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How to Brand Places

After attending this week’s past Oklahoma Municipal League conference and trade show, I realized anew how desperately many places, and the people who manage them, need some help branding places and spaces effectively.
In some ways, branding a place is much like branding anything else…

  • You need a good visual identity. One that promises something valuable to your intended audience.
  • You must effectively communicate the promise to the audience.
  • You need to deliver, consistently, on that promise. And make no mistake, your town’s slogan or tagline and the logo on the point-of-entry sign ARE a promise. What are you promising? Can you (really) deliver?

What you say about your place is marketing. What people think about your place is branding. When I see a city manager’s business card produced in house and printed on donated paper at the least expensive price point possible, with a “logo” that consists of a divided shape of some sort with each quadrant filled by some hallmark of place history, I shudder. Again. What is the promise?
The promise seems to be that the city will remain as it has always been, and will be resolutely backward-looking. With what audience will that promise resonate?
Probably not a real front-runner for attracting new residents nor new businesses.
Let’s throw in a poorly designed, out of date city web site and no real attempts at good PR, meaningful collateral designed to attract new residents or businesses… and the entire image (brand) says, “We don’t pay attention to details. We aren’t forward-thinking. We won’t invest in technology, information or tools to help us do our jobs.”
Wow… can you see why I shudder? The problem of poor city branding is not unique to Oklahoma by any means; the net is full of examples. And I do understand, intimately, the desire to satisfy multiple groups/interests in a city logo and the need to “respect our history.”
Here’s a bit of truth about history… every town has one. Unless yours is truly unique, it isn’t a brand promise. And most towns of any age boast “an historic downtown,” too.

Take a good look at most city logos. Most look like they were designed by a committee (chopped up into pieces, everyone gets to stick their idea in the logo) because they were. If cities want to promise residents and businesses progressive leadership, commitment to excellence, vision, growth, infrastructure (whatever your list is), it’s time to lose the circle logo featuring water, oil, industry, and a flag. That generic formula applies to many, many city logos. Don’t be generic.
If you’re not sure where to start, or how to undertake a rebranding without alienating stakeholders, I can help.

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2 Responses to “How to Brand Places”

  1. Pamela Tobin September 30, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    Mandy, Amen to that! Under my leadership at the Downtown Albany BID in NY we developed a brand for the downtown area. After nearly two years of struggling with the ‘museum style design’ we changed course and went to a look that was more progressive and a brand promise we could live up to. ‘Downtown Albany: Worth Discovering Since 1609’. Playing up our history while promising ‘great dining, great events and great performances.’ We then launched it with a promotional campaign, Restaurant Week, a prix-fixed 3-course meal for $16.09. Not only did all participating restaurants sell out reservations for the week, telephone survey’s indicated a 15% recall rate identifying the district with the brand.

    Pamela Tobin

    • Mandy Vavrinak September 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

      Pamela,

      Thinking about brand the way your team did & supporting it with relevant events is so smart 🙂

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