While it might not be anything like a million dollars, money spent on branding a community is sometimes considered a waste of tax dollars – if you don’t know the whole story. And for some, the word brand itself is seen as a symbol of greed and capitalism inconsistent with what communities are about. The reality, however, is that place branding is a process with economic and social benefits, and it is critical to a sustainable community today.
What is a brand?
First, a brand is not just a logo, and this is something that is perpetually misunderstood, or misdirected by opponents of change. They will try to attach the cost of an entire brand strategy, process and communications platform to a single logo using inflammatory language to get headlines, without considering the costs of not managing a community’s brand.
A brand is your impression and gut feeling about a place or thing. It is individual to you, but there is a certain amount of consistency in these feelings, influenced by the crowd mentality we all absorb in modern culture. A brand is every individual’s feelings about a thing, or a person, that defines that brand. In our case, at Ion, we specialize in Place Branding, so we’ll stick with that.
Whether you are aware of it or not, your community already has a brand. It’s a very organic and living thing. It changes with the amount of community engagement, tone of government, economic swings and the general mood of the populace. There is a reason people speak about Vancouver the way they do these days. It is popularly viewed as very liberal, “green” in every sense of the word, and Lotusland by anyone east of Hope, BC. On the surface, you will hear that “Mayor Moonbeam” is building bicycle lanes everywhere, everyone smokes dope and wears Lululemon.
In other parts of the world, Vancouver’s brand is slightly different. People in China see it one way and those in Chile another. Government in Ottawa versus government in Washington, DC shape yet more perceptions. What Vancouver means to each person varies depending on their personal perspective, needs and knowledge.
A place can and does influence its brand through branding. Branding is guided by the conscious definition of that place’s identity. The components of that identity are: the place’s personality, its communications and its design.
Capturing a place’s personality can be a bit like herding cats. But you have to start somewhere. Personality is defined by things like attitude, likeableness, sense of self, geographic assets and character. All of this is not really under a place’s control. They are referred to as external forces. You need to know what these things are in order to build on them, work around them or represent them authentically. If you see problems in the personality, that can often be the impetus for a branding project. And the first step in branding (or rebranding) is to thoroughly understand that personality as it is now, and what it wants to be in the future. In Place Branding we don’t brand for now, or the past, but the future — short term and long term.
Communications are the words and images a place uses every day. They are consciously created and mistakenly spoken. They are all the things the organization says about itself and to others — in print, in person, on the phone, in emails and blogs — anywhere, by anyone within the community administration and government.Design is the controlled look and feel of a place. It is what is consciously done to identify the place. That could be a logo (yes, there it is), signage, streetscapes, Official Community Plans, lighting, vehicle graphics…anything visual.
Communications and design are part of the internal forces in a place, and much more likely to be the things the organization will be able to control. They can be changed to meet the needs of a place. A brand identity is a core piece of doing that. Hang on to the words brand identity for a moment.
A place is a business
No matter how large or small a place is, be it a fishing lodge or village, billion dollar resort or metropolis, business is business. Money is collected, costs are accrued, people are employed, bills are paid and, if there is anything left over (that’s the profit part) maybe things are made a little better to keep everything moving in a positive direction.
The same things that matter to organizations – like growth, sustainability and competitive edge – matter to communities too. And where these factors exist, the need to differentiate exists. As we said above, the brand is already there, but is it under any control? Is it doing the place any good?
A brand identity matters to a place because it helps to define it to all of its audiences and constituents. It does everything from help to create pride of place to making sure that the place is taken seriously by customers and funders. A well-designed identity system will also provide efficiencies, conserve resources and save money.
But why does it cost so much? My daughter could have drawn that!
People are subjective in their points of view on all things visual. They can’t tell you what they like, but they’ll know when they see it. And in the decades that we’ve done this, we have learned that there will never be consensus in creating a “logo”. But, please see above, a brand is not just a logo.
In the process of creating a brand identity, we spend dozens of hours doing primary and secondary research. We involve stakeholders (residents, business owners, visitors, government, etc.) at every level in helping us understand how they might visually define the current brand of their community and how they might want that brand to feel at a future point. That doesn’t mean they’re drawing logos. It means they are helping us understand through carefully guided verbal and visual exercises. They tell us about their feelings surrounding their community, their place, and tell us stories that help us understand what is unique about it. As professional communicators and designers, we can then translate that into a visual form or realization of image, typography and shape.The brand identity itself involves not only the logo, but dozens and dozens of applications which consider how typography is used in myriad ways, how photography is shot and used, how illustration is created and used, and how communications are phrased. Each of these things is demonstrated through multiple designed applications that go into a Brand Guide that is used by the organization to help them stay on top of being consistent with their brand. This work involves months and sometimes even years.
We have deep and broad knowledge of visual meaning, culture and semiotics. So no, your daughter couldn’t have drawn it. Like the old adage, “How long did it take you to draw that?” About fifty years is the answer.
But I still don’t like it
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” — John Lydgate (c.1370 – c.1451)
A logo is a vessel we fill with meaning, over time. We have never heard of any creative work that was universally liked at first. Although, we have come very close recently on a very successful new identity for Capilano University. The brand identity is only as good as the organization’s ability to use it properly, protect it from misuse and to continue to imbue it with the brand story they have embraced through our collective work.
So, “branding” is one of those words that is misused and bandied about by all kinds of well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning people. Such a little word with so much power to stir folks up, with torches and pitchforks about cost and aesthetics. If we could wave a magic wand and make it understood, we would do that.