Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Don’t Brand Your City

Insight Labs is a sort of virtual think tank for non-profit innovation that “lures the smartest, most creative, most influential people out of boardrooms and darkened auditoriums to get them engaged in designing a better world.” I was greatly privileged to be part of one of their invigorating sessions recently. Back in November of last year, Insight Labs Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malham appeared on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 to talk about branding the Great Lakes regions. They have a lot of interesting things to say on the topic of civic branding, among them that you should think twice about doing a branding campaign for your city. This segment is well worth a listen if you are interested in the topic. (If you are on Google Reader or a similar platform, the embedded audio won’t display, so click here to listen).

Topics: Civic Branding

12 Responses to “Don’t Brand Your City”

  1. Angie says:

    Hear hear! Only the cities that are lacking something will feel the need to brand themselves, and they will undoubtedly blow it and subject their city to further ridicule.

  2. Travis says:

    I disagree.

    They do raise many good points, but branding is effective. Where I agree is there needs to be something worth branding to start with. If there isn’t, then it will likely fail.

    When I think of branding cities or such one that jumps out to me is Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird.” Why I think that works so well is it started by just a few people to curb the explosion of growth and changes that Austin has dealt with for several decades now. That growth is in part because they like that weirdness and so it caught on so well.

    Where if fails is when every time a major national company moved to Austin they play off that brand to try to fit in.

    One other thing. I really dislike places trying to brand themselves by running adds. To me that seems like they are trying to force something. If it is something that comes up from the community it usually works. If it is something that is done by running 30 second adds it usually turns me off. There are lots of ways to help get ideas into the community.

    I also like to see different things being tried. They knocked the Grand Rapids Lip Dub, but I LOVED IT! I thought it was great.

  3. DaveOf Richmond says:

    The part about “not talking about how great you are, but telling people how you can make them great” reminds me of Jim Russell’s (Burgh Diaspora) “people develop, not places” theme. Seems to be an idea that’s catching on.

  4. John Morris says:

    Pittsburgh’s “Imagine What You Can Do Here”, is IMHO, a great tag line, for a city with good location, some creative capital,great colleges, low costs and cheap housing.

    The problem is the city doesn’t back up the key selling point which implies low taxes, regulations, lack of insider dealing and economic freedom.

    I do think Pittsburgh is gaining some traction as selling itself that way and may start to live up to that brand. there’s a lot more awareness and support for grass roots, DYI culture here now.

  5. John Morris says:

    With the URA, and a lot of big government, corporate and foundation insider control a good tag line is.

    Pittsburgh: Imagine what we are going to do to you!

  6. John Morris says:

    Pittsburgh! Imagine getting screwed!

    Pittsburgh: Imagine higher Taxes!

    Pittsburgh: Imagine how underwater our pension fund is!

  7. John Morris says:

    If you don’t live your brand-it becomes a joke.

  8. Carl Wohlt says:

    In terms of branding places, I think there’s a lot of confusion out there regarding the difference between brand strategy and marketing communications. For a nice tight summary of the difference, see Brad VanAuken’s recent post on the Brand Strategy Insider:

    Defining a brand promise for places is most effective when connected to actual placemaking endeavors, as per Indianapolis’ amateur sports capital strategy. A slogan or tagline on a billboard or magazine ad is not branding in its most basic form. It’s marketing, and many of the marketing efforts I’ve seen ultimately break the golden rule of branding – never promise something that cannot be delivered.

  9. Rod Stevens says:

    A brand is “a promise delivered”. Sometimes companies and communities are explicit in this promise, other times it is implicit and unstated. Victoria BC has an implicit brand as a walkable, old world place. Vancouver, BC plays off British Columbia’s overall brand, “super natural”, which puts high rise urbanism against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Las Vegas says, “what happens here stays here”, an invitation to be naughty. The Big Apple means taller, flashier, louder, more important than elsewhere. Austin, often copied, is “weird”, largely meaning non-corporate, young, off-beat. Houston, perhaps unintentionally, may stand for over-the-top consumption (both oil and shopping). Boulder is a combination of John Denver “Rocky Mountain High” and Celestial Tea’s New Age healthy living.

    It’s doubtful many of these places gave themselves their own brand. People, maybe visitors, gave it to them. The brands are simple and can be conjured in a few words. There’s enough truth in them that people come looking for these things and find them. The promises may not be deep but they are real, real promises that is. They are what get people to not only visit there but move there.

    Interesting, few of these places, except perhaps Las Vegas, with its forgiveness of sin, make a promise to the individual. There promise is what they themselves are. In almost all cases these things are attributes, not potential. They don’t say, “you can come and realize yourself”. They say, “come and experience this quality…”, and they draw the people who want to experience those qualities, in the here-and-now. If a city in the Great Lakes region is going to promise the experience of water, then it better deliver on that promise, by somehow getting people near, out on or in that water. (That’s the promise of Coeur d’Alene). Apparently the term “windy city” may have come from the braggadocio of 19th century Chicagoans, but what visitors experience today, particularly in the sidewalk canyons under tall buildings, is real wind, and so the label continues to stick.

    Let’s face it: outwardly most places are very much like other places. As a visitor you can see things, but your contact with people, real contact in which you learn about the place and its values and attitudes, is going to be pretty limited. So to build the brand, to make the promise that a visitor can pick up on, that promise better be something the city can deliver on, and that is hard. Cities can’t deliver on big promises about self-realization. They can’t realistically deliver joy and happiness to everyone that comes there. Like Austin’s “keep Austin weird”, or Vancouver/ BC’s “supernatural”, however, they can make claims that prepare people to look for qualities. The hanging baskets in the photos of Victoria tell visitors to come, slow down, walk and enjoy. As soon as they see the baskets, they know they are there. Ideally, a city should be able to deliver on its promise in the first hours of a visit. The promise should be that simple and real.

  10. John Morris says:

    Right, cities don’t deliver on most brand promises, which is why they look like a joke.

    I don’t know anything about Vancouver’s marketing campaign-but one look at the city skyline-projects a very clear image of what the city is about.

    “High rise urbanism against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.”

  11. John Morris says:

    BTW, I love West Virgina’s Wild and Wonderful camapaign.

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