Branding a Community

July 20, 2016
We want to be able to “get our arms around” our world today. Place brands need to be defined by those who live and work in these places. We are shunning corporate labels and taking back our neighbourhoods.

In a recent article in Fast Company, “The Future of Branding is Debranding”, observes a cultural shift that shows people beginning to exhibit a negative response to the branded world. Whether wearing them, using them or eating them, brands have become the tribal colours of consumers. Add the fact that we are hunted and targeted by our choices online, served up products and services based on our every click on the web, and there is a reaction that is pulling people away from branded products that marginalize them as being in this or that “segment”  of the global population— an artificial grouping based on consumer choice. People relate to these brands in ways that begin to feel manipulative and sometimes uncomfortable. They are no longer themselves, but part of specific products and services.

There has been a conspicuous shift in what a community brand means to people. Chief Administrative Officers, Economic Development Officers and city councils have noticed. We certainly see it evidenced by the number of cities and towns seeking to redefine who they are and what they mean to their constituents — as well as how to communicate that meaning.

Counter to this, what we are beginning to see in communities is a growing desire to bring the world back to a human scale. In Canadian cities, we have seen a greater desire for people to know their neighbours. They want to shop and work where they live. They want to grow food, or at least know the source of their food, evidenced by the exponential growth in community gardens, farmers markets, specialty meat stores and the like. City planners are beginning to react to this trend by looking at more complete communities, like little villages within a city. A city can thrive as a collection of connected villages. I am reminded of Italy and the neighbourhoods centred on piazzas that are like self-contained communities in which many people engage in business, shopping, social interaction and even politics.1

It’s all about authenticity and meaning. Rather than being part of a globally recognized brand, many are turning inward and seeking the solace and safety of a known neighbourhood, revitalizing lost neighbourhoods and creating new ones. Their sense of place is becoming far more important. What does this mean for city councils and executive leadership? The brand of what people want in their communities is changing. Growth is still the economic driver for cities of all sizes. But they can be better knit together and strengthened by a populace that can relate on incremental scales to living there. By associating with neighbourhoods first, people can activate and engage as small groups rather than individuals. They feel some strength in working and living with others who value their sense of place.

…what distinguishes a brand is less important than what brings people together….

What this means for those who run these cities is that residents want to feel that they can influence the communities in which they live. The city brand needs to respond to that need for influence, bringing it into how the city communicates its unique point of differentiation, its strengths and its aspirations for the future. And those aspirations are critical to planning a community’s future. Residents need to be part of, and drivers of, that plan. So, what distinguishes a city brand is less important than what brings people together.

Engaging residents, businesses and other stakeholders to tap into how they see their city and what they want it to be allows the creation of a “brand” which reflects this vision and makes it all the more attainable through authentic resonance. If more people see the brand as their own, they are more likely to stand behind it and animate through their participation in its realization.

That engagement and how it is handled is critical. Thorough, honest facilitation fully exploring views wholly focussed on what a future community feels like (rather than simply how it physically functions or delivers services — another workshop altogether) allows a brand to be emotionally resonant and resilient.
So, rather than being a box into which stakeholders must fit, an authentic community brand is created through public engagement, by the very people who will see it every day knowing that it came from them, rather than being placed upon them. What does a community brand mean these days? It means what stakeholders say.

Ion Brand Design specializes in Place Branding. We facilitate community engagement in creating brands that are aspirational, emotive and lasting for communities throughout Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

¹Fusch, Richard. "The Piazza in Italian Urban Morphology." Geographical Review 84.4 (1994): 424-38. Web


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