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Time to sell Sydney’s extra dimension

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

We can be awfully smug, we Sydneysiders. At this time of year, as we gaze at the ocean, plan fabulous festival outings and enjoy unrivalled seafood and wine, it is tempting to think the whole world must envy us.

Ever since the Olympics, Sydney has regularly topped international polls as one of the world’s favourite cities, often voted by people who have never been here. With much investment and creativity taking place in a competition between global cities, ”Brand Sydney” must be an asset worth nurturing.

But Sydney’s “brand” is a tenuous thing. We should not take it for granted. Sydney is not as well known as we think. A taxi driver in Shanghai or Mumbai is likely to respond positively when you say where you are from. But ask if they know anything about Sydney and they might draw a blank, or make a comment about a city where nobody works and everybody lies on the beach.

We have a positive, but one-dimensional, image. This is a problem that risks our future prosperity and lifestyle. New York, London and Paris have been around for a long time in the big league, as financial and cultural centres. Our deeper and broader knowledge of their heritage means their city brands are more resilient to adverse winds of change A few negative events and Sydney’s more superficial brand could nosedive, as it arguably has within Australia recently because of the way we monotonously talk it down, with complaints about the parlous state of our infrastructure.

Most of Sydney’s trade and investment activity is in services rather than goods, and it is in these often partly intangible services that brand and reputation matter most. We increasingly offer the world experiences, goods and services that rely on an authentic reputation not just for sun and surf but for quality, innovation and even transformation.

In attracting global businesses to create jobs here, we rely upon a reputation as a city with a smart workforce and a culture of productivity and innovation. Sydney has strong potential to be more of an international financial hub, given our skills, scale and structured finance industries, but again we will rely on a reputation as a serious place to do business.

Our biggest export earner is international education, worth $6 billion to the NSW economy. International students come to Sydney because of the quality of our offering but also because Sydney is a relatively safe, welcoming and creative environment in which to reinvent yourself. Sydney has become one of the world’s great destinations for international education, which positions us exceedingly well for a future grounded in the Asia-Pacific region and in the knowledge economy. And when they return home, hundreds of thousands of former students become ambassadors for the city and for Australia.

We are also an international tourist destination. But here is the rub. Sometimes a one-dimensional image of Sydney is believed to be of benefit to the tourism industry. We are a city that throws great parties, has great beaches and harbour. Come visit. This thinking leads to a view that, if things are down, let’s do a brand refresh. Design a fancy new logo, splash some money on some flash advertising and tourists will return.

Fine, but let’s not make that ”Brand Sydney”. Further spruiking a one-dimensional image of Sydney will not address the brand’s fragility, sustain our international education, build an international financial hub or attract skilled people and investment.

A plan to project a new, multidimensional identity of Sydney to the world, of benefit to all, would be much broader than a tourism and events plan. It would include tourism and events, but also provide the platform for telling the world about our leading education, business and, of course, lifestyle. It would need a new resolve from the city’s leaders, and all sides of politics, to do more to promote the city and all its strengths to the world.

It might be ambitious enough to project an essence of Sydney that empowers people, whatever their origins, to reinvent themselves, to learn, grow and innovate and live a balanced, optimistic life. After all, that is our heritage of more than 200 years and our real point of difference.

Tourism images are integral to that picture, not the full picture. Let’s give the world the full picture so that we can prosper as a global city with smarts as well as sunshine.

Published 7 January 2010 – Sydney Morning Herald (click here for original article)

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