Decoding the language of Business Improvement Districts

The psychology behind how Business Improvement Districts market themselves

Boxpark Croydon, pic: Eagleash

On the website of any Business Improvement District you’ll find they use words such as “safety” and “deep cleaning” to describe what they do; but it’s more than just descriptive jargon. These local areas, in which businesses pay a levy to fund additional services like extra policing (to find out how Business Improvement Districts function refer back to our piece on the history of BIDs), use a whole field of business psychology to market themselves and avoid getting voted out.

As Anna Minton argues in her book Ground Control, Business Improvement Districts base their marketing plans on the hierarchy of human needs coined by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. In his 1943 paper “A theory of human motivation” he posited that basic needs such as food and safety must be met before humans can achieve fulfilment. The theory is still widely used by corporations as part of “business psychology”, although in academic circles it is generally out of favour.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, credit: Androidmarsexpress

From policing anti-social behaviour to ambassadors clad in bright pink here’s how BIDs near you use language to emulate Maslow’s pyramid and “actualise the potential” of the high street (illustrated with word clouds generated from the marketing pages of Croydon BID and Aldgate Connect BID) :

  1. Security needs: “Clean” and “Safe”

These word clouds show the most commonly used words on Croydon BID’s “Croydon Business Crime Reduction Partnership” and “Cleaner” pages. The heavy focus on crime, anti-social behaviour and cleanliness (for example the removal of graffiti and gum), emphasise that BIDs need to first make people feel secure so they can be enticed further.

If you’re in a public space and you feel unsafe, you can’t fully enjoy your experience. You’re on edge because your first concern is your safety. That’s quite obvious, instinctively human, and why Maslow considered safety a basic human need. It’s also why Business Improvement Districts place so much emphasis on the language of security. Businesses know safety is necessary for people to enjoy their experience and spend money, and BIDs know that to keep businesses voting for them, they need to lower levels of crime like shoplifting.

Camden Town Unlimited BID took the hierarchy of needs literally in a graph it produced for the local council in 2016. That graph depicted the improved “reputation” of the BID area as a function of three phases: the first being “tackling cleanliness & anti-social behavior,” followed by “streetscape improvements” and culminating with an “independent and creative business centre,” at which point the reputation curve arcs upwards out of view.

The importance of cleanliness and safety as tools for regeneration derive from “Broken Window Theory”, an idea coined by two US researchers, James Q Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling used the idea of a broken window to explain their finding that reducing minor offences would also reduce more serious offences. They argued that if a broken window is left un-repaired, it won’t be long until all of the windows in the surrounding neighbourhood are also broken. This concept was popularised by Rudy Giuliani who used it in his divisive mayoral term in New York during the 90s.

Rudy Giuliani’s New York helped popularise BIDs, so it’s no surprise at all that Croydon BID has a page on its website dedicated to “cleaner” streets, and a section dedicated to “investing in your safety”. They have a dedicated “BusinessWatch” and a  “PubWatch” group; the punishment for those repeatedly shoplifting or behaving inappropriately is a 12 month exclusion. Whether you agree with this policy or not depends on whether you prioritise safety or freedom.

2. Belonging: Transport, accessibility and ease

After presenting an environment as clean and safe, BIDs have to present themselves as being easy and convenient to get to and move around. For Croydon, an outer London borough with close links to Surrey, this is particularly important. On its “Helping you In and Around” page, Croydon BID advertises its parking, transport, and ambassadors clad in branded pink clothing.

The street ambassadors are described as “approachable” and “friendly” and willing to give directions or advice about what’s on. Going by Maslow’s model, this approachability helps to fit the higher need of “belonging”. If you’re exiting East Croydon station you might even be welcomed by an ambassador and what gives a greater sense of belonging than hospitality?

However there is a particularly high rate of stop and search in Croydon town centre. Some, such as the Manifesto Club, would say that this has led to the exclusion of particular groups such as young people and rough sleepers.

Croydon BID don’t shy away from making the role of their ambassadors as intelligence gatherers clear. The people their ambassadors are welcome to are those who are in keeping with their “clean and safe” mantra. Their website states that their ambassadors have “reported over 2,500 issues of anti-social behaviour and logged over 8000 intelligence reports (including commercial waste, busking, beggars and illegal street trading).”

3. Fulfilment: Marketing a memorable experience

word cloud generated from Aldgate Connect BID’s “History” page with

Since Croydon BID is open about the fact that it evicts unplanned buskers they face a problem that Minton explains in her book – how to market themselves as exciting. Often while Business Improvement Districts want to create an interesting atmosphere, they plan entertainment in an organised and timetabled way. Some argue that this is safer, Minton argues that it destroys the joy of spontaneous discovery.

If the top of Maslow’s pyramid is “self-actualisation”, for BIDs that means to create a memorable experience. Aldgate Connect BID has a dedicated “What’s On” page where it showcases upcoming events and looks to promote a “diverse variety” of artists. They also have a video about the local area, within which they celebrate local galleries (Whitechapel Gallery) and small businesses (street markets). Meanwhile Croydon BID markets its floral displays and annual Christmas lights.

To avoid appearing disconnected from the rest of the area, Business Improvement Districts might also employ the use of history. Aldgate Connect has a page that links the development with Tower Hamlets’ proximity to the City of London and important landmarks. This use of history is something that can be seen in other BIDs and similar privately owned public spaces, for example Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross, which has signs that give visitors snippets of historical facts also dating back to the Romans.

The question of how to situate BIDs within not just a public space, but a public story, remains unanswered because they are such a new phenomenon. What is certain, is that whether we like it or not, the final aim of Business Improvement Districts is to be ingrained in our city like history itself.

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