Branding the Urban Landscape

Thursday, April 21, 2005
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.



As brands compete for attention in an environment saturated with advertising, some companies are taking to the streets, placing ads in unlikely and attention-grabbing locations, deploying mobile technologies to annotate the urban landscape, aiming to create marketing that doesn't look or feel like advertising. At the same time, activist groups are exploiting the same technologies to deliver their own messages about city life. How effective are these alternative approaches to branding? How are city-dwellers responding to the transformation of their neighborhoods into branded
environments? What forms of branding and marketing will shape urban life in the future?


Jon Cropper is creative content channel strategist at Young & Rubicam Brands, where he is responsible for all content-driven initiatives and next-generation channel strategies. Prior to joining Young & Rubicam Brands, Cropper was senior manager, Youth and Urban Communications at Nissan North America. Cropper’s work was selected by Advertising Age as one of the best non-traditional marketing campaigns of 2003 and he was acknowledged by the industry trade publication, Brandweek, as one of the best marketers under 40 in America.

Thomas V. Ryan is senior vice president of mobile and digital development for EMI Music North America, where he is responsible for developing the company's digital and mobile businesses. Considered a pioneer of the digital music industry, Ryan was recently named one of "Ten to Watch in Mobile Content" by Mobile Content News. Prior to EMI, he was the mobile music consultant to Virgin Mobile USA, a joint venture between Virgin Group and Sprint PCS and the nation's first Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). Before that, Ryan co-founded Cductive, one of the first downloadable music companies. In 1999, he sold the company to eMusic, which was in turn acquired by Universal Music Group.

Jesse Shapins is creative development manager and urban dramaturge at Counts Media, an arts-driven entertainment company based in New York City, where he has been a lead creative collaborator on Yellow Arrow. From 2002-2003 he was a Columbia University Henry Evans Traveling Research Fellow in Berlin, during which time he co-founded the gallery and artist group Stadtblind.


Henry Jenkins is the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities and director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. He is the author and editor of several books including Hop On Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (co-edited with Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc).


[This is an edited summary not a full transcript.]

Jon Cropper presented three case studies from his work as senior manager of youth and urban communications at Nissan North America between 2001-2002. For Cropper, the word “urban” referred to geography, not ethnicity. It signified a multicultural mosaic, and telling stories in such an environment requires a special expertise. Cropper said that elegant and powerful communication must build on strong narratives; this was a feature of all three branding case studies that he presented.

Electric Moyo
Nissan's Electric Moyo promotion was an integrated branding effort that began with outdoor billboards all over the country, sprayed with graffiti and the URL of the project website. The website featured a customized Electric Moyo Nissan automobile (equipped with turntable, oversized speakers, etc.), driven all over the country by the poet/MC Bridget Gray. A camera crew tour bus followed the poet and the car, and Electric Moyo's arrival in every city was heavily promoted on radio and other city-specific media. The entourage made it a point to visit non-commercial venues such as youth and community centers in each of these cities, where Gray spoke about her philosophy of freedom, access and respect. Her mantra was that to go far in life, people needed freedom, and once they had freedom they would have access to opportunities and, consequently, respect their communities. The buzz around Electric Moyo led to the creation of a national syndicated radio show with the same name, beamed out of the car, with artists like Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz having free-wheeling conversations with Gray. Thus, according to Cropper, by providing a forum where creative people could share their ideas with their audiences, Nissan became a patron of youth culture instead of a mere advertiser.

Armada Cube
Here the concept was to take a traditional idea, but execute it in a new way. Instead of using ordinary two-dimensional billboards, Nissan decided to advertise their new sports utility vehicle by creating a transparent version of a traditional shipping container and enclosing a brand new Nissan Armada within it. The legend "Break glass in case of adventure" was stamped on the front of the container. The company ran a TV spot with the same theme, and also placed the container and car in dense urban spaces – Times Square in New York and Miami's South Beach, for example. People were naturally surprised. Nissan then used film of people's reactions to the Cube in Times Square in another advertisement film.

Theatre Jam
Cropper said that the movie theater was at the top of the media food chain in terms of its reach and in terms of the emotional power it generates, but he often found in-theater advertising extremely annoying. He aimed to do something different for Nissan, a form of in-theater advertising that was respectful and would also create word-of-mouth buzz. In an exercise that blended live theater with film, the company planted four actors in selected movie audiences. When the Nissan advertisement (consisting of a face on the screen popping up and asking "who are you?") played, the four actors would each jump up from their seats and yell out their answers.

Jesse Shapins described two of Counts Media’s ongoing projects: Yellow Arrow and The Ride.

Yellow Arrow
Yellow Arrow, a “psycho-geography” project, was conceptualized as the world's first global public art project. Shapins described it as a MAAP – or Massively Authored Artistic Project – a new way of combining the Internet, mobile technology and stickers. The project consists of little yellow arrow stickers placed on walls, lampposts and other spaces in big cities. Each sticker has a unique code on it. People place their arrows to draw attention to favorite locations and objects in their city. They send a text-message (SMS) from their mobile phone to a central number and associate it with some short text. When another person encounters their arrow, he/she sends the arrow code to the central number and immediately receives the earlier message on his/her mobile phone. The group website at is the main conduit for these activities. Shapins noted that yellow arrows were being deployed for many different purposes. A bike tour entrepreneur, for example, was using the yellow arrows to organize his tours. Non-profit groups can use Yellow Arrow to map and promote historical sites or civic projects. Shapins said that he was planning to promote the global use of Yellow Arrow by creating regional sub sites, such as or

The Ride New York
The Ride is a large-scale theatrical production, a new Times Square attraction to be launched in Fall/Winter 2007. It would be a part Broadway musical, part video game, part blockbuster movie, part Disney ride. It aimed to create a theatre of experience for its audience, which would travel in a customized bus through New York, viewing performers on the streets all over the city. The outside performances would be combined with augmented images projected from inside the bus. The bus window would become a screen – sometimes partial, sometimes complete.

Thomas Ryan contended that the cell phone has created a mobile personalized space that offers interesting branding opportunities for companies aiming to reach youth cultures. Two billion handsets already exist worldwide, Ryan said, making the cell phone ubiquitous. EMI believes that the sale of special ring tones and ring-back messages is going to be highly profitable. The company is also interested in the ring tones and ring-back tones as a promotional strategy for popular music. He called this “sonic branding” and noted that when a phone rings and ten people in the vicinity hear that ring tone, this becomes a powerful advertisement for the song. Thus, potentially, any cell phone user could become a mobile, continual promotion for one of EMI's clients.


Ryan: All the projects we have seen – whether shouting at a screen or putting up yellow arrows – get people to think differently. I see the same in the music space where music is sold largely through word of mouth. It's got me thinking about how both your ideas could be used in the music business or in entertainment.

Cropper: There are a lot of opportunities. I have been toying with the idea of listen-while-you-wait bus shelters. You could sample music while waiting, and if you like what you hear, press two to purchase. I am also seeing artists using mobile phones to create art – mobile light sculptures in cities for example, or music.

Shapins: We're thinking of the mobile phone as a remote control. For us, it’s a platform, and we might use entertainment products like songs, as clues in a game, for example, that we create about a city. There are so many ways that we can seamlessly integrate brands into entertainment experiences.

Question: It's so obvious to me that once the Yellow Arrow concept gets above baseline – then it will become commercialized immediately – people are going to use it for selling pizza and then no one will care about it any more. Why isn’t this going to happen?

Shapins: We're excited if a local pizza place uses it. But if a big brand comes in, then it becomes more commercial.

Question: Why do you think you have any control over it?

Shapins: Because everything runs through our system.

Question: Isn't authenticity supposed to be about a narrative that is real and not scripted?

Cropper: That’s the next level. To create a forum where people can express themselves. However brands have a tendency to be fearful of unfiltered environments. When I tried to create public forums funded by brands like Nissan, my battles weren’t so much with the creative teams, but with the legal department. I think that more enlightened brands, or brands that create products that empower people to express themselves, will be the first ones that go out and create public forums with public debates.

Shapins: That's a good question. If truly human experience on a fundamental level becomes commercialized, then it is not a good thing. If authenticity is most valuable to a brand, it is what they're going to go for. For us, we try in a larger sense to be similar to Apple – to not just market, but to be a platform.

Cropper: We got hate mail from the Billboard Liberation Forum when we did Electric Moyo, saying that we had used their art form – graffiti – for a commercial purpose. Actually, we had used world famous graffiti artists to create those ads. But it’s a fine line.

David Thorburn, MIT Communications Forum director: The problems being discussed here have always been embedded in advertising. One way to think about what you have been calling “branding” is to think of it as intrusive and colonizing. When you dropped the Armada Cube on the street or went into the theatres with the Theater Jam, you didn’t ask permission, you intruded into spaces already being used by pedestrians or theater-goers. When bystanders are compelled to listen to an egregious song when someone’s cell phone rings, you’ve captured or seized the attention of people who had no intention of listening. I think this is an ethical and moral question of great complexity. It may be that some people applauded after the Theatre Jam, but there must have been some who were not impressed, who felt they were being manipulated and taken advantage of. How do you address the question that some people want to remain private, free from advertisements, and that the people whose attention you are aiming for have to be deceitfully shocked or manipulated into paying attention?

Cropper: There's no doubt that since the beginning of time, society has been driven forward by commerce. You sell ideas and thoughts, Ryan sells music, Shapins sells art. Having said that, some of the big themes around marketing today revolve around permission. In negotiation, getting someone to say yes without asking a question is considered a great skill and requires elegance. It is contextual – context is the most important piece to the puzzle – you show up in environments where you are expected and appreciated, but in unexpected ways. If I had dropped that cube in the middle of MIT, it would be inappropriate, but in the middle of Times Square, it is the nature of Times Square. It is a spectacle.

Shapins: In the case of Yellow Arrow, to receive the content, you have to ask for it. So it is permission-based in that way. The visual presence, of course, is not asked for – not everyone wants to see yellow arrows in their neighborhood. In the case of The Ride, the question is certainly appropriate, but again, we are riding through Times Square and not residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Question: What have you done that has actually benefited the urban communities that you talk about rather than just growing the bottom line for your companies?

Cropper: With Nissan, we supported a lot of youth organizations. Our 'Shift' campaign had a very strong foundational elements attached to it. In terms of environment – as a car company, we were very concerned with how Nissan developed hybrid products. It was a broad range of things, but I feel proud of the efforts. Companies have a hard time linking altruism to profits.

Shapins: We're not doing marketing. But for us, community support has been vital. There is a group of eight people in Copenhagen called the Urbanities, who've come together and adopted Yellow Arrow as a tool for helping advise the city on urban redevelopment efforts. Another organization in Colombia wants to use a flower as a symbol to build harmony in their country using our Yellow Arrow model, and we've written back offering them our infrastructure to do so. What you're describing is “make money, doing good.” This is great, but also disturbing. When we're looking for public goods from marketing campaigns and corporations, instead of getting these from the public sector, it is indicative of a frightening trend – that of social goods becoming commercialized.

-- compiled by Parmesh Shahani