Finding the Heart of a City

25. 01. 2022

Alison Jambert

In our work at Eat, we often find ourselves taking brands with strong local histories to the global stage. In markets with already established competitors - whether it’s in financial services, skincare or consumer electronics, often a brand’s greatest asset and the seed for its growth is its birthplace, creating a connection between its roots and a specific point of difference.

In some industries like food and beverage and hospitality, a brand may have to do the exact opposite, doing what it can to show that it understands the local culture or cuisine like no other, and can provide a meaningful take on something that’s already so well known.

Kyoto is considered by many as the spiritual heart of Japan. The birthplace of cuisine, language, aesthetic sensibilities and architecture that the world today knows and terms as quintessentially Japanese. It’s a city immortalised in countless films depicting the click-clack of sandals, kimono and umbrellas, maiko and geiko entertainers walking down streets with more than a thousand years of history. It’s a city imprinted in the memories of many through book covers showing the beauty of stone gardens that give a glimpse of warrior life in the 15th century.

So when a global hotel asked us to help them find a way to showcase a perspective of Kyoto that only they, with their brand history, could give their guests, we needed to find a unique take on a city with a legacy stretching even beyond the medieval period, a story told many more thousands of times.

Our starting point was the belief that any definition of a place or its essence is only ever one that resonates at a particular point in time. As generations move on and people shape the physical and cultural environment around them, a city’s essence changes too. Kyoto was founded as Japan’s first capital in 794, a place of ritual and ceremonial government. But over the centuries, it became a place where warriors ruled, where Zen took influence, where crafts flourished and where some of Japan’s most iconic companies and ubiquitous technologies have arisen.

Whether it is Sydney, New York, Shanghai or Venice, cities are living, breathing places. And the best way to find its essence, whether to channel it into a brand, or to embrace a new city as a global brand, is to understand what things stay relatively constant while accepting that these cities change. As forms of political organisation, religious movements, artistic trends and lifestyles changed, the attention Kyoto placed on sophistication and elegance as a source of cultural capital remained. This sensibility makes its way into everything in the city - from a ritual tea ceremony, to a street-side conversation to a converted machiya now serving as a Japanese fashion label’s branded space.

Now that you’ve found the heart of the city, how do you make it yours? Like in any travel experience, a destination is what you make of it. Your past experiences, values and passion points give that city a place in your mind. It’s the same thing with brands. To channel the essence of a destination in your brand, or make a connection to it as a brand from overseas, you need to find where your Brand DNA overlaps meaningfully with the heart of a city.

A hotel with centuries of history offering the epitome of luxury would channel Kyoto’s elegance as sophisticated extravagance. A budget chain offering new value to the masses would bring sophisticated stays within the reach of all by sharpening its focus and perfecting the few things in the experience that matters most. And a concept that connects guests in a spirit of community would create a sense of shared identity around a sense of discernment.

In today’s globalised world - a world brimming with stories and information from far-flung places, it’s no longer enough to recycle the image of a nation or a city that everyone already knows. To make a truly meaningfully different connection, you have to go deeper, within the place and also within your brand to find the link that binds them together. That’s what it means to channel the heart of a city.