Nike’s brand (like most super brands) has become so much bigger than its logo. Nike’s logo is informed by years of meaning, millions of advertising dollars, sports legends famous and defamed. Nike’s brand speaks in a confident voice at considerable volume, because it can. It has no one to answer to but its shareholders. That logo is Nike, through and through.
It’s not the brand identity of Calgary, Mont Tremblant or Selkirk. It’s a super sleek, simple icon. It communicates momentum and strength. It would be visually incongruent with communicating the essence of a place rather than a sports philosophy. Its simplicity demands a great deal of brand communications support in terms of creating associations with the “right” events, people and lifestyles. Controlling that is a full time job for a whole lot of people. It is also a multi-million dollar annual commitment in advertising.
What makes the branding of places different than the branding of companies and products? It’s largely about purpose and process.
What does a Place Brand need to be?
A place brand has special demands placed upon it. It must represent a geographic location that has specific physical attributes and a community of stakeholders who feel a high degree of ownership in that brand. It may represent everything from Engineering to Parks, or Accommodations to Destination Marketing. A place brand can’t make stuff up, but it can and should tell an authentic story about that place. Branding is all about stories. It can tell stories about people, experiences, emotions. But, especially in place branding, they need to be true.
Strategic Communication Design, under which the discipline of branding falls, begins with words — always. Language, and particularly the English language, is full of nuance and double-meanings that make it easy to misunderstand. Brand messaging of all kinds, but especially branding for places, is a system of moving parts influenced by the meaning in language. It is the language of a brand.
For Place Branding to be effective it has to be authentic, honest and consistent
In our Place Branding work at Ion, we engage with stakeholders that actually have a real say. The most critical work we do as consultants in place branding is our research. And the most influential part of that work is our primary research, the research we do face to face with people who live, work, learn in these places.
We often come to our clients as outsiders. We don’t live or work in most of our client places. This is an advantage, because we don’t have too many embedded beliefs. But it can be a challenge in that we have not experienced what it’s really like for them. So we use tools to help people tell and illustrate their personal stories. We talk to dozens and sometimes hundreds of people. We uncover the essence of their experiences, but more importantly, their aspirations. What do they believe this place can be in the future? What are their hopes and dreams as a community? We translate these ideas into visual things like images, colour and typography.
The design work begins once we have synthesized our research with the collective vision influenced by every voice we heard.
We have to be careful in our work. It can be easy to get caught up in “spin.” That spin can come from government or management, or even a special interest group with a dominant voice. It is so important that branding a place is honest about what people want their community to be. Not every community wants to be a big city when it grows up. Many want to maintain their peace and relative isolation. Some want to be seen as hubs to other smaller communities. Some welcome visitors with open arms, others not so much. We have to respect the voice of a community and represent it as transparently as we possibly can. (Why would a small community need a place brand? What would a small community want to communicate in its brand? Another article…)
We are experts in cultural meaning and semiotics. We find combinations of language, shape, colour and typographic style that fit with the story that our client communities and destinations want and need to tell. We build from the brand essence outward to dozens and dozens of visual tools that define the brand message our clients need to convey. We help our clients with the language they use, both visual and verbal.
How a place brand’s goal is expressed has everything to do with the ultimate success of those aspirations. The consistency of the language our clients use when talking about their places is critical, in emails, ads, letters…anywhere they talk to their audiences, internal and external. Faltering in this language is a recipe for failure.
With a robust brand platform and a strong identity foundation, consistency isn’t an issue. There is latitude for creative freedom within a framework that stays true to the long-term brand message. We know we have succeeded because, rather than constrained, people feel empowered.
For this reason, we need to come back to how important it is that we understand the honest aspirations of the place we brand. These aspirations have to be genuine and long term. They cannot be a six-month flash in the pan. Place branding isn’t an advertising campaign. It has to be applied consistently over a long period of time. It is the DNA of the place and what it will grow into.