An uphill cycle race, a proposal to turn the town into an obstacle course, an art gallery and cafe in a loo, mysterious slogans graffitied on walls and pulled along by airplanes. Welcome to The Independent State of Frome.
Since we worked on the branding project for Shrewsbury, we’ve been on the lookout for other British market towns getting things right. And it turns out Frome (say Froome like room or Chris) has got it going on. The Times declared it one of the coolest towns in Britain last year, so clearly we’re late to the party, but with all the talk of the death of the High Street and a lot of same-y market towns desperate to get Mary Portas on side, it’s worth heading south west to see what they’re up to.
Only a decade ago there were dozens of boarded up shops – says The Times – and now there’s a waiting list to get a shop on Catherine Hill.
So what changed? And what can other towns learn from Frome?
Well, the people of Frome seem to be the biggest part of it. The residents took over running the council from the Liberal Democrats in 2011. But, as this blog written by a local points out, that’s only half the story, and changes were rumbling earlier than that. (Babington House down the road probably didn’t do any harm either.)
Possibly the thing to take from Frome is that they didn’t start out with a ‘destination branding strategy’. Most of its success is down to a few go-getting people turning Frome into the sort of town they’d like to live and work in: independent shops (tick); a good market (tick); lots of arty and sparky things to do (tick); a hot-rod-themed coffee place that serves a proper Flat White (tick tick). That’s just for starters. And not surprisingly, it’s most people’s idea of a good market town too.
If you look at towns that punch above their weight in Britain, it’s often one person or a small group of people that gets things going. Richard Booth led the way for Hay-on-Wye to become a town of books. Rob Hopkins ventured to make Totnes the first transition town.
Most places trying to get on the map would do well to follow their lead. Think small, find a few people to get things off the ground and don’t try to please everyone. Don’t do it the old way, basically: 99.9% of place branding (or whatever you want to call it) projects go through endless workshops to keep everyone happy and then end up with a vague ‘One this’, ‘your that’, ‘uniquely x, y and z’ line that could apply to any town, anywhere.
Not Frome. It’s just starting to make its mark and from the outside, it’s working.