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Welcome to the City of Branding, Home of the Visual Identity

Published on October 3, 2016, at 3:59 p.m.
By Megan Perkins

Positioned strategically on her desk, just inches away from her computer, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, vision and values are framed and displayed for the city’s communications director to easily reference.

“It helps me to be able to make better use of my resources to have that to look at,” said Deidre Stalnaker, director of communications for the city of Tuscaloosa. “Whatever I do I really try to think, ‘How is this meeting our mission?’ because if it doesn’t it might not be worthwhile.”

Image provided by Deidre Stalnaker
Image provided by Deidre Stalnaker

Tuscaloosa will launch its new visual identity in early October in accordance with the city’s restructuring of its departments. This rebrand will include new colors, typefaces and a redesigned logo.

Similarly to companies and organizations, cities have to create their own personal brand to run efficiently. In the research study, The Significance of City Logo in City Branding Strategy, Octaviyanti Wahyurini explained the importance for cities to create a strong brand identity: “City governments should realize that a city branding strategy is not merely an advertising or promotional activity, but it is a part of the city strategy to gain competitive edge that leads to sustainable growth.”

The process: Research
Before any brand planning can begin, city communication specialists need to investigate their publics. Research must be conducted, such as distributing surveys and hosting focus groups, to determine what employees and citizens desire and look for in their city. Research

“The process started for me with trying to understand the culture internally,” Stalnaker said. “This is a place where people tend to come to work and stay, so I really wanted to understand what the employee culture was.”

With the city’s mission statement and values in mind, the research should strive to understand what citizens expect from its city. To achieve this, Stalnaker compared what Tuscaloosa does represent and what it wants to represent. She said the most commonly used words drawn from her research on Tuscaloosa’s publics were strength, resilience, progressive, innovation and growth.

Some research can be as simple as stemming from one basic question that sums up the purpose of city communication. Jessica Carlton, the city of Huntsville, Alabama’s Digital Media Specialist, said she always goes back to the basis of “What are people coming to your website for?”

The process: Planning
From the insights discovered in the research stage, a clear goal for the city’s brand needs to be established. Carlton stated the number one goal for Huntsville is to help its citizens. This defined purpose helps guide the entire branding process. Planning

Each city communications department has its own idea of what the most important elements are to consider when planning its brand. Griffith Waller, the city of Montgomery, Alabama’s public relations specialist, said they created Montgomery’s brand around authenticity and legitimacy; whereas, consistency was the driving force behind Huntsville’s, according to Carlton.

“It goes back to making it easy for our citizens,” Carlton said. “We don’t want them to have to spend any extra energy trying to figure out, ‘If what I’m seeing from the city of Huntsville doesn’t quite look like the city of Huntsville, can I trust it?’ That’s where our brand can take that step out.”

For Tuscaloosa, Stalnaker said it’s all about adaptability. City visual identities have to be able to evolve. They can’t look too outdated, specific or generic. With the diversity of services a city offers, the visual identity needs to be something that can capture its “quality, progressiveness and strength.”

A challenge in the planning process is figuring out how to distinguish one city’s brand from the next. Cincinnati’s Communications Director Rocky Merz said it starts with understanding what assets the city has, which is going to be different for each city.

“For us, we’ve got this wonderful skyline and the seven hills of Cincinnati; we have some very unique architecture with our music halls and museums; we have wonderful historic neighborhoods,” Merz said. “So we really want to showcase what we have and what we’re proud of.”

Image created by NY -
Image created by NY –

The process: Implementation
Once the goals, objectives and elements of a city’s brand have been determined, the identity is ready for implementation. This stage can look different for every city. One of Stalnaker’s first steps of executing the launch of Tuscaloosa’s new visual identity involves educating employees. The city’s workers will go through employee training programs on how to properly use the logo, typefaces and colors.

For the city of Boston, the brand identity guide was put on its city website for accessibility to all publics. Lauren Lockwood, the city’s chief digital officer, said this availability allows employees from any department to create materials because they have a design outline ready at their convenience.

“We’ve found that a lot of people in other departments have design skills to some extent,” Lockwood said. “Employees can build their own deliverables as need be, such as a flier, because they have access to the identity guide. They don’t always have to go through our department.”

Cincinnati implements its brand by taking advantage of technology. Its revamped website and service apps allow citizens and employees to be engaged within the city. With more than 50,000 Twitter followers, Cincinnati has enhanced its ability to directly communicate to its publics using social media platforms.

“Social media is really changing the way people get information,” Merz said. “There are so many outlets now, that something we had to do was make our website a destination for people, so they would come directly to the source instead of going through the media or social media.”

The process: Evaluation
After the brand identity has been implemented, it needs to be evaluated for effectiveness. This stage can take the form of conducting focus groups or surveys to collect some basic user research.Evaluate Lockwood said Boston launched a pilot website months prior to its actual one. The strategy was to test the colors and ideas with people, which would hopefully generate feedback to determine if the identity should continue in the same direction or if it needed small tweaks.

Each evaluation method chosen by a city can be unique, but it has to be specific. Carlton said the focus groups she’ll be conducting for the evaluation of Huntsville’s website this fall will be broken up by each public.

“We want to look at the different types of users on our website,” Carlton said, “whether they’re a business person, whether they’re going to the website to submit an application, or whether they are just an average citizen who needs information on the sanitation schedule.”

Carlton will work with the focus groups to determine what is and isn’t working for Huntsville’s website. When measuring for success, it all has to go back to the original goal: Does the site help current and prospective citizens of Huntsville?

After Tuscaloosa’s October launch of its visual identity, Stalnaker will begin the evaluation process to measure the success of her team’s hard work. And in case she forgets what the measurements are for success, Stalnaker can reference the picture frame on her desk that reminds her of what Tuscaloosa is trying to accomplish.

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