Why is brand building a bad thing?

Deptford brand building

Yesterday, I read an article by Alex Proud, former mafia tradesman and founder of Proud Galleries. He was having a bit of a rant about what he called the formulaic ‘Shoreditchification’ of parts of London, which he sneeringly likened to brand building. He appeared to pity the fates of areas like Peckham that apparently have undergone this Shoreditchification, and Tottenham which he predicts soon will.

Aside from thinking that, in actual fact, Mr Proud’s assessment of the rise of London’s latest ‘hot spots’ mightn’t be the hard and fast truths his cool Camden credentials and confident opinion piece makes one believe they are, as someone who works in brand building daily and has more than a passing interest in cultural regeneration, I must ask: Sorry, what’s the problem??

I live in Deptford in South East London, which has got a long and fascinating history stretching back to the mid 16th century, when it was the first of the Royal Navy Dockyards. Amongst other things, Deptford is associated with the legend of Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cape for Queen Elizabeth I, the mysterious murder of Christopher Marlowe and in the 1890s Deptford Market was the ‘Oxford Street of south London’, so prosperous was it that many of its working class shopkeepers kept domestic servants. And now? The BBC’s Secret History of Our Streets called it one of the poorest shopping streets in the country.

But there is hope. Major investment has been put towards regenerating Deptford since 2008, including a shiny new train station, re-landscaped high street and new school & community buildings. With this renewed life comes fresh business enterprises and yes, some of these start out life as pop-ups (poo-pooed by Alex Proud), like “genuinely cool (as its Shoreditch/Dalston counterparts ache to be) and in no way pretentious (as its Shoreditch/Dalston counterparts invariably are)” Little Nan’s bar on Deptford Broadway.

Yes, Deptford now has a deli and a Waitrose, but it also has an inordinate amount of fried chicken shops and bookies. I think it can afford to lose one of two. Far from losing its identity, Deptford Market is being given a new lease of life. Instead of Starbucks moving in, local entrepreneurs are coming together to form a supportive community of new business and creative initiatives. Deptford has its own voice socially, on Twitter and in blogs.

Alex Proud has got a point, that the Peckhams, the Tottenhams and the Deptfords are brand building. But they’re not ‘Shorditchifying’, they’re building their own brand and yes, if you like, with their own tone of voice and guidelines. None of that, in my view, is a bad thing. If you don’t like what’s happening to Peckham, fair enough, we don’t all like Asda’s advertising campaigns. But tarring every up-and-coming area with the Shoreditch brush is unfair, and targeting areas ripe for improvement with a cynical ‘oh it’s just the flavour of the month’ attitude is sort of missing the point.

Investment is a good thing. It’s not Shoreditchification, it’s gentrification. And it seems to me that dissing gentrification is a bit like shunning popular music. We all know those people, the music snobs. They hate Take That, even though their music is well written and the band puts on a great show. They profess to dislike them because they’re “manufactured and mainstream”. They’d much rather tell you all about a band called Accidental Loo Brush who are out of tune and repetitive, banging drums and braying unimaginative lyrics. They’re deemed cool basically because noone’s ever heard of them.

But how did being unknown ever help anyone? I’m sure Accidental Loo Brush would love to have Take That’s radio plays in the same way as Deptfordians that actually care about the future of Deptford would like to entice a bit more money into the area.

Just as long as it doesn’t turn into Clapham.

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