Noisy, ugly, and dirty.

Advertising has polluted cities, annoyed consumers and jeopardised its own existence. Beyond a mass-media cacophony, brand communications’ significant carbon footprint and runaway consumption are certainly contributing to what economists labelled as market failure.

But contrary to Jerry Seinfeld’s 2014 infamous line at the Clio awards calling out the advertising sector to its face “I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy”, marketers and their brands can [and should] move away from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution for sustainable development and the industry’s own sustainability.

Offering A New Outlook

The urbanisation megatrend wholly underpins other forces shaping the way we live, now and in the future, as indicated by the UN, the World Bank and CSIRO, to name a few. Although cities only occupy 2% of Earth’s landmass that is where 75% of consumption and an even higher percentage of brand communications concentrate. Because of increased demand for ever more comfortable lifestyles, the existing urban infrastructures have been feeling their “growing pains” for over a decade now.

From energy to education, health, waste-management or safety, cities’ services are struggling to keep up with their larger, older and “hungrier” populations. Therefore, the strategic opportunity is to reframe brand communications from the promotion of conspicuous consumption to becoming a regenerative force in the economy of cities. That means, using brands’ touch points as more than mere messengers, but rather delivering public utility services. I coined it “Urban Brand-Utility”, an approach that can meaningfully and profitably reconnect people, brands, communications agencies and local government.


When The Poison Becomes The Antidote

The Urban Brand-Utility conceptual framework flips the current advertising model by enhancing, instead of interrupting, moments of brand interaction with relevant, urban experiences. In fact, an American Express research from 2013, showed that 63% of a total of 1600 participants had their heart rates increased when they thought they were receiving great service and, for 53% of those respondents, receiving good service prompted the same cerebral reaction as falling in love!

For example, Indian energy company Halonix communicated its brand through LED billboards that lit up at night making streets safer. This campaign supplemented Delhi’s energy grid, the need to bolster its police force and is helping remove the city’s stigma as India’s rape capital. In fact, following explicit requests from the Indian population, the campaign is rolling out nationally. By creating new meaning in an unprecedented way, Halonix achieved the feat of decommoditising energy, exiting enduring price wars.



That does not mean creativity will be killed by utilitarianism. On the contrary, new paradigms will push it to the edge!

In terms of road safety, Uber set up a Breathalyzer installation outside a Toronto pub where people could test their alcohol intake and when above the permitted limit, a car would be sent for their collection. A simple, brilliant solution was delivered in Salzburg, by beer Stiegl, by replacing its bottles’ labels with free public transport tickets. Besides shelf-disruption, helping curb drunk-driving would indirectly optimise public-health services from fewer patients in ambulances, emergency rooms and receiving medical aftercare.

When it comes to education, Universidad Columbia, from Asunción (Paraguay), sponsored an entire bus line with educational tours supplementing the population’s low levels of literacy, as well as increasing enrolments in 35%.

Regarding our environment, in 2013, UTEC – the University of Technology of Lima (Peru) – deployed billboards able to transform humidity from the air into 96 litres of potable water per day as well as having increased enrolments by 28%. In 2014, UTEC did it again by deploying air-purifying billboards, each claiming to be as effective as 1200 trees, occupying a much smaller area.

Much more is required to create a reliable network of creative, urban resiliency. But according to the 2015 World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities: “Cities will always need large infrastructure projects, but sometimes small-scale infrastructure can also have a big impact on an urban area”. A case in point was the deployment of smart bins by Internet provider Portal Terra across ten parks in Mexico City. By rewarding dog owners when throwing their doggy bags in the bins with free Wi-Fi connectivity, this micro waste-management infrastructure helped counter the 10.000 tons of dog poo randomly dropped every year and the city’s incurring cleaning costs.

However, the above (and several other similar campaigns that preceded and followed) were all one-off activations. Those are great for consumers’ awareness and advertising award entries but short-sighted in terms of embracing a bigger commercial opportunity while addressing society’s most pressing issues.

Towards An Urban Brand-Utility Infrastructure

Urban Brand-Utility aims at optimising municipal budgets by supplementing public utility services or creating new income streams. Through the mechanisms of Public Private Partnerships and the use of open-data, New York City and CityBridge (a consortium of companies that includes Qualcomm, CIVIQ Smartscapes, and Intersection), harnessed the opportunity by repurposing New York City’s now obsolete pay phones. Through its LinkNYC totems, a free utility service is now provided to residents and visitors. Besides supplementing New York’s broadband network, LinkNYC also shares its ad revenue as part of the terms of a 12-year contract projected to bring an incremental US$500 million to the city’s pockets.

To enable a virtuous circle, cities would then arrange for tax breaks, rebates, R&D contributions or other types of incentives. Just like the idea of a circular economy where products and services go beyond an end-user’s finite life-cycle, Urban Brand-Utility looks at brand communications as closed loops by designing a system bigger than fixed campaign periods, target audiences and business-as-usual KPIs. This way, marketing budgets are effectively turned into investment funds with returns in the form of brand cut-through, happier customers, social impact and more effective city management.

As a comparison, PwC estimates that in 2017 global media spending in brand communications and entertainment combined will reach US$ 18 trillion but, according to the Pike Institute, by 2020 investment in Smart City infrastructure will not surpass US$108 billion; an 180:1 ratio respectively.

In other words, by slightly repurposing marketing budgets towards Urban Brand-Utility programmes, more incentives would be made available – eventually mainstreaming the approach – and accelerating the development of the smart cities industry.

The University of Melbourne already confirmed that the impact assessment of Urban Brand-Utility programmes is possible and would inform new revenue models and policy-making efforts. Dr. Savvas Verdis, Infrastructure Economist at Siemens and Senior Research Fellow at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics is equally convinced: “I am sure that Urban Brand-Utility will provide some much needed expertise and transformation [in the brand communications industry] and particularly in generating new business opportunities for infrastructure, development, tech companies and others tendering with cities through an innovative use of media”.

In this more useful and integrated new world, agencies and their clients would partner with cities and media-owners via open data, matching brands with specific urban challenges and forming the foundations of a network of creative, urban resiliency. Radically innovative skills and propositions would emerge from the frictions between marketers and creatives working closer to urban planners, policy-makers, landscape architects and many others. Interestingly, in September 2016, the City of Gainsville (Florida) and design firm IDEO, co-created the Department of Doing, aiming at creating a more competitive economy and becoming more citizen-responsive.

According to Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff “2017 will be the year when technology and government leaders shift their focus from providing connectivity to imagining how it can radically transform cities and help reduce inequality”. With one billion people migrating to cities by 2030, a billion-dollar opportunity is emerging for pioneering marketers to make an impact that goes beyond their target audiences and brands’ bottom lines.

But do brands have the legitimacy to support a cause and make a political stance that is not seen as opportunistic self-promotion? According to a 2014 study entitled “Business and politics, do they mix?” by public affairs and research firm Global Strategy Group (GSG), the answer is “yes!”, as demonstrated by a few key findings below:

  • 56% of respondents think corporations should “take a stance” on political/cultural issues, even when they’re controversial,
  • 89% believe that corporations have the power to influence social change
  • 80% think that these corporations should take action to address our society’s most pressing challenges

The general population does want brands to be more civically engaged, however, the difference between “telling” and “taking action” is that the latter can make people prefer a brand over another. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “What is the city but the people?”

Brand City: Accelerating A Smarter Future

Governments worldwide are some of the biggest spenders of brand communications , which could be reduced if services provided were more effectively designed and deployed. For the sake of perspective, in 2015, Australia spent approximately US$ 80 million on taxpayer-funded advertisement, the UK US$460 million and the USA over US$1 billion, that is, excluding the actual provision of those services.

Despite heavy communication efforts, the overall quality of services (or positive behavioural changes) on those nations and their cities have not necessarily improved. Governments then resort to behavioural taxation tactics. In Australia, in 2012, the federal government raised more than US$ 10 billion from alcohol and tobacco taxes and for over a year now has been enforcing strict lockout laws on Sydney’s hospitality venues and general alcohol consumption.

Although violence has decreased by 40%, there is no evidence proving people are drinking less. However, a study from Dr Mikayla Novak from Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs, provides evidence that besides removing citizens’ autonomy, behavioural taxes rarely achieve their goals (i.e. making people drink less) but they change behaviour in unpredictable ways, encourage black market activities, disproportionately affect the poor and hurt small businesses.

The traditional model of taxpayer-funded government is not going to change any time soon but Urban Brand-Utility could represent the innovation required to reduce public [and, at times, negative] interference over private life, supplement public services and boost cities’ brands.

Seeing is believing. By upgrading its communication efforts onto actions that deliver real-time services, governments would not only reclaim trust but spend people’s fiscal contributions more effectively. Additionally, cities’ diverse human and natural resources would create Urban Brand-Utility specialism niches, becoming a magnet for the right talent and investment.

A smarter planet where interconnected systems guide our choices to increase the likelihood of desired outcomes, is central to South Korea’s attempt to promote an industry around the design of smart cities and accomplish the vision of ‘The City as a Service’.  However, there is a darker, Orwellian downside that may see our lives being downgraded into data-sets.

Democracy minus privacy are variables that could become part of the Urban Brand-Utility equation and jeopardise its success. As criticised by urbanist Adam Greenfield, author of “Against the smart city”, smart cities risk becoming vast, efficient robots where giant technology companies hope to profit from big municipal contracts.

On the other hand, brands in free markets represent a dynamic ecosystem involving individual judgements about what to buy and from whom. Thus, Urban Brand-Utility programs are an opportunity to give back power to the people to, beyond transacting, transform their cities through their shopping decisions. In this “Brand City” construct, consumers “emancipate” as citizens with every purchase effectively counting as a vote, electing the most useful brands to constitute a more integral part of their individual and communal lives. Importantly, this new model allows brands to connect with people in a more meaningful way and cut through the clutter that is suffocating the industry.

Redefining What We Value To Unlock Our Worth

Since its launch in July 2016, Meet Graham has been one of the most talked about brand campaigns worldwide, branded a “new weapon in the fight against death on the road”. The commissioning of a deformed humanoid by Australia’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC) to celebrated Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini was an interesting approach to promoting safer driving and reducing death and trauma on roads.



The already award-winning campaign became a social media phenomenon and continues to make headlines worldwide. From the New York Times to London’s Daily Mail, the Washington Post, BBC, CNN, India Today and Al Jazeera.

Despite all fanfare and a brand-funded art piece, what is the true value of Meet Graham?! Has it delivered on its promise?

As of December 2016, 270 people had lost their lives on Victorian roads, 36 more than the 2015 toll. And, this was the number that client and agency did not promote. Moreover, how can a hyper elaborated, expensive and convoluted way of telling people something they already know have become so unanimously praised? Haters gonna hate… but this indicates how poorly-oriented our industry’s values have become.

How might Urban Brand-Utility respond to TAC’s brief? In fact, it already did. But effectiveness does not generate the same buzz as wackiness. Delhi’s Police Bad News Bag campaign used newspapers’ tragic reports on car accidents as the wrapping for bottles in local liquor stores’ points-of-sale. This happened on the night of 31st December (2012), when the road toll spikes up. As it turned out, drunk driving fell to 574 from 620 with only one accident reported on Delhi’s roads.  Since then, the initiative now covers other celebratory dates and cities.



In 2015, Tweeting Pothole was an initiative launched by Telemetro Reporta, an influential news show in Panama City. Tweeting devices were installed inside potholes, sending complaints to the Department of Public Works’ Twitter account every time a car runs over.  As a result, potholes started disappearing.

Brand communications have borrowed plenty of inspiration from the arts. Yet, the real artfulness lies in implementing great ideas that solve real problems. As we enter the era of purpose-led brands, useful actions need to speak louder than buzz.

As an industry we need to celebrate more the value of utility as a driver of business results and social impact. This way, brands can finally bring innovation to the centre and raise the bar of their worth.

Now is the most exciting time to be in the marketing communications industry. Let’s chase the things that really matter and be the change we want to see in the world!