“Branding” is a staple in the corporate world to strengthen a company’s image, launch a new product, or build customer loyalty to a service. Increasingly, the public sector is looking at branding tools beyond the traditional tourism marketing to build equity among citizens, investors, and visitors in cities, towns, and communities. Sometimes these brands are done as a singular initiative but many communities are including a branding component in downtown master plans, neighborhood plans, and economic development strategies.

Incorporating branding strategies in a plan provides a set of tools that communities can easily deploy to better communicate community goals that will advance the efforts early in the process. In some cases, engaging in the branding plan before a plan can be a strategy to align a community around a common vision. Most importantly public agencies often battle the perception that communities are “reacting” to development proposals rather than being proactive about the future. A clear message about what a community is about can alleviate that concern.

Branding is a confounding term particularly with regard to communities. Citizens and public officials often find the term off-putting as an artificial way to attach a clever logo or tagline to a place (or worse still to “theme” a community. To take a well-known example, the Mercedes Benz logo of the three-pointed star is a critical component of the company’s identity, but the actual brand is much more than this logo: it implies precision, luxury, performance, and style. The three-pointed star has gone from simply a logo for Mercedes to an internationally recognized icon.

For communities, logos and taglines are merely tools to implement a brand. A true brand is the differentiation between a product, service, or locale using a set of tools that include logos, taglines, typefaces, and colors. The tools, well deployed, will craft that differentiation and make it clear to the “consumer” — or, in the case of communities, the host of stakeholders involved (residents, business owners, investors, visitors). At the end of the day, a good community brand is a promise a place makes to people. It is built over time and capitalizes on the imagery, feeling, and allegiance felt when people see the image of their community whether it is a symbol that evokes history (or progress), a tagline that builds pride of place, or colors and typefaces that evoke images or signals sense of place for the community.

This blog post will introduce the concept of community branding outside the context of traditional tourism marketing. It will explore why branding is important for communities and explain the common misperceptions and missteps communities make when developing or implementing a brand.

Why Brand Your Community?

Community and economic development officials play a critical role in giving a voice and illustrating the aspirations and dreams of a place. These professionals and their peers spend countless hours educating policymakers, building partnerships, and cultivating the public trust so they can revitalize, grow, and craft places where people want to live, work, and invest.

As community and economic development officials, our work can be a metaphor for throwing an eternal party: we book the band, order the food, make sure the decorations are in place, and arrange the room. Yet, all too often, we do all of this and forget to send out the invitation for people to enjoy what we have done.  That invitation is a community brand and more importantly a sound community marketing strategy.

We have a great opportunity to succinctly tell the story of our communities through properly building identity for the places where we work. One way to do this is to incorporate “brand-building” into the economic development process. Whether it is a neighborhood revitalization strategy, a downtown planning effort, a community economic development strategy, or even a comprehensive plan, we are engaging the public in a process that asks them to delve deep into their sense of place and hopes for the future of the place they live and work. Incorporating quality graphic tools into the effort allows the efforts to take on a dimension it would not have otherwise. Using brand elements like a proper and consistent typeface, logo, tagline or slogan, and a consistent color palette can focus the plan around an identity and tie the plan to the place.

There are practical considerations as well. A well-executed brand creates a toolbox for stakeholders to use that is consistent, saves time, and doesn’t require a reinvention of the wheel every time staff develops a new publication, web page, cover sheet, or PowerPoint presentation. In fact, well executed brands can be deployed in countless ways beyond the logo and tagline. A brand system can unite events, organizations, and other amenities as desired by a community; can be deployed in environmental graphics including banners, wayfinding signs, and gateways; and can be used for digital graphics such as web page redesigns, social media tools, and smartphones.  Ultimately, a sound marketing strategy creates efficiencies of consistency between message and mission.

Successful brands can also serve as a way for communities to partner with businesses to better market a locale. Examples here might include ad templates for merchant association and individual business use. Some communities have used their identity systems to create public art, shirts and hats, and even jewelry.

The Pitfalls of Community Branding

Community branding can be a complex task especially when confronting the question “To whom are we marketing?” Tourism has been the most common reason communities have traditionally branded themselves. Branding has long been the realm of country, State, or local visitors’ bureaus. However, a brand crafted exclusively for visitors runs the risk of not resonating with locals.

Outside of tourism marketing, community branding has often been relegated to a committee charged with creating a seal or logo or an open contest judged by a committee. The results of these exercises range from excellent to disastrous. This process takes considerable time and deliberation that can drain any creativity out of the original design. In our work with communities, we have seen community seals packed full of images that include a flowing river, cogs in the wheels of industry, religious symbols, and even the scales of justice superimposed upon a wingless eagle.

The other trap that ensnares communities is cliché. As a firm that has worked in many downtowns, we often are amused by the two camps that many downtown logos fall into: the clock/lamppost camp and the precious building facade camp. The clichéd tagline invariably involves one of the phrases “heart of,” “gateway to,” or the much-dreaded “cherishing the past while embracing the future” which has numerous permutations.

A true brand avoids clichés, is relevant to locals, and is done with creativity in mind. The best brands are authentic, meaningful, and forward thinking. That’s not to say that a community should not acknowledge its history, but rather it should use that history to tell the story of what the community is about today. Consequently, the term “branding” is debated among those of us who engage in the practice. Many citizens are naturally skeptical of branding as a term as it sounds artificial and thus off-putting. We have started using the phrase “community image building” or “community identity” as a more apt way of describing what a community brand is. In Latin America, the term “marca de ciudad” or “marca de comunidad” are much more precise terms for a branding effort.

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On October 3rd, the Housing and Urban Development Division will host the “Economic Development Through City Branding” Forum at the IDB Headquarters in Washington D.C. The Forum will bring together international experts who will discuss successful uses of city branding as a tool to attract human capital, tourism and investment, as well as to increase competitiveness and promote healthier economies. This event is open to the public, but seating is limited. Please register HERE.

 

Tripp Muldrow, AICP, is president of Arnett Muldrow & Associates, Ltd., founded in 2002 in Greenville, South Carolina. A past president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association, Tripp has conducted downtown master plans, neighborhood revitalization plans, and economic development strategies alongside extensive branding work in three hundred communities in forty three US States as well as in Canada and Belize.