Designing a brand for a city of over 370,000 people isn’t an easy task. That’s a lot of living clients to please, not to mention the need to acknowledge the generations that have gone before. But when the Coventry was named the UK’s City of Culture for 2021, they needed a visual identity that would make a statement about its vibrant scene, past, present and future. The Coventry City of Culture Trust approached Uncommon Creative Studio to brand for the upcoming year-long programme for 2021, and the creatives and designers grasped the challenge with both hands.
The result is ‘Coventry Moves’, a new brand identity for the city inspired by its brutalist elements and modernist architecture. For readers outside of the UK, it might be interesting to note that the phrase ‘to send someone to Coventry’ means to ostracise or shun someone – but there’s nothing quiet or retiring about the bold creative language created by Uncommon.
The broader campaign tells this city’s story, celebrating the place that was almost completely rebuilt after the devastation wrought on it during the Second World War. As the press release announced the campaign depicts Coventry as: “A city of welcome, a city of activists and pioneers, a city of peace and reconciliation, a city of innovation and invention, and now a City of Culture.”
Keen to find out how they came to distil a whole city’s history and potential into one coherent brand, LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to the team behind it: Laura McMillan, director of operations and legacy for the Coventry City of Culture Trust, and from Uncommon, Josh Tenser, creative director, Tobias Bschorr, designer and Tanya Holbrook, design director.
LBB> What was the initial brief from Coventry and how did you initially interpret that?
Laura> The initial brief was to develop an identity that would inspire a city, showcasing our heritage with a future facing tone. We needed a brand that had buy-in from partners across the city from the City Council, to the universities, our cultural sector, businesses and communities. It needed to feel authentic to Coventry but ambitious enough to help place Coventry as an internationally significant visitor destination. It needed to celebrate our year of culture but also be a representation of the city itself.
Josh> The brief was to connect the heritage and history of the city to the intent for the festival – a period of energy and celebration that sets up Coventry for a bright and creative future.
That was how we came to Coventry Moves. It allowed us to tell the amazing stories of Cov’s creative past through a theme of movement – the automotive industry, movements for social justice from Godiva to 2 tone and the city’s physical transformation after the destruction of the Second World War. This idea of moving forwards also rang true as the perfect theme for a city that’s embracing progress through tech and green industries and initiatives.
LBB> Uncommon, like so much of the UK ad industry, is primarily based in London (or it was back when offices were a thing...). How did you make sure the project wasn't a narrative imposed on the city from the capital?
Josh> We pride ourselves in absolute authenticity when we tell any story and Coventry’s was no exception. Once we started to spend time in the city and meet people it became clear very quickly what a beautiful story Coventry has. One that we felt deserves to be much more widely heralded than perhaps it currently is.
It was an opportunity to tell an amazing truth – their story not ours. Part of our mission is to help create a sense of pride in a remarkable place for the people that live there. Which is why we took a forensic approach to documenting and showcasing true stories and bringing them to light in a dramatic way.
We carried this authentic connection through to execution partnering with local image makers, youth organisations, voice talent and composers to create the work.
LBB> It seems like a key to creating this brand identity must have been getting to know the people and the culture of Coventry. Can you tell us the story of the research process?
Laura> We started our community engagement programme in early 2016 after deciding to bid for UK City of Culture. The programme resulted in the consultation of over 3,500 people over 45 hours of events, workshops and conversations. All of this work informed the development of the brand, with one of our bid themes (moving) becoming the foundation of Coventry Moves.
Tanya> The brief was clear that we should be looking towards the future but as Coventry has such a rich history it was hard not to look back. The city's population is much younger than in many other places in the country but with an incredibly rich heritage so having a brand that is youthful and future facing but also pays homage to the past was important.
LBB> Were there any standout moments in your research that solidified an aspect of the campaign?
Laura> Establishing ‘Moving Blue’, working with The Weaver’s House, was a defining moment in the campaign. Using their expertise of the heritage of weaving in the city and creating something new for Coventry now was very special.
Tanya> The standout moment in the initial design thinking was making sure the branding was able to transform and flex to accommodate the breadth and depth of the cultural calendar planned for 2021. Making a family of marks that can be the ‘O’ in COV that can speak to the history, culture and future of Coventry was a part of the process where we felt this brand would really be able to work for the different stakeholders in the city.
LBB> Coventry's a very diverse city with a unique cultural landscape. How did you work with that creative community to collaborate to create the identity between the community and the agency?
Josh> First off we need to pay our respect to the passion our client The Coventry City Of Culture Trust have for the creative communities of their city. They were an amazing partner when it came to connecting and educating us over the past year. We’re so grateful for that collaboration as it enabled us all to get to the heart of the many diverse organisations and institutions that inhabit the city.
Then it was a documentary approach to creating the brand with time spent on the ground in the city - and during lockdown over Zoom. Meeting people and painstakingly chasing down stories over a year long period. We worked with countless kind and helpful people from the Belgrade Theatre, Weavers House, Jaguar Land Rover, Positive Futures, far-flung members and management of 2 tone bands through to young image makers and youth organisations such as the Wheelchair Basketball Academy.
LBB> From a pure design perspective, what were the key considerations and inspirations?
Tobias> The city’s brutalist architecture helped inspire the bold, stripped back geometric shapes of the identity, as well as our modular ‘building block’ system upon which it is built. This allows for a playful identity which can evolve throughout the year, whilst crucially also being able to adapt to any format that might be used.
LBB> How did the pandemic play into your plans for the launch? Firstly, it must have made the process more difficult, but it also must have altered the strategy.
Laura> We were already quite far down the line developing the brand when the pandemic hit. Although it did result in delays, and prohibited us from doing as much dressing of the city as we would have hoped (which will come later!), it did push us to be more creative. The brand is most exciting when it’s digital, so the film became a lot more important and the end creative output using remastered footage feels even more powerful in telling Coventry’s story, than if we were shot fresh footage. We are also starting to develop our bank of photography meaning further developments of the branding can continue with even more Coventry faces front and centre.
Josh> In simple terms it’s meant the festival launch will be delayed a little.
But in all honesty the strategy – the thematic of Moves – that’s born out of a history that long precedes the coronavirus and so really that remains unchanged for us. Sure there will be even more focus on moving forwards and a sense of necessary rebirth. But these behaviours are already the cornerstones of Coventry’s history. Just look at the transformation of the city after the war – this behaviour is in the blood of the city. So no, I don’t think the strategy for communicating what’s in the soul of the city has changed at all.
But yes – in more mundane terms – we missed being able to shoot there for a couple of months. But we were able to collaborate with a couple of amazing young image makers in the production of the film to provide specific pieces of the puzzle. So whilst it wasn’t subject to the usual control, there was something very cool about deriving footage from up-and-coming local talent. All it took was a bit of lateral thinking and to be honest, I’m glad we ended up where we are instead of defaulting to us shooting everything.
LBB> One would hope that 2021 will be a year for renewal and rebirth of culture after 2020 has been hit it so hard. How did that factor into the story of Coventry as the 2021 UK City of Culture?
Laura> The vision for Coventry Moves has never been more important than it is now. Physically moving people to visit the city and feel safe, moving people through the cultural events that they can experience in 2021, moving on as best we can. Coventry has always been a city of invention and reinvention and it’s no surprise to me that yet again my city is leading the way to help us start to heal and re-address what a city is for.
Josh> As I’ve said, this behaviour of renewal and rebirth is part of the city’s soul. Out of the violence of the Second World War they created a global network of hope and kinship – Coventry was the first ever Twin City. They became twins with Dresden and Volgograd – cities that had suffered similar fates in the war - in the hope that a more tolerant future would follow.
It’s also written into the story of the two cathedrals that sit side-by-side. I won’t get into the chapter and verse as the internet is there for any interested parties. But the story of the old and new cathedrals is, for me, a very beautiful embodiment of rebirth. And done in a way that allows us to keep learning from the past without glossing over the terrible sadness and tragedy that is part and parcel of what happened there.
LBB> What are you most looking forward to in Coventry in 2021?
Josh> The programme isn’t fully nailed down yet but from what I have seen it’s going to be a sensational year. Even bolder that I had imagined. It took me back how cool this is going to be when I saw the plan and what an amazing job the City Of Culture Trust are doing to imagine this and bring it to bear. Once it’s all set in stone then I can tell you what I’ll be trying to get tickets for. But we’ll all have to wait just a little while longer!
Above and beyond the programme, if we have helped the city reconnect a little with a proud history, if a few people walk a little taller knowing they live in a soulful place with a beautiful story then I would look forward to seeing that most of all.
Laura> For me I am most looking forward to celebrating with the people of the city. Our communities won the bid back in 2017, their ambition and creativity has always driven us forwards and the moment that we can come together and take a moment to realise we made it, is going to be extraordinary.