Places Are Products, Too: Branding a City

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Posted At: September 20, 2012 3:46 P.M.
by Memorie Bailey

Atlanta Skyline
Photo by Chuck Koehler

We come in contact with brands every day, even when we aren’t looking. Brands are not just recognizable logos, but distinct and meaningful messages meant to touch others and evoke a response. Brands are everywhere, and anything can be branded from products to people, or even places.

Take Michigan, for example. What comes to mind when you think of Michigan? It’s the state shaped like a mitten, right? But what does Michigan mean, and what can it offer? You don’t usually think of entire states being branded, but they are products, too. Just like any product within a crowded market, states and cities must have recognizable identities.

Michigan has recently implemented an advertising campaign called “Pure Michigan”. The campaign consists of a variety of 30 commercials that highlight different regions across the state, accenting each region’s unique and appealing features. Each advertisement features Michigan native Tim Allen’s voice accompanied by the same soothing piano background music and Pure Michigan logo throughout. The commercials are consistent with the brand message, successfully creating a new identity for the state of Michigan that appeals to businesses, tourists and prospective residents.

Likewise, cities all over the United States also maintain brand identities that promote their unique history and essence, allowing residents to identify with a place all their own. Some cities are successful in upholding their brand identities, while others struggle to maintain a brand presence. Cities compete for business, residents, tourists and entertainment, so it is important that a city’s brand be marketable and exclusive in order to attract newcomers.

The branding process becomes even more of a challenge when trying to distinguish smaller metropolitan cities from large major cities. Atlanta, for instance, is made up of 14 counties encompassing 50 municipalities. The metro Atlanta area spans 50 miles in all directions and is divided into four geographical regions. The cities and counties within those regions all make up the metro area. So, how do you uniquely characterize a city near a place like Atlanta?

The city must have consistent brand imagery. Even more importantly, that brand consistency must be maintained by all official city organizations.

For example, Dunwoody, Ga., a city located outside of Atlanta, recently established its brand in 2010. Katie Bishop, the executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Dunwoody, said the City of Dunwoody, the Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau all use the same logo. They also use the same tagline, colors and typeface throughout their Web content, promotional items and other organizational materials. She said using the same brand identity across the city’s organizations promotes a consistent message for residents and business owners.

Generating an idea for a city brand that best represents the city’s essence is no easy task.

“You have to do a lot of research,” Bishop said. “You can’t just create it.”

Bishop explained that a brand usually already exists, but you must identify through extensive research the kinds of people who make up the city, the views outsiders have of the city, and the feelings people have toward the city. Once you identify these factors, you can more accurately define what makes the city different. Those definitive differences will then allow you to craft an exclusive brand identity.

The city of Dunwoody set itself apart by creating a brand that catered to both residential and corporate aspects of the community. The tagline, “Smart people — Smart destination,” represents the city itself, as well as the people who make it a community. A variation of the tagline is used throughout the different city organizations, but the logo and main colors are the same.

The brand speaks to old and new city residents as well as small and large business owners, fostering a more versatile appeal. Bishop and the CVBD worked closely with several other organizations in developing the brand. City stakeholders and members of the chamber of commerce were actively involved in the branding process. The CVBD also formed a founding board committee made up of business representatives and general city residents to help ensure that the brand would actually resonate with the rest of the community.

Armon Drysdale, a public relations expert in branding, said after the brand is carefully crafted, it is up to the PR practitioner to determine the appropriate balance of media outlets to publicize the brand, depending on the industry, client, target audience and budget. He said utilizing social media is the best way to get a new brand pushed into the public eye.

“I think in today’s social and interactive driven world, refusing to heavily incorporate social media and social technology into your branding strategy is a huge no-no,” Drysdale said. “Aside from earned media, you won’t find a more cost-effective method.”

Bishop said simplistic promotional products, such as bumper stickers, T-shirts, car decals and pens, can also be used to make the brand visible to the public. Special events explaining how the brand was developed and its meaning can help residents begin to identify with the new brand.

“Anything that interacts with the public is beneficial,” Bishop explained.

But what happens if the public doesn’t interact? What if they don’t like the brand or think it accurately represents their city?

Bishop explained that it simply takes time for a brand to be rooted. She said those who don’t like the brand are much more vocal and there’s no avoiding the fact that people may criticize your hard work. In order to make the brand more recognizable and identifiable, you must frequently find new and creative uses for the brand imagery. Over time and with the city’s consistent use of creative tactics, residents will begin to adopt the brand.

Drysdale said a brand is worthless if it is not correctly managed and protected. He said brand management is an intricate science and series of “continuous and ever-changing corrective actions.”

“Think of a sail boat. Every now and then you check your compass, and make sure you’re maintaining your bearing,” Drysdale explains. “If you’re not, you make a course correction. Brand management, in a nutshell, is no different.”

Unfortunately, no brand is perfect, but it must do its best to evoke a response. A city brand must resonate with its residents.

As a PR practitioner, you take a big risk in developing a brand for something so meaningful to people as a city. If organizations across the city consistently follow the correct guidelines for using the brand identity and if the brand is appropriately publicized and managed, the message it is meant to convey will eventually be established. A city brand is much more than just a logo, tagline and style of writing — it is a definitive characteristic of a community and a stamp on the identities of its residents.

3 Comments

  1. Tuscaloosa Boy

    What an innovative way of looking at PR. This Bailey kid sure can write

    Reply

  2. Creighton

    Well written. Excellent points.

    Reply

  3. Katie

    Excellent article!

    Reply

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