In September 2011, Amsterdam was named as the most bicycle-friend;y city in the world

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Amsterdam, a brand that appeals
to tourists and business alike

By Angelique Lombarts*

3 October 2011: Ever since the late sixties, early seventies Amsterdam has been known as the city of ‘sex, drugs and rock-and-roll’. But since these flower power years, a lot has changed. Amsterdam still breathes its liberal and tolerant atmosphere. But there is more. In August 2010 the 17th-centrury Amsterdam Canal District was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List; hence the city is now recognized as an international icon of urban planning and architecture.

• History
• Branding strategy
• Current campaigns

At the south side of Amsterdam the ‘Zuidas’ (literally 'Southern Axis') has been developed. 270 hectares are converted into a new urban centre devoted to international commerce and knowledge development: the place for many multinationals. And there is more: the waterfront of the river IJ is the place where new cultural palaces rise…in short, a compact global city with great aspirations. More important than its monuments and architecture are the people of Amsterdam who ‘make’ the city: a very heterogeneous, multicultural collection of individuals with an open mind, a perpetual craving for freedom and natural refusal for rules and restrictions.

Although the first settlement of where Amsterdam is at present situated appeared at the end of the twelfth century, Amsterdam’s reputation starts to be renowned with what is commonly known as ‘The Golden Age’. Thanks to the worlds’ first public-private partnership, the Dutch East India Company, the Republic ‘Holland’ conquered the world seas and had colonies allover Asia, Africa en the Americas. During this epoch Amsterdam was eminent because of its global entrepreneurial position. The city’s pivotal position made Amsterdam not only the economical centre of the World but also the globe’s cultural and scientific centre. From all over the world migrants came to the wealthy city, for the aristocratic society and upper-class European young men of means Amsterdam was even a must-see destination in their Grand Tour itinerary. Nowadays, the city is still very popular amongst backpackers on their Gap Year tours. This all has to do with city’s reputation, which began in those early days. For a long time, entrepreneurialism, tolerance and indifference belonged to the DNA of the ‘Amsterdammers’. These characteristics are pervasive and give the city its inviting atmosphere.

Branding strategy
When the alderman of Economic Affairs in 2003 asked to analyze the necessity of a place branding strategy, it was no wonder that as key values of the city occurred ‘spirit of commerce’ as one of the three main values together with ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’. Put alongside the strengths of the city, three dimensions have been singled out. The first dimension is the cultural city, the second the canal city (old and new) and the third as meeting place. Next to that, three other dimensions have been selected namely business city, knowledge city and residential city. These dimensions need to be strengthened and invested in with the aim of being beneficial in a later stage.

Amsterdam has had many brand ‘carriers’ over the years. To name a few, ‘Amsterdam has it’, ‘Amsterdam Capital of Inspiration’, ‘Small City, Big Business’, ‘Cool Capital’ and many more others have been in use till 2004. None of these carriers could grasp the before-mentioned key values of Amsterdam. Therefore, one of the first activities of the newly launched city marketing organization ‘Amsterdam Partners’ in 2004 was to ask several agencies to propose a creative concept to promote the city. In the same year the new city motto I amsterdam’ was introduced.

The 2003 analysis of the necessity for a place branding strategy showed that Amsterdam’s position was deteriorating. Amsterdam scored always well on the ranking lists of cities that appear based on various criteria for instance as a conference city. However, the competitive position of Amsterdam came under pressure and its position was declining. Its competitors were doing better than Amsterdam, not only in Europe but worldwide. Therefore the city marketing organization ‘Amsterdam Partners’ was founded in 2004.

The aim of this organization was twofold. First, the promotion of the city had to be improved. The city’s image was already strong but the way it was handled and marketed was fragmented i.e. too many organizations were responsible for the promotion of Amsterdam. Consequently the second challenge was to bundle the forces and to come to one united city marketing policy. The starting point for the new approach to Amsterdam’s city marketing was the position of the city in the world.

Amsterdam Partners was set up as a platform for companies, city authorities, regional municipalities and organizations with marketing and promotional objectives. This vast involvement of all parties had advantages and disadvantages. The involvement from the private sector resulted not only in extra financial capacity but also for additional support on marketing knowledge and extra promotional power. For instance the Amsterdam RAI conference and exhibition center continuously shows the I amsterdam’ motto. One of the disadvantages to overcome was the multitude of public parties involved. Although it was clear there were some overlaps between the various activities and responsibilities of the different marketing and promotional organizations involved, it took some time before these organizations worked properly and smoothly together. Today the main promoting bodies, the Amsterdam Tourist and Convention Board (tourist promotion), the Amsterdam Cultural Ticket centre (promotion of cultural activities) and Amsterdam in Business Partners (attracting foreign companies to Amsterdam) and Amsterdam Partners cooperate together to market and brand Amsterdam.

Current campaigns
The I amsterdam’ campaign has run since 2004 and is well established. The city marketing owes a great part of its success to this campaign. Smart is the use of the huge I amsterdam’ letters which travel around the city and which are popular among tourists as a picture point (and are actually being copied by other cities…)

In line with the strategy the city marketing campaign has been strengthening its city’s key values of ‘spirit of commerce’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’. For example the international PICNIC festival, a unique cross-discipline festival for creative conversation and collaboration aims to enhance the creative and innovative image. Another success of the last few years is the Amsterdam International Fashion Week (AIFW), which started in 2004. It aimed to put Amsterdam on the map as a sparkling and internationally oriented destination for Fashion. Apart from events and campaigns to support the city marketing strategy, Amsterdam builds on its reputation as international business city. Keeping in mind that cultural capital is essential for becoming and staying an international business city, the city started amongst others The Duisenberg school of finance which is a joint initiative of the Dutch financial sector and Dutch Universities aiming at promoting the highest level of teaching in cutting edge areas of finance. Another initiative is the Science Park Amsterdam which is a joint development being fronted by the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the City of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. It occupies a prominent position in the field of scientific research, IT and Life Sciences.

*Based in Amsterdam, Angelique Lombarts has a chair in City Marketing & Leisure Management at the Inholland University for applied sciences in Amsterdam. Her research evolves around the attractiveness of the city for tourists, organizations and inhabitants. She heads her own company, AloA Consultancy, which advises public and private organizations on their strategic and commercial processes and assists them on the implementation of their policies. She also gives trainings and workshops, acts as a moderator and speaks at (International) symposia and conferences. For more information:

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