Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Wrong Way to Brand a City

Municipal brand development can be either extremely beneficial or frustrating for a community. Here is an example of what NOT to do when conducting brand development.

A Midwestern city (population 78,000) determined that they needed support to encourage business for its downtown commercial district. Seen as the “heart” of the community, council members sought a brand identity that would be communicated through destination marketing as well as be applied to a much-needed wayfinding signage plan.

In May of 2015, the city approved funding and gathered an “ad hoc” committee to manage the branding process. The committee was given a six-month timeline to complete the project. The city released an RFP for “Branding & Wayfinding Signage” for the downtown area. Several firms responded and the committee selected a reputable sign design company to complete the entire task for $62,000.

The design firm engaged in the process which included gaining feedback from the community, municipal leadership, and downtown merchants. The firm came back to the committee with no less than seven options for the brand identity. The committee was not satisfied with the work, rejected all provided options, and asked the firm to come back with another round of recommendations.

The design firm provided an additional four brand logos, of which, the committee selected their favored option. The recommendation featured a generic motivational slogan that could be easily applied to the wayfinding signage. No Brand Platform or rationale based on research was provided with the recommendation.

After 47 meetings and 24 months beyond the original timeline, the committee brought their recommendation to the city council for approval. This would be the first time that either the council or the public would see the recommended brand identity.

Receiving a high level of negative feedback from both citizens and businesses, the council rejected the recommendation. Criticism was raised concerning the generic motivational statement as well as for the graphic representation.

Not wanting to dismiss the amount of time invested by committee members, the council commended the committee for its efforts while rejecting the recommendation. It was stated that the design firm had exhausted the original $62,000 in funding. The council approved a change order for the project which provided an additional $10,000 and asked for additional options for the slogan and logo. Though they were highly critical of the recommendation, they could not provide specific input that could be used by the design firm for its additional work.

Now the branding project is top-of-mind in the community and negativity continues to rise through social media, communications to the council and in the community’s newspaper that published and editorial criticizing the effort.

What has thirty months of effort and $72,000 provided the city? Basically nothing – apart from having a frustrated city council, committee, and design firm who probably wishes they never won the account.

Here is what can be learned from this project:
1. Ensure that there is consensus among municipal leadership of the objectives and deliverables for your project. With this city, it is obvious that council members were not in agreement. Some were merely seeking wayfinding signage for the downtown district. Others were seeking a brand identity for downtown while others wanted a brand identity for the entire community. As the Mayor Pro-Tem stated, “This is an important project. It will define who we are.”

Define the assignment with clarity. If you only need wayfinding signage, do you really need to go through a branding process? If you do need branding, define specifically what is being branded. Is it only the downtown district or is it the entire community?
The better the input, the better the output.

2. Hire the right experience and expertise. Though a reputable signage design firm is highly qualified to provide wayfinding signage, the branding is normally supplied to them and the brand development process is very foreign to them. A qualified brand development firm will have the experience and expertise in municipal branding. This not only ensures a quality end-product, but assists in maintaining an efficient approach and proven process to assist the city in its efforts.

Most branding assignments are organized through a committee that includes both citizens and government officials. Though they have expertise in other areas, this may be the first (and hopefully the last) time they go through this process. Having an experienced branding firm to assist and direct the effort will keep it on track.

3. Provide a transparent process. Over the thirty-month history of this project, only the final recommendation was exposed to the public. A branding committee should seek input from both residents and businesses throughout the process on the identity that will eventually represent them. Gaining feedback throughout the process, and well as conducting validation research on proposed recommendations, engages the community in the process and allows them to have “authorship” on the final product.

4. Remember that branding is more than a logo. True branding is supported by a formal Brand Platform that includes the brand’s mission, vision, values, and positioning. Then the positioning is translated into the Brand Essence which can be used as a slogan. The logo is only a translation of the Brand Platform that also conveys the personality and culture of the community. When done properly, a municipal brand will represent the sustainable shared values of the community which resonate with both residents and businesses. It should be engaging, providing a “propulsive energy” which will assist the city in obtaining its future objectives.

5. Be good stewards of your municipal resources. Time and money are valuable to any municipality and must be well-managed with branding projects. The above example reflects several “red flags” throughout the process. Why were all the initial recommendations rejected? Was the proper research conducted? Was the research incorporated into the recommendations? Was it apparent that the skill set of the selected design firm wasn’t adequate? Or was the design firm receiving ambiguous input from a dysfunctional committee? Is the committee as much at fault as the design firm and changes should have been made there also?

When any project begins to exhaust resources without a positive outcome, good stewardship will direct changes. Throwing good money after bad normally doesn’t solve problems.

Municipal branding is both a science and art. Proper brand development includes input and research, analysis, defining a Brand Platform, validation of the Brand Positioning, exposure and testing of any logo development, and brand recommendations based on this thorough process.

Branding should be the “voice” of the community and resonate with all internal stakeholders. It should be an open invitation to anyone (future residents, businesses, or visitors) that share the community’s Brand Values to enjoy the Brand Experience of the community. If the branding is done properly, it will become the “rallying cry” for future advancement of the quality of life and economic development for the entire community.