Sheffield Steel: The Evolving Brand of Our Home City

The evolving Sheffield brand - word cloud of the first thing that comes to mind about Sheffield

My favourite quote about branding comes from Jeff Bezos. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s the world’s richest man because he seems to understand the power of a great brand, the promise that it conveys and the importance that consistency plays in maintaining all of that.

He said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room” and I think this is an excellent way of thinking about the power and impact that a brand can convey.

Of course branding isn’t just relevant from the context of marketers like me trying to reflect a promise of quality to prospective buyers of a product or service. It’s also relevant to an individual (we all have a personal brand, like it or not) and even to a place.

Recently I embarked on some research via social media to investigate how the city brand of Sheffield is perceived. Sheffield is my home. It’s where I’ve lived for most of my life and where I now choose to raise my family and contribute to the work of The Floow. We have our HQ here in the city and the majority of our team live and work here too. So I’m interested both personally and professionally about Sheffield’s brand, not least because as a digital innovator, The Floow will always be looking to attract strong talent to work with us here.

Sheffield is a city in transition. When my family first moved up here in the mid 1970s, the city was quite honestly in decline. The traditional industries of steel, mining and heavy manufacturing were struggling to remain competitive in the face of cheaper international alternatives. The city went through a number of dark years of economic challenges and unemployment, but in recent times it seems to have very much turned a corner. Moving back here from London five years ago I found the city was changing rapidly. Knowledge-based industries, digital innovation, specialist manufacturing, brewing, creative industries and two huge world-class universities were causing an influx of new talent into the city. Today as I look out of the window and across the skyline you can see that it’s littered with cranes, a testament to the construction and physical transformation that’s happening all around.

But if this change is apparent to residents of the city - is Sheffield’s brand reflective of that? Or in the words of Jeff Bezos, what do people say about Sheffield when we’re not in the room?

To test this, I asked a simple question on LinkedIn:

If I say the name "Sheffield" to you, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Well, the response was overwhelming! To date 1796 people have taken the time to add a comment and more than 325,000 people have seen the post. This interest alone says to me that the city’s brand is one that resonates.

So what did we learn?

‘Steel’ was by far the most popular response (with perhaps a third of all comments relating to it), reflecting the industrial powerhouse that Sheffield is famous for being but also some of the specialist steels, cutlery, silver plate and precision metals that are still in production today. Interestingly there was a second association to the word steel - reflecting the tenacity and perseverance of the people who live here. That definitely resonates with me!

There were some references to the newer industries that are starting to flourish here in a city with an excellent influx of graduate talent. The Floow is one of a number of exciting digital innovators alongside such companies as Twinkl, Sumo, 3Squared, Zoo and many others. Growth in that sector saw a few mentions, but it’s clear we have more to do to put Sheffield firmly on the digital map. Additionally the growth of the Advanced Manufacturing sector and HSBC’s new site in the city were commented on by some.

Most people associate Sheffield with very positive memories - associations with family, friendships, university days, nights out, visiting fantastic specialist shops like The Record Collector - the list is endless. As part of this there is a tonne of affection and positive feeling about the city. Words like proud, warmth, chatty and friendly came out strongly. People care about Sheffield in a way that might be unexpected if you’re unfamiliar with the place.

Cultural references were aplenty! Sheffield is synonymous with The Full Monty, Sean Bean, football (both the Blades and the Owls), snooker at the Crucible Theatre, the Steelers and Eagles, music (especially Arctic Monkeys, The Human League, ABC, Joe Cocker, Pulp), Meadowhall and Ponds Forge.

There were certainly some references to a grey, gloomy, heavy industrial past though those contributors did reflect that this was very much a historical view. Many more references related to how green the city is, its huge tree population and its proximity to the wonderful scenery of the Peak District.

All in all, am I surprised with all of this? Not really! It's clear that there's a rich history tied up in this 'city brand' that dominates perceptions and will be a long time in shifting. But the brand is changing slowly, and in the words of Scott Bedbury: “A great brand is a story that is never completely told.” Sheffield has many more chapters ahead of it!

Overall this exercise reminded me that this is a great place to live and work. It’s a city rich in heritage and brimming with future opportunity. If you’d like to join us here at The Floow in Sheffield, or in our new office in Taylor, Michigan in the USA, please take a look at our vacancies.

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