The economic powerhouse of Morocco’s Casablanca is light years away from the image created in a Hollywood studio 70 years ago.
Our story starts in 1942 with Europe in the midst of war. We find ourselves in the dusty North African outpost of Casablanca, where a motley assortment of refugees, political agitators and men with secrets gather in a place known as Rick’s Cafe. Here, they exchange news, drink whiskey and juggle illegal paperwork to get them out of the country to a better life.
Casablanca was full of anxiety and uncertainty, a limbo full of those caught between their pre-war pasts and their uncertain futures. So begins the plot of what was to become one of the most popular classic films of all time: Casablanca.
But Rick’s Café never really existed. Casablanca was not shot in Morocco. None of its actors were Moroccan. In fact, the whole thing was constructed in a Hollywood studio, making Casablanca the film as far removed from Casablanca the city as could be imagined.
Nevertheless, the city became synonymous with the film and some of the latter’s glamour rubbed off on the image of Casablanca the city.
Rick’s Cafe comes to life
Six decades after the film was released, Casablanca finally got its own Rick’s Café. Kathy Kriger, an American ex-diplomat, opened her version of Rick’s in 2004, while the world was still reeling in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of the “war on terror.” Kriger left the Foreign Service to devote herself to building Rick’s Cafe as a business and a brand name. She even found a piano player called Sam—or Issam, to be precise.
“I wanted to use it as a way to show Americans how Morocco was different,” Kriger tells me. “I knew they would put all the [Middle East] countries into one basket. So I wanted to help them make the psychological leap and not be scared.”
Now, 12 years later, Rick’s Cafe attracts a regular flow of celebrities, royalty and political bigwigs to Casablanca, along with tourists from all around the world. Many come a long way to visit Rick’s. For some, the movie is the only image that links them with Casablanca at all. While it may be a false image in some ways, the iconic film provides brand awareness for the city, which it otherwise might have lacked. Recognition is a valuable asset for any place looking to make its mark globally.
“We’re known all over the world,” says Kriger. “The Japanese minister of economy is coming here for dinner tomorrow. J-Lo’s been here. Casablanca the movie is so famous that it brings people in from everywhere. They all know of it. Some people come from Europe just to have dinner, spend the night and go back.”
The film’s influence may have spread far and wide globally, but it was never much of a big deal within Morocco until Kriger opened Rick’s. Since then, Casablanca locals have become more aware of the impact that one film had on global perceptions of their city. Some of them have spotted its potential and tried to harness it. So far, Kriger’s restaurant is the only Rick’s in town and likely to remain so now that she owns the rights to its name.
Kriger says: “When I first tried to register the name Rick’s Cafe I found out that someone else already had it. He was from Casablanca and had studied in the US. He used to get embarrassed when people there asked if he hung out at Rick’s Cafe when he went home. So he registered the name when he came back after graduation, hoping to do something with it.”
The real Casablanca
Despite the popularity of the 21st-century Rick’s Café and the large numbers of tourists it attracts, the presence of the restaurant is not enough by itself to define a city with a vibrant culture and ancient history of its own.
Today’s Casablanca mingles strains of the colonial past with a thoroughly modern present. The buzzing medina area, somewhat shabby but always fascinating, is full of market stalls, street vendors and small antique shops. Just outside the medina the streets are lined with white art-deco buildings, relics from the days of the French. A tram line cuts through the area, connecting the wealthy centre with some of the outlying slums.
Toward the coast, the Anfa hills district is full of gated compounds and leafy streets, leading down to one of the city’s main malls, Place d’Anfa. Racine, another well-to-do section, has large shops, Western chains, and luxurious apartment buildings. En route to the airport, there are new developments that can be seen in progress, including a “smart city.” The main highway is lit using solar powered street lamps.
Overall, Casablanca retains a cosmopolitan feel, with its many foreign restaurants, cafes and bars serving hordes of Moroccans and expats alike. The variety is impressive, including sushi bars, Turkish kebab joints, Lebanese cafes, Argentinian steakhouses, Chinese noodle shops and Irish pubs, along with traditional Moroccan seafood, tagines and couscous.
The city’s main local attraction has to be the striking Hassan II Mosque, standing large and imposing with its single minaret looming over the coastline. The DNA of the city is surely rooted in cosmopolitanism, which should be a key feature of any new branding effort. This is the “real” Casablanca, where past meets present and where all travellers are welcomed.
Fortunately, local authorities in the city have already recognized the benefits of city branding and have established a series of initiatives to devise and implement a new strategy.
Rather than focusing on an image rooted in a depiction of colonial wartime Casablanca, the new strategy is determinedly modern in its outlook. I spoke to Khalid Baddou, president of the Moroccan Association for Marketing and Communications, about the city’s goals to promote a refreshed image.
“The problem [with the film] is that it represents Casablanca as a very old-fashioned city,” Baddou tells me. “People get this image of colonial days, with everyone wearing red hats and so on. Although from a brand awareness point of view it’s still positive, for knowing that there’s a city in Morocco called Casablanca.”
Casablanca is known within Morocco as the economic capital. It’s the center of business, and most foreign companies are headquartered there. Casablanca is also an important center for offshoring. Global companies such as IBM are mainly located at Casablanca Nearshore Park, where they outsource a variety of IT, call center and business processes. It also has a new business area and an extensive marina under development.
“Since independence, Casablanca has always been positioned as the economic center of the country,” says Baddou. “But that’s no longer sufficient. Today Casablanca must mean something different. We want to reposition the city and make it more attractive, by reinforcing its identity above and beyond the economic one. We will soon have competing regions in the country, with every region having its own resources. When that happens, the game will change.”
Casablanca’s city authorities aim to base its future development on the Dubai model and become known as a hub for Africa. Companies wanting to expand to Africa can use Casablanca as a jumping off point, benefiting from the connections that Morocco has already established with other African countries. According to Jorgen Eriksson, place branding specialist and CEO of Bearing Consulting, the city seems to be on the right track.
Eriksson says: “Casablanca needs to clarify its brand as a vibrant yet classic location for both oriental culture and West African business, where visitors can come as an entry point to modern West Africa. To achieve this, Casablanca needs to overhaul both its infrastructure and how it presents its unique assets to new visitors. All the components are there, but new packaging is needed.”
Casablanca’s goal to become the “new Dubai” does not chime well with the particular aspects of its image promoted in either the Humphrey Bogart film or indeed the city’s wholly authentic medina area and its colonial-era art deco streets. In fact, they are almost polar opposites where one represents modernity while the other is rooted in the past.
The DNA of the city is found in its continuous status as a port city that has seen it used as a trading centre by the Phoenicians and Romans more than 2,000 years ago, and later the Portuguese (who gave it its name), Spanish and French, who colonized it in the 19th century. This is the “real” Casablanca, where past meets present and where all travellers are welcomed.
“The film promotes one image, but we want to promote an entirely different one. The name of Casablanca is known, but what the city is all about today is not so well known,” says Baddou.
Those in charge of Brand Casablanca do not plan to cast aside the city’s heritage for the sake of modernity. There are plans already in place to shape the new brand strategy into an extension of the Casablanca that the world already knows.
“Our personal branding recommendation includes the historical heritage,” says Baddou. “We need to build on this image that people have of the city of Casa, but then add to it all the modernity that has happened in the last 60 or 70 years.”
He continues: “Cities need to build their brands based on their real DNA, whether that’s environment, business, industry, tourism or local icons. It has to be recent and fit in with reality. Casablanca the movie is good for awareness, but people also need to have the new image of the city, which is the reality now.”
Unlike the film, which was born in a Hollywood studio, Casablanca’s rebranding strategy will start from the grassroots, by discovering how the people of Casablanca actually view their own city. An important aspect of any city branding initiative, including this step can spell the difference between failure and success.
Baddou says: “We want to find out how local people view and talk about their city. For us white-collar workers, Casablanca could be very different from what the vast majority think. Everyone sees the city from a different angle. So the strategy can’t be top down. It must be built from the bottom, by first listening to the people and seeing what they say.”
*[This article was originally published by Middle East Eye.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.