A future-fit Cape Town must decide on its unique selling point now

As we pat ourselves on the back for our big and very successful year, the glory days of the World Cup are fading into memory. Certainly, in a world defined by the “five minutes of fame” mentality, Cape Town’s window of opportunity is already closing. Still faced with the burnout of a global economic recession, and now challenged by a new travel mentality that demands greater value and authenticity than ever before, Cape Town simply cannot afford to slip into mediocrity.

I recently came across an important report by The Communication Group, which asserts that cities are now being defined as the “prism through which countries are viewed” (Cities: The Destination Identity). I find this to be a pertinent line of thought for Cape Town, a city unlike any other in South Africa, and one through which many international visitors have come to know this country. Just as London is not England, Cape Town is not South Africa. Cape Town is iconic – there is no denying it. Her incredibly rich offering and diversity is our greatest asset as much as it is also our Achilles’ heel. How can we define and strengthen this brand in an increasingly competitive post-World Cup phase of destination marketing – and how will this help us stand apart?

To date, Cape Town has been many things to many people, perhaps led by the fact that it offers so much. We are as much a nature lovers’ paradise as we are a gourmet destination. We are all about beaches but we are also an interesting example of a modern African city. Our mixed bag of heritage and history weaves a complex tapestry through our lifeblood, all part of our appeal to visitors and the taste and flavour of the city we are today. We have many stories to tell and in a world where “The story is the unique selling point, not the product.” (Cities: The Destination Identity), tough choices lie ahead. It is time to invest in our most resilient truth and define for the world who we truly believe ourselves to be. 

Just this past week, Cape Town Tourism gathered a think tank of some of our city’s brightest minds to put their heads together about which of these stories is going to be the one we lead with when selling Cape Town into the future. We looked at the key global trends at play; macro trends are essential to understand if we are to effectively position ourselves. 

At this point in time, the world is undergoing rapid global urbanisation and we are at a real economic turning point. Coupled with these driving forces is the personal desire that people have for a better way of living. This growing yearning for authenticity, accountability and responsible living is key to understanding today’s human landscape. Technology is an enabler and people are starting to see design and creativity as part of the solution to a future world where we are both independent and part of a community. Discovery and escapism are as important as voluntourism and personal retreat. How do we make Cape Town a city that people want to live, work, play, study, visit and invest in? How will we get this message across in such a crowded market place where many cities have become commodities indistinguishable from one another and offering little or no added value? 

Cape Town is a “challenger” brand. We are not comparable with traditional city brands like London and Paris. We are one of the emerging players, up there with Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona. We are among the cities that present possibility, transformation and a vision for the future rooted in an interesting and imperfect past. 

In choosing our story, we are consulting with many Capetonians. And it’s a remarkable journey. What are our assets, beyond the obvious visual icons of Table Mountain and Robben Island? Should we follow the “big box” approach of cities like Paris, and build remarkable architectural buildings that will get the world talking? Should we position ourselves as a cultural incubator, attracting imagination and innovation that will see us into the next century? Are we all about the local flavour – something that the world will come to soak up and take home as a bundle of memories. We are all of these things but what is the singular and distinctive message that will be heard above the noise? 

As a South African and a world city, Cape Town is already at a great advantage because our geography is maximised for work and play. The short distances between leisure attractions and the proximity of our homes to our workplaces add up to a better quality of life than that enjoyed by many people across the globe. It’s not a city without flaws and access to the best quality of life is curtailed by poverty, but we are also a city that resists pretence of perfection: We are a city that knows we have some serious business to take care of and much to work on still. Richard Florida says, “It is the real, authentic experiences and the jagged edges between neighbourhoods that create the energy that attracts the people who are today’s economic drivers ... The world is tired of the smooth, generic, flattened-out worlds. They are over it. They want real places.”

Cape Town is a city of entrepreneurial adventure, extraordinary creativity and incredible beauty. Our sport events are framed by a vista that brings competitors back for more and businesses favour our revitalising atmosphere and post-conference downtime as a big plus when planning their company pow-wows. We have, however, been overreliant on our position as a leisure destination and neglected to position Cape Town as a business and events destination, critical in addressing the challenge of seasonality.

What will the Cape Town of tomorrow be like to live in and visit? We are recognised for our commitment to sustainability and over the next decade we must turn this commitment into action. We are capable of being a world leader in the preservation of biodiversity and a model for tourism, by raising the value of our natural assets through their essential part in our ongoing attraction. People will always be drawn to the embrace of our mountains, the expanse of our oceans, the endless blue of our skies. 

What if Cape Town were Africa’s top innovator, a re-inventor and technological leader? A wireless city is on the cards; what if this applied to our entire peninsula? What if technological and IT businesses found a welcoming home in Cape Town, employing thousands and attracting study, learning and admiration? 

Perhaps we should return to our roots as the original port city, but this time as a transshipment town like Dubai or Singapore, a bustling exchange place for ideas, people and goods – with trade to enrich our economy, and a floating population to infuse our cultural landscape with global energy and exchange.

There are many Cape Towns and all of these aspects may be tangible in the future. The trick is to give ourselves a future-fit identity that will help us become instantly recognisable as more than a destination or a place to live. A brand is a promise, an idea that unlocks a series of emotions, thoughts and aspirations. What are we prepared to promise the world? What do we want to promise ourselves? The Communication Group report says, “Cities of the future that will be stand-out cities deliver something different; they are not defined by their size alone but by their ability to capture the imagination and define themselves as being the best at something.”

Capetonians, like people the world over, want quality of life and place and, while many among us are closer to achieving this, we can still be better at extending this promise to our own. We can improve on our confidence and kindness, we can open our hearts to our communities and those who have not. We can, increasingly, walk the streets of our city and our neighbourhoods; our public transport infrastructure is now a priority. We can believe in and feed off our own vibrancy, academic achievement and creativity. We can be proud to be Capetonian. 

Now comes the hard work of choosing the patch on which to stake our claim. We understand our brand architecture but what will encapsulate our essence. How will we serve Cape Town best when we are presenting it in faraway lands. What is the promise that we can all share in and work hard toward realising? 

The experts are hard at work, sifting through these ideas and distilling them into a magical mantra that we will all recognise at once to be our core truth. When we think they have it, I will share it with you. Until then, I invite you to join in the conversation: What is brand Cape Town? If New York is energy, Rio is fun, Barcelona is culture and Paris is romance – what is Cape Town? Share your thoughts with me at media@capetown.travel.

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