The Bilbao Effect: 3 marketing lessons behind the brilliance


By Annie Verrier, President and Founder, Performa Marketing


I’m continually inspired by architecture, design, sustainability and innovation. Annual trips help keep my creativity flowing. I always grow personally and professional, thanks to the fresh ideas I stumble upon.


After visiting Copenhagen and Mexico City, my friend and colleague Alexandra and I decided that our next destination would be Bilbao, Spain. This incredible destination was designated a UNESCO Creative City following a spectacular metamorphosis. Once an ageing industrial port city, it’s now a captivating cultural hub. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network includes more than 200 member cities.





What a fascinating place! Bilbao’s new architecture includes a breathtaking array of buildings, squares and bridges, each crafted by prominent architects who skilfully combine form, function and innovation.

I drew 3 key marketing lessons from my trip—and they might just apply to your business. Here they are:



  1. Clearly define your vision and values

Bilbao is the economic, social and cultural centre of the Basque Country in Spain. The local economy tanked during the 1980s crisis, forcing the city to completely reinvent itself. And did it ever! Bilbao owes its incredible transformation to forward-thinking local policies and cooperation between public, private and inter-institutional sectors. With an economy rebuilt with creativity and confidence, it’s a remarkable success story that’s now well-known around the world.




  1. Go bold and invest in quality 

Bilbao’s eclectic architecture features different styles and materials, which come together to create a unique and coherent whole. Several buildings cleverly balance history, modernity and creativity. Here are a few examples.



a) The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry


Bilbao’s history is divided into the pre-Guggenheim and post-Guggenheim periods. Inaugurated in 1997, this contemporary art museum designed by architect Frank Gehry quickly became an iconic symbol of the city. It’s recognized worldwide and receives some one million visitors per year. Inspired by the site’s location on the estuary, Gehry sought to create a ship-like structure that complemented the existing landscape, without obstructing the views. In fact, the entrance is even in the basement! 



The industrial heritage remains present, coexisting with modernity. Titanium was used to honour the city’s history as a port, and to reflect natural light back into the sky, even on rainy days (steel would have tarnished quickly). Titanium was a sustainable choice that would also be cost-effective over the long term. The museum is also a feat of innovation. Were it not for the aerospace technology used to build the model, it would have taken 50 years to complete.





The museum’s remarkable collection and unique architecture have had such a profound impact on the city’s reputation and cityscape that people now talk about “the Bilbao Effect.” Initially, it was supposed to be the centerpiece of a larger economic development project. There’s certainly no doubt that this vision has had a ripple effect.



“All over the world, urban planners and politicians have tried to reproduce this dynamic, calling on leading architects to design memorable museums, libraries and convention centres in a bid to revive neighborhoods and cities. This approach informed the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2010, the Louvre-Lens in 2012, and others.” The boldness of the Guggenheim set the tone for the city’s future. Today, the streets of Bilbao echo with the same sense of refinement and open-mindedness.





The numbers speak for themselves: The museum repaid the initial investment in just six years. “In under 10 years, nearly 400,000 m2 of urban land have been completely transformed. The museum gets its funding from three sources: public funds, private funds, and sales. In 2016, its earnings were seven times higher than its annual subsidies. From 1997 to 2021, it generated $6.5 billion in revenue, channelling $911 million in tax revenue back to the State and increasing the gross domestic product (GDP) by $5.9 billion. Between 1998 and 2009 alone, it’s estimated to have helped create 45,000 jobs in the region. Not to mention the fact that 120 companies support the institution.” (Source: The Echo)





Various outdoor artworks surround the Guggenheim, adding flair to the everyday lives of locals. Puppy, a floral sculpture by the renowned artist Jeff Koons, is so popular that the museum ran a groom the dog campaign in 2021! #JeffKoonsPuppy




b) San Mamés Stadium


San Mamés Stadium, also known as the “Football Cathedral,” is home to the Athletic Club. It’s also one of the most unique buildings in Bilbao thanks to its semi-transparent, permeable facade that strengthens the connection between the city and its environment. The structure has earned several international awards and accolades, including the Best Sports Building in the World. The remarkable facility offers outstanding design, comfort, security and range of services. Perhaps its most eye-catching feature is the dynamic lighting system that transforms its facade when night falls. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right!




c) The Zubizuri pedestrian bridge (which means the “white bridge” in Basque) by architect Santiago Calatrava



Inaugurated in 1997, the Zubizuri bridge, an elegant white structure, is located in front of the Guggenheim Museum and arches delicately over the Ría de Bilbao, looking not unlike a sailboat. Initially, it had a very slippery glass surface, but following public outcry, it has since been replaced with an anti-slip deck. 





Design is everywhere. In restaurants, gyms, hotels, hospitals, spas, and even on public signage. Wherever you look, everything is beautiful and manicured!







Strolling through the city, you continually come across unexpected delights and immersive installations, including light sculptures, interactive experiences, immersive art, public art, and more. 







It’s magic! Your inner child will love it.  Fun and wonder abound, even in the rain!



  1. Working with the community

To keep the spirit of innovation alive, the city launched the “Bilbao, City of Values” project in 2016. The initiative creates a space for analysis, dialogue, reflection and joint work between institutions, social organizations, businesses, media, schools and members of the public. In addition, the Bizkaia Council (BiDC), an organization with 150 members, promotes design and creativity through projects, initiatives and exhibitions.



In conclusion



Embracing an avant-garde approach has elevated this city in northern Spain to new heights as it continues a decades-long transformation of its economy and community. Could these observations inspire the way you manage your business?



1. Clearly define your vision and values

2. Go bold and invest in quality

3. Involve your community 





Where’s my next destination for design and architecture? MILAN in January! I can’t wait to share my discoveries with you.



What do you think? How does design inspire you?



By Annie Verrier, President and Founder, Performa Marketing


Contributing editors : Julie Villeneuve and Alex Nereuta

Photos and videos credit : Alex Nereuta

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