enterprises, expecting support, implicit or explicit, from the council for their initiative.

“That we need growth in jobs and economic activity is certainly true, but equally valid is the view that a central strand of economic strategy is tourism and, in particular, history-based holidays (heritage – both national and global).

“Surely this was the reason the Roman exhibition in Tullie House was given a £703,000 makeover?

“Building on the unique history of the border, particularly Hadrian‘s Wall, should, therefore, be supported by a vigorous, promotional message.

“We should actually be developing and reinforcing our border slogan, not ditching it.

“Playing from its unique strength, the Carlisle brand has 2,000 years of colourful history behind it, arising from its turbulent location, as a ‘Border’ city.

“Frontier zones have always had a fascination for the human intellect, Hollywood built a whole film genre on the Western, men living on the margins where the rule of law was never fully respected.

“Carlisle was the forerunner of Dodge City (Cumberland had a “Boot-Hill” centuries before Arizona), the Reivers were the precursors to the cowboys and Scott’s Border Ballads presaged John Ford’s ‘horse operas’.

“Could not the Ballads be given the latter-day cinema treatment? Johnny Depp to play Kinmont Willie squaring up to Lord Scrope, Warden of the Western Marches!

“The exciting possibilities of the Reiver personalities and legends capturing today’s imagination has barely been explored, let alone exploited.

“The literature that the Border region has inspired is almost too great to grasp – add to Sir Walter Scott, Rabbie Burns and William Wordsworth and you have a triumvirate of the most important cultural influences to grace the English language.

“Surely there is opportunity here to give romance, glamour and pizzazz to the ‘visit Carlisle’ message, predicated on a Border slogan?”

Even without such cultural giants, Mr Wyllie says the city still has the world heritage site of Hadrian’s Wall – or Luguvallium, as it was called under Roman rule – to boast about.

“So significant is this monument that the very first map of the United Kingdom, known as the Gough Map, drawn up by an unknown cartographer in around 1360, shows the United Kingdom bisected by crenellated pictograph that is Hadrian‘s Wall – referred to as the ‘Pictish Wall’.”

Mr Wyllie insists: “Such vital links to the “Border” past should be celebrated and shared, not discarded like an old coat because something newer is in fashion.”

Cumbria Tourism chiefs agree and say the city should make more of its rich history and Hadrian’s Wall.

Richard Greenwood, head of policy and research at the organisation says: “I don’t think the tag is backward-looking. Geographically it has held the role of border city for some time.

“People do associate Carlisle with Hadrian’s Wall and the road to Scotland.

“The wall is getting more attention now than ever, the city’s link with the wall is incredibly strong and needs to be worked on, particularly given the growing importance in World Heritage sites.”

Some 16 per cent of visitors to the city are from overseas, compared to just eight per cent in the rest of Cumbria.

“Overseas visitors will head for cities and World Heritage sites. Carlisle has the highest percentage of overseas visitors than any other region of the county.

“Our reaction to Dr Hendry’s comments was that you don’t create a brand or an image simply from adopting a name which you may not be entirely worthy of.

“It is a really worthy aspiration and a genuine attempt by politicians to lift Carlisle’s profile, but you can’t do that just with a name. You have to have a good few decades of work underpinning that first.”

Mr Wyllie agrees that the city is a long way from using its learning credentials to sell itself and needs to concentrate on issues other than rebranding itself.

He adds: “Until it has earned its knowledge-based spurs, Carlisle must play to what strengths it has and that is its history, in particular, the Border location.

“First, we need to create a safe and welcoming environment: where a young person can walk, at any time, day or night.

“Second, we should aim for city streets and malls to be lined with a diverse mix of shops that exude quality and flair, combining local retail businesses and national chains to tempt visitors with the excitement of a unique shopping experience.

“Third, we should build a modern transport infra-structure, capable of bringing tourists from all over the world to visit in speed and comfort.

“Fourth, all the agencies which are responsible for tourist and economic development should be integrated into one and this body should be held properly accountable for its performance.

“The target should be to ensure that Carlisle becomes the fastest growing economy in the country.

“When we have done these things, then and only then, would it be right to change the slogan and that slogan should be ‘Carlisle, City of Inspiration’, given its setting and position in the tide of history, fully deserved, and shared by every visitor, based on a unique experience, to last them for the rest of their lives, not artificially manufactured by local politicians to disguise a policy vacuum.

“Until then, there is work to do and it doesn’t involve the city signage.”

Tim Padley adds: “The Great Border City sums up our geographical position within England. There is no other border city. It does not have to have negative or dated connotations, it is more live and pertinent than ever.”

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