Where is the city of Esbjerg heading in the future?


“Demolish the ugly house at the square and build a new green market with a rooftop,” says one of the workshop participants while discussing a future scenario for Esbjerg as “Culture and Experience City”. Another participant is imagining what Esbjerg could be like in the scenario “Sustainable and Lively City” and suggests: “Imagine Willemoesgade is the Meatpacking District of Esbjerg. It could become a modern area where we celebrate the roughness. Esbjerg’s creative area where it’s hip to live.”

Stagis is helping the city of Esbjerg redefine its future in order to create a more attractive city that will help Esbjerg become more dynamic and grow bigger. As the number of residents in the city has been stable at 71.000 people for 40 years, that’s obviously a bit of a challenge.

A journey into the future

80 decision makers, young and old, representing businesses, politicians, students, cultural institutions, and public organizations have been split into 15 groups, 5 groups for each future scenario of the most western city in Denmark, Esbjerg. They are traveling through their own city as imagined it would be in just five years if the future scenario they have been placed in was to become reality. Each group is placed around a large map of the city center with a route that has five stops. For each destination, they are opening a letter with a description of who they meet, what has happened, and a challenge they have to solve together. The discussions and presentations are vivid. Some participants are laughing. Others look serious. Yet others disagree as they discuss the future path of their city.

Denmark’s young city to the west

Esbjerg is a young city. The Danish Parliament and Denmark’s King Christian IX decided Esbjerg should be the new central harbor towards the west in 1868 shortly after losing the southern part of Denmark to Germany. Ten years later Esbjerg had grown from just a few houses to a town with a large harbor. The city became famous for its fishing industry, for the ferry to England, for a rough and rowdy culture, later on for the Danish oil adventure in the North Sea, and during the past twenty years for shipping out wind turbines for offshore wind farms. In the Danish population, the image and reputation of Esbjerg are still largely influenced by the old story of a harbor and fishery city even though that story is no longer relevant. For the past ten years, Esbjerg has been doing numerous efforts to build a brand as the “Energy Metropolis of Denmark” which has some recognition in the general public. But as the storytelling about Esbjerg is mainly focused on industry and developments of the energy sector it is still considered less than attractive as a place to visit and live. The city grew rapidly during its first 100 years of existence and reached around 71.000 inhabitants in the 1980s. Today, 40 years later, that is still the size of the city. Across Denmark’s 10 largest cities, Esbjerg is the only city that isn’t growing. But I’m quite sure it has the potential to develop, grow and prosper.

Changing the course

As the general population in the World and in Denmark gets older and some of the young people move away from smaller cities to study and work, Esbjerg needs to establish an image of an attractive mid-sized city where more young people and families want to live. They have to be perceived as a place you want to go to study, to work, to find a girlfriend or boyfriend, and to live as a family. The size of the city has to grow if Esbjerg is to avoid becoming a place for seniors with too high costs and too little development.

When the city of Esbjerg approached us to get advice they had already joined forces between four parties; Esbjerg Municipality, Port of Esbjerg, Business Esbjerg, and the foundation Education Esbjerg. They asked us to help create a new attractive image and reputation for the city. In other words, they wanted to rebrand the city to give people both inside and outside the city a different perspective and understanding of the possibilities of Esbjerg.

Read the press coverage of the initiative.

Can you rebrand a city?

Most people think of a city brand as something rather stable. That the image and reputation of a city is what it is – and that you can’t change it. That’s not true. Actually, there are good examples of cities that have changed the way they are perceived. But it’s not easy – and it is not only about marketing or communication. In fact, when city brands develop for the better, it’s mostly a combination of structural changes, development of the infrastructure and urban landscape of the city, development of new social and cultural possibilities, and to some degree communication. In other words, successful cases mostly contain development of both the “product” (the actual place and the experience of the city) and the communication around it. As cities and regions are large and complex that means the solutions involve many stakeholders that have to show interest and willingness to agree and invest in order for the external image to change for the better.

Yes, it can be done

At Stagis we have been writing about city branding for many years. In 2013, 2014, and 2015 we were hosting a national city branding conference. Half of the Danish municipalities from around Denmark were attending. Famous expert speakers such as Wally Olins, Robert Govers, Gregory Ashworth, Sebastian Zenker, Eric Braun, David Zahle, and Can-Seng Ooi delivered research and case-based examples. We had ministers and mayors giving their best thoughts and stories on progress from Århus, Lejre, Samsø, Horsens, Bornholm, Cold Hawaii, Tirpitz, Himmelstorm, and many other places. The general learning is, yes, you can change a place and a community – and on top of that the reputation and image of a place. You can dive into about 20 videos with talks from all the experts (including my own) on our city branding page.

Balancing involvement and leadership

As the development project progresses in 2022 we have numerous workshops and meetings involving representatives of the different stakeholders of Esbjerg. In democratic processes, which a place branding or city branding process is an example of, there is the need to involve, gather perspectives, and making sure different stakeholders get a say and understand the process. However, if the brand is to decide on a meaningful and clear direction that holds a quality of standing out from the rest, someone has to make a decision. If the city and all its many qualities all want representation in the brand expression the consequence is that there is no change at all and the brand doesn’t stand out in the competition with other places or cities. The balance between involving and respecting many views and making the choice of a specific direction in the decision making process is the most difficult part of city branding projects. Who has the power, will, and passion to make the difficult choice and get everyone else on board the idea of the new city brand?

At Stagis we’ve been counseling numerous cities and regions in Denmark about their place brand. Some of them are Varde, Ringkøbing-Skjern, Halsnæs, Odense and Copenhagen. In 2012 Stagis helped the municipality of Kolding define a new vision for the city, which led to the idea of using their unique focus on design to promote entrepreneurship in small private businesses as well as in the public sector. A decade later Kolding is the co-location of the annual national Danish Design Awards together with Copenhagen. There are courses on design thinking as a way of developing your business and a general recognition of Kolding as a design city. Take a look at our Kolding case.

Let’s talk about your brand

Learn more about creating a meaningful purpose brand. Read our cases, subscribe to our newsletter or meet us for a cup of coffee and discuss the possibilities for transforming your purpose brand. Give us a call or write an email to Nikolaj Stagis.