Expressing the Ephemeral

Type in “definition of the word ‘brand’” on Google and you won’t find one. You’ll find millions. In any discussion about branding this is the first problem: a multitude of strident experts who are convinced they have finally defined branding in the best way possible. Clearly it would be better if everyone used the same definition, but unfortunately there is nothing more open to interpretation than the touchy-feely subject of branding.

Except, perhaps, the subject of cities: planning them; zoning them; building them; and yes, branding them.

The most useful definition of a brand that I have ever encountered, and the one we use with our clients in industries as broad-ranging as real estate development, universities, aboriginal nations and private equity funds, is this: your brand is everything that everyone says about you after you leave the room.

Think about all the things you feel about someone who has just left the room. Everyone will have an opinion. The best you can hope for is that people remember you as friendly or bright, accomplished or approachable and that these attributes are impactful enough to outweigh any slight imperfections. Now try to apply this definition to a city. Obviously this is next to impossible to capture. Even to get a loose hold on a general answer is like chasing mercury with your fingertip across a Grade 9 chemistry lab desktop. It has a mind of its own, and changes direction unexpectedly. It can be overwhelmingly positive and grand, and then ruined by a tiny detail or single story. You can be Toronto, thriving and booming and sexy, until an obese sweaty mayor gets filmed smoking crack in a basement with a posse of drug dealers. Suddenly your city is famous around the world, for all the wrong reasons.

Attempts to brand a city can seem insurmountable and futile. How can it ever be defined or shaped? When something as quotidian as a tube of toothpaste has teams of dedicated brand managers and highly-paid consultants working to impact the way the toothpaste makes consumers feel, how can a taxpayer-funded construct like a city even get in the game? And how do you cope with the unthinkable and unavoidable: the errant crack-pipe-toting mayor, or the rude waiter, or the garbage strike that lasts for a month?

First – or lasting? – impressions

An interesting mental exercise while exploring this topic is to reflect on all the places I have been recently, and chart what I think the story of each city is — the brand that holds most true, at least for me, at least at this moment in time:

All of these brand associations are highly personal. Anybody reading this will almost invariably have different reactions to these cities. And I guess that’s the point. This neat little construct we have come up with in the marketing business, this thing called branding, isn’t as useful as it could be or should be when it comes to a seemingly undefinable, ever-changing, very personal institution like a city. So, how to do this better? Is there a solution? I think there is: it has to do with letting go of our need for everything to be quantifiable, measurable, and scientific.

It may help to think about a city as a business, despite the inevitable uproar that such a narrow definition will create. The business of a city is to attract investment, compel companies who will create jobs to locate there, encourage people to choose the city as their home, and make it appealing to tourists who will drop a few thousand dollars on a visit. I’d argue that another primary objective is to make people proud to live there.

Using very broad strokes to paint this picture, the next step should be to figure out a baseline. We all have our suspicions about how our city is perceived at the moment, but is it accurate? Best ask the people you are building the brand for. In this hypothetical case, you need to hear from the current and potential citizenry, business owners from other nearby municipalities who could conceivably be lured to relocate, and potential tourists.

Arguments about research methodology to get an accurate read on the current state of the brand could fill volumes. But in my humble opinion this doesn’t need to be complicated. It is not about science. It’s about science in the service of art. Get as much of a read on the current situation as you can, of course. But don’t spend the time or money or political capital required to have statistically supportable data that could stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny. Precision is not the point.

What is the point?

The point is to sift through the data, discard most of it, and find the themes that consistently appear. Spotting them can be frustrating, and requires experience. But it’s worth the trouble and time to find them. Because the truth is in there.

What happens next is a judgement call. Remember, this is art, not science. If the key themes you have excavated are sparkling gems that simply need to be widely exhibited, then you have the raw materials you need to start building a brand for the stakeholders you’ve defined. If, however, the storylines you find are not diamonds, but merely ugly misshapen lumps of coal, you have another path to follow. You must compress, polish, recombine, dig around some more, and find workable themes. You excavate ready-made diamonds, or you make cubic zirconia on your own.

It’s exceedingly simple and yet very hard to make your own themes from scratch. And I can’t even begin to explain all the methods you might use in this space. But there is one terribly important rule to remember: they must be true. You can’t, if you are a small town in eastern Idaho, decide that you are the world capital of magic-bean production, when in fact beans don’t grow in your town at all, let alone enough of the magic kind to be significant on a global scale.

If you choose to propagate a brand based on something other than truth, be prepared for the fallout. The social media-fuelled democratization of finger pointing means you will certainly be shrieked at for making stuff up. And unless your brand ambition is to be known as the town that lies a lot, you won’t be happy. Once you have your truthful-themes in hand it’s time to do something with them. The most powerful thing you can do is write a simple story.

Writing a brand story for anything is the moment when science gets tossed out the passenger window and art takes the wheel of the car. Stories are peculiar things: the best ones last a very long time, sometimes forever, and are most often the simplest and most human. The stories t hat are forgettable are the ones that try to make everyone happy, and end up making no one feel anything.

You have to be willing to let things go, to boil down your brand to the most important, most memorable wisps. At least at first. Once you have caught someone’s attention by using a simple and engaging story as a wedge, you can insert specific details to placate even the most skittish politician, savvy career-bureaucrat, or easily-peeved community activist. After your story has created that receptive opening of attention, you can jam in all the labour statistics and cost-of-living indexes and most-livable-city rankings you want.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is with a comparative example of my own work. Let’s start with the brand story of Vancouver, as it appears on the official civic website (I did not write this — it’s buried a few pages under the homepage):

And here is an excerpt from the brand story of Vancouver I wrote, commissioned by a client. It is based on extensive quantifiable research, but I hope you can’t tell.

Even though those few paragraphs are just an excerpt from the full story, the contrast is obvious, and it has a chance of staying with you. I hope at some point in the future, if asked about Vancouver, you might even repeat some part of it in your own words. If a city brand can do even that, I think it is doing a very good job indeed.

Limited space on these pages meant I’ve had to simplify or outright omit pedantry terms throughout. These terms, curiously enough, tend to multiply exponentially in direct proportion to the amount of money paid to a brand consultant. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Ask a highly-paid brand consultant and you will get a giant three-ring binder report. It will be delivered with great pomp and ceremony, and no one will ever read it. It’s infuriating. This doesn’t have to be rocket science. Simply figure out who you are, and then consistently tell your story in a memorable way. That’s it.

10 key principles
  1. Brands without substance are meaningless.
  2. In public-private relationships, the private sector organization’s brand is just as important as the city’s.
  3. When building brands, cities must take advantage of local culture and history in order to differentiate themselves from others. Authenticity is valuable.
  4. Increasing citizen pride, engagement, and a sense of identity are essential components of any city brand.
  5. In some cases, especially in smaller cities, re-development must come before re-branding.
  6. Different brands attract different organisations. Because developers often share investment with several companies, it is important that a city’s brand appeals to a variety of groups.
  7. Cities should use what resources they already have. “Throwing a lifebelt to an abandoned brand is better than trying to launch a new one.”
  8. Preparing for the long-term is essential. The cycle of return on branding investments is much longer than any political cycle.
  9. The process is about more than just branding. It’s about perceptions, pride and identity.
  10. A city must believe in their brand in order to make it work.

Source: City Branding and Urban Investment: A ULI Urban Investment Network Report, July 2011.

Since 1985, David has advised brands such as General Motors, Telus, Toyota, Westin Hotels, and Sotheby’s International Realty. He’s helped daily newspapers, symphony orchestras, art foundations, government agencies, professional service firms, restaurant groups, retailers and more. His work as an author, journalist, conference speaker, university lecturer and award-winning writer influences the brand strategies and stories he develops across industry sectors.

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