Don’t mess with the people’s brand, man!

By David Coates
May 15, 2014
The Case for Civic Engagement in Branding

Over the past few decades, the specialization of place branding has emerged as a profession while cities, towns and destinations wrestle for an increasingly competitive share of global markets. Luring businesses, families and tourists as an economic driver has become imperative to keeping any place vital and sustainable.

Traditionally the realm of MBAs and arm wavers, this practice has often done a good job of establishing the needs of the community, but fallen short of providing an authentic representation of what the place stood for. In essence, a good start, but ultimately, a design failure. Some design firms have taken up the slack by adding civic facilitation to their strategic skillset, including my own.

A community is a different kind of corporation

There’s an intrinsic difference between corporate branding and civic branding. In a corporation, where a product or service is offered, the brand is pushed to the people but owned by the corporation. In civic branding, the brand is owned by the people.

Just as the power of design has become more mainstream in the corporate world and designers have moved up the ladder to speak to leaders in the boardroom, civic leaders have begun to understand the power of the brand and design. In many cases they miss the mark in the process of trying to create a brand for their jurisdiction.

We’ve seen some of these failed attempts of branding communities as I’m sure you have.

We’ve fixed some of the mistakes along the way, but all too often it’s been a superficial solution – like making a purse out of a sow’s ear. This is due in large part to a misunderstanding of the design process and the designer’s strategic role on the part of municipal leaders in the development of brands. But further, and maybe more to the point, it is a failure of designers to enlighten leaders about what it is they bring to the table.

What is worse than a lack of understanding of process or even contests and crowd sourcing is a lack of consultation and engagement of citizens. Hey, believe me, I’m not slagging you if you happen to be the mayor of Springfield – it’s not entirely your fault! This is a pandemic issue, not an attack on one constituency.

Citizens are engaged on so many levels in communities, but when it comes to developing a brand they are often not consulted. I believe it’s because it isn’t seen as something that’s important in a municipal sense. Those in charge see branding as a corporate enterprise and fail to see that the brand is owned by the community. A failure to engage is indicative of a lack of leadership and equivalent to theft.

How do we define civic engagement?

Civic engagement can be defined as individual and collective action designed to identify and address issues of public concern. It is a means of working together to make a difference in the civil life of our communities and the process of developing the combination of skills, knowledge, values, and motivation in order to make that difference. It means promoting a quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes. And that’s good democratic stuff right?

Politicians and beaurocrats need to see that a brand in many ways is what defines a community. It is the essence of that community. It goes far, far beyond a logo. We as design strategists are anthropologists. Our role is to dig in and help reveal stories, culture, folklore, historical origins and physical characteristics by engaging and listening to citizens and stakeholders in whose minds and hearts a brand already exists.

That baby is already there. We simply need to pull it out.

We need to nurture and tease out a visual manifestation of it. If done well, that manifestation will be authentic and sustainable. It will be true to itself and the community it represents. It will be shared with new audiences in compelling, memorable and evocative ways. It will bring people together with an enduring, common vision that not only seeds brand champions but builds community, culture and economy. It can change the perception of a place by revealing what is there. It can bring out the best in communities and empower them to be better.

So where does civic branding go wrong?

We all know politics are a minefield of partisanship, and some of the strategies we as a firm have created fallen victim to this, as have some of the communities we’ve worked with. When one elected body does all the right things for the right reasons, the opposition sees it as an opportunity for a campaign platform. Playing politics with a properly executed brand is not only a cynical endeavor and a waste of taxpayers' resources, but an insult to the citizens who participated in the process.

So how do we do it well? Let the citizens define their community – not through a logo contest – but by telling their stories. Give them the opportunity to talk about their community. Let them share. Build the data. Respect the brand that already exists and implement it with respect.

Be an authentic place, not just a corporation.

*This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Applied Arts.
Reprinted here with permission.

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