Thank you for inviting me here today.
Susan Neale didn’t know this when she invited me to speak, but over the last year and a bit I’ve been getting to know Peterborough and the Lakefield area: last summer, for the first time, I spent my holiday on Stoney Lake.
It was there, once my kids were asleep, that I was reacquainted with Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. Reading Charlotte Gray’s book about this remarkable pair of pioneers was a great escape from the world of business books and branding – or so I thought.
I imagine most of you are familiar with Sisters in the Wilderness. I picked the book up hoping it would connect me, in a meaningful way, to the place I was spending my vacation. And it did…a little too well. Enjoyable though it was, it brought me right back to the heart of what I think about daily: the connection of identity and history.
A lot of towns and cities have to fight for their place in the grand narrative that we call Canadian history. Peterborough, and its surrounding area, does not have that problem. These two stars in the Canadian canon have captured its founding stories and created an important local narrative, and the foundation of your brand.
That is, of course, what branding is all about: storytelling. It’s a topic I really enjoy talking and writing about because of the opportunity for connecting with, and communicating, meaningful images from the past.
I’m enthused, but I know some of you are not so enamoured. The mere mention of the word “brand” gives some of you a migraine. And I empathize: being urged to “find the passion,” “live the brand,” and be “well-differentiated,” becomes nauseating after a while.
It is a common affliction that some try to relieve by turning to consultants.
It’s easy to have fun with the cliché image of branding consultants whose jargon can seem like a kind of managerial gibberish. So I laughed when I read, recently, the critique of UK designer, David Thompson: about his colleagues, Thompson remarked they aim to produce clear and coherent insights, and assertive messages, but often their breezy concepts end up “uncomfortably close to the high-tech non sequiturs of shampoo commercials.” Are you surprised? These are, after all, the same people who pride themselves in helping unsuspecting consumers forge emotional connections to dog food, kitchen appliances, and a cup of coffee. Thompson, apparently, is waiting “with baited breath for the fetishistic rapture to be found in choosing detergent.”
I suspect Peterborough’s much-celebrated son and editor, Robertson Davies – who injected the theme of magic into his own writing – would have appreciated (and mocked) the illusions branding practitioners try to create.
Nevertheless, there is pressure on organizations to embrace branding’s mystique.
Municipalities are concerned, rightly, about image. As potential visitors consider their vacation options, as businesses determine where to locate offices, as associations choose convention sites, the attributes of the local brand weigh heavily.
We’re drawn to branding because it is a recognizable trend that promises to provide leadership and direction. Pursuing this task gives us the appearance of doing the right thing.
And we’re drawn to branding because we’ve come to believe it is a city’s – it is any organization’s – most important management task. If you do not project a clearly defined image of who you are, and what you represent, you will be doomed to anonymity. Branding does offer municipalities a solution. Like the heart, branding serves to pump customers through our system, keeping our corporate body alive. Organizations that do identify, tangibilize, and promote unique attributes will be able to advance their aims and achieve their goals.
Detroit, for example, finally recognized the cost of alienating people. Rebranding is bringing them back and the city, once again, is alive.
Marketing makes us tick.
Still, we can be too quick to embrace the latest truths, buzz words, and new approaches that regularly burst on the scene. Maybe consultants should have warning labels stuck to their jacket lapels. Adopting ideas that don’t meet your organization’s needs will hurt you in the end.
Borrowing values from elsewhere is tempting, but it is a trap.
Differentiation “does not come from mimicking the values of other companies – even highly visionary companies,” wrote Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last. “It does not come from following the dictates of outsiders…and it does not come from a sterile intellectual exercise of ‘calculating” what values would be most pragmatic, most popular, or most profitable.”
What really matters in branding is authenticity. The community’s local colour isn’t a “nice to have” value, it is a “need to have” element. It is nothing less than your brand’s prime measure of worth.
Local history differentiates. It should be the foundation of any municipal brand identity. If you know where you’ve been, you can differentiate yourself.
Perhaps this sounds obvious. So why do cities undervalue and underuse their history?
In my capacity as a columnist I try to provide guidance to help readers grapple with thorny management issues – branding being one of them. This afternoon I’m focusing on “place” and, what I really want to address is the value of authenticity in telling your story. How do you build the brand Peterborough wants?
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking branding consultants are like the Wizard of Oz – all smoke and mirrors. But remember, when his trick was revealed, Dorothy and her followers were told something they should have known all along: the tin man had a heart, the scarecrow had his brain, the lion had the nerve. You don’t need a Great Oz to tell you Peterborough has all the elements of a strong, authentic local brand. Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie got you started over 170 years ago. I’ll hope, collectively, you’ll be your own guru: decide what Peterborough wants to be bold about and tell those stories to lure people in and engage their imagination.
So…why do we do this in the first place?
There is a creeping sense of sameness in most North American towns and cities. Our cityscapes and sense of style are being homogenized. And we have been unable or unwilling to resist the hallmarks of suburban sprawl: cookie-cutter appearance of malls and box stores.
This winter I’ve spent my weekends skiing in Collingwood: it has a small but gracious old-Ontario main street that is being completely overwhelmed – not to mention physically by-passed – by a suburban-style shopping strip. From a visual, an aesthetic perspective, it might have chosen to be more like Stowe, Vermont. Instead, it’s beginning to look more like Toronto. I could be anywhere. Considering how new this development is, I’m overwhelmed by the sense of lost opportunity to create something dramatically distinctive. And where are its local stories, and the mystique they could be creating to help the process along?
Vermont isn’t anonymous. Vermont citizens are acutely aware of the benefits of where they live. They aren’t likely to sell-out their state’s local colour – coherent and vital images of quaint historic towns and villages, pastoral landscapes – and, by embracing the Walmart-style, jeopardizing the state’s legacy. Vermont tells its stories.
There is, fortunately, a growing awareness (among municipalities, but more generally among nonprofit organizations) about the value created by branding: people are attracted to communities that promise to offer a meaningful experience, and sense of being part of something that gives them an emotional lift. They’re starting to understand if they don’t find creative ways to express their unique attributes – if they don’t promote an image of themselves that is vital, relevant, and meaningful – they risk becoming lost in the clutter.
If you’re struggling with it, don’t fret: it isn’t easy for a “place” to express the unique view it has of its position in the marketplace.
Canada struggles to decide what statement it wants to make. The Canadian Tourism Commission is developing a new branding strategy designed to reposition the country as a global tourist and business destination. It seems to think fixing Canada’s invisibility problem requires updating clichéd icons like the RCMP and hockey players, or natural images like beavers, moose, mountains and lakes. Cliché, perhaps; out-dated, doubtful; authentic, absolutely: those images, however, are not the problem.
Canada struggles with its brand because we, its citizens, have lost the thread of who we are; we don’t know our history and, consequently, can’t tell our stories to anyone else. From those stories comes the authenticity our national brand needs to advance, whether at the level of tourism, big business, or international politics.
Toronto, for the same reason, struggles with its brand. In November the Star’s Christopher Hume blamed a sense of “civic mediocrity” on the fact the rest of the world, like Torontonians themselves, are no longer interested in the city. Who can blame them: they don’t know their history, and don’t know what they have to be bold about. As a result, the city defaults to visual gimmicks: prominent architects, celebrity designers, beautification schemes.
In their excitement to position themselves as the next “city of the future,” many municipalities fail to consider the value of a backward glance. Their failure to value the past strips them of the distinctiveness necessary to build and promote a durable brand. For many cities and towns, Jonathan Franzen’s comment from The Twenty-seventh City, will be prophetic: “What becomes of a city no living person can remember, of an age whose passing no one survives to regret?”
It takes work to protect your story from being drowned-out by noisy grand narratives. Knowledge of history provides the sense of “place” that makes it possible.
Local history can be the ever-essential “you are here” arrow – as necessary for municipal marketing as it is at the mall. This isn’t, however, merely about marketing. It is operational information – intelligence, if you will – we can use to enhance our ability to diagnose problems, reassess policy, measure performance, and direct change. Knowing where we have been provides a way of thinking about a place, a way of comprehending why the present is what it is, and what might be possible for the future.
Knowing where you’ve been is the sine qua non of effective management. In his instructions to the committee searching for a new NFL commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle in 1989, after his 29-year tenure, Giants owner Wellington Mara remarked: “We will look for a man who has read the pages of history and learned those lessons, and a man who has the foresight to apply those visions to the future.”
This was important to the NFL, and it is important to you. What gives managers confidence in their decisions is their accumulated knowledge of the organization’s unique experience, their understanding of where the organization has been…not sophisticated planning systems or policy guidelines.
The preservation and management of memory are among any organization’s most important tasks. When a municipal leader’s community work is limited or narrowly focused, he or she needs to develop a sense of the past that is greater than his or her own memories of it.
You need to purposely reveal past events and decisions that have abiding significance for the present and the future. Finding out why and how watershed decisions were made reveals their significance, and value, but also their pertinence to the present. What folklore, ritual, and symbols represent the area’s sense of its origins, purpose, and identity over time?
What I’m suggesting – that you see the historian as “agent of change” – seems hard to believe, but it’s true. Even Peter Drucker acknowledged the role corporate archives can play in helping the company “move from problems to decisions, to desired outcomes.” Historians and archivists are vital forces in branding because the best support for the corporate memory remains a well-preserved and easily retrieved record of events and decisions.
So, who’s doing this?
The Big Apple (no, not the one in Colbourne) provides some interesting lessons about authenticity and memory. New York City uses its built history to advance its sense of place.
One cornerstone of New York’s brand is its historic district – or, to be precise, districts: 80 separate areas and 20,000 buildings – carefully regulated by its Landmarks Preservation Commission. Since the late 1960s the commission’s strong regulatory powers have entrenched the idea that the appearance of the public realm is an important societal matter.
Its work has been essential to the city’s physical and economic revival: Protecting the environmental quality of historic districts makes neighbourhoods desirable places to live, work, and invest. As a result, they are thriving socially and economically.
Even at the edges of historic districts pride of place exists. Toronto architect and conservationist, Catherine Naismith writes that owners on the fringes try to do the “right thing” so they, too, can “capture some of the real estate fairy dust that heritage preservation bestows.”
These districts represent living stories that provide a direct connection to the past, the visual and verbal distinctiveness any city needs for building its brand.
New York City’s success has important lessons for any municipality: protecting authenticity, and the interests of the people who live there is a priority. Do it for them first, and tourists and business will follow.
Toronto hasn’t yet figured out how to do this: instead of a culture of conservation and historical celebration, we have a culture of compromise, confusion, and frustration: buildings – our heritage – are lost to development. Part of Toronto’s problem is its impatience. Achieving a sense of “looking right” takes time and a willingness to pay careful attention to details: paving, curbs, fire escapes, using old moulds for recasting old street lamps combine to create an overall, integrated sense of place.
Port Hope, unlike Toronto, has invested time and money to preserve and enhance its heritage buildings. It is unfair to compare Port Hope to Toronto because it benefits from being smaller and has a more limited focus. Nevertheless, it has used its history to emerge as a choice place for those looking for visually-differentiated environment.
Many thought improving Detroit’s image was a insurmountable challenge: images of urban decay and violence that refuse to go away; negative emotions blocked anything positive; a city battling its past for 40 years after race riots plunged it into a funk. Even with some of the wealthiest suburbs in the US, its downtown became fortress-like and, in 1988, not a single construction permit was issued in the city.
Yet, remarkably, Detroit is a city in renewal. Although its differentiating idea is not yet firmly reestablished, its resurrection has much to do with fixing and promoting the old: building its reputation as a high-tech center which is based on its heritage as a tinkerers’ town: a hot-bed for innovation and product development.
This sentiment has been spurred-on by the renovation of four 19th century mansions to create the luxury “Inn on Ferry Street,” which recalls the city’s former vast wealth. The Inn is surrounded by museums in the city’s cultural center. Detroit is using history to lure people back: the former ruins of Detroit businesses have now been turned into fashionable lofts and retail for affluent professionals who want to move back into downtown. Who knows if this alone is sufficient to be a tipping point, but the city seems stronger, and new people are coming into downtown.
Enough about history for now…let’s turn our attention to considering what you have to do to get the brand you want.
Is it strange to talk about municipal branding but use the NFL as an example? Superficially, yes, but I’d like to think “creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.” Too often, I think, nonprofits do themselves harm by thinking their problems are completely different than anyone else’s. One consequence of that mindset is that good external examples get overlooked. The NFL provides a great example for municipal bureaucracies needing to overcome competing interests and work together. (And for the NFL examples I have to acknowledge Michael MacCambridge’s excellent new book, America’s Game; as worthy a read from a business perspective as it is from a fan’s).
In recent years the NFL’s traditional sense of priorities has been turned upside-down. Owners sit in meetings and squabble about everything but football – mostly about money, sometimes about grandiose half-time shows at the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t always that way. The small group of owners who helped guide the league to its position as the dominant spectator sport by the 1960s had governed themselves according to the belief: Think One-League. They were individually competitive, but each was utterly committed to the success of the league. They knew intuitively that unless there was unity of purpose and a quality product, they would not prosper. Each owner assumed he was responsible to shape football into the best possible commercial product; if, for example, games were boring, it was their responsibility to make them more exciting.
Unless the new generation of NFL owners learns this lesson, their brand will suffer. Major League Baseball learned the hard way that popularity is not predestined and success shouldn’t be taken for granted. By the 1950s that sport was being run by people who assumed baseball’s predominant position in American culture was unassailable. Because they didn’t think about the game as a commercial product, the game drifted – right into the hands of the upstart NFL.
It’s the same with a city or a town: you have to stay on top of change. I’ve always liked the following quote:
“They did not realize that life consists in change, that nothing can stand still…Clinging to the realities of the past, they prepared to defend their dead cause to the finish.”
This remarkable epitaph for any organization unwilling to reevaluate its brand wasn’t written about baseball. It wasn’t written by so-called revolutionary marketers like Gary Hamel or Tom Peters. It was written in 1935 by George Dangerfield, about the demise of Britain’s Liberal Party. This way of thinking applies to everyone.
Figuring out what makes you unique and marketing those attributes the right way requires the kind of lateral thinking and collaborative thinking that is – more often than not – absent from many of the organizations that need it most.
Corporate values get hidden and altered in everyday events: organizations need to remind themselves of what keeps them vibrant, and vital…to reveal the common experiences, values, and knowledge that everyone shares.
Successful brands are ensemble pieces. Like a well-executed play, team members play distinct positions, yet simultaneously support the actions of their teammates. The effort of lateral thinking pays off: tying yourselves together transforms individual activity into a strategic dynamo. Think One League.
When a management team doesn’t have a handle on its organization’s identity, it transfers its authority – knowingly or not – for determining, building, and managing its brand to its tactical agents. It abdicates its responsibility. Relying on outside consultants to determine your positioning and core messages can lead to a cycle of dependency.
Without self-awareness, without a capacity to think, organizations become susceptible to ideas that don’t suit them. I think you need to explore how your team can come up with answers on its own.
The goal should be to produce teams capable of generating creative stories from the inside. It’s people on the inside who have to assess, debate, and choose the elements that define who you are. In other words, building a brand is akin to being the architect and contractor of your own house: you create the blueprint – then you advise and direct the work of trades-people hired to do specific tasks.
But this requires a willingness to share knowledge. Don’t make people work for seats at the corporate table: look for a range of partners, including curators, librarians, marketing people, communications people, educators, retailers. Encourage the conversations that will result in imaginative thinking about what the organization can become. Developing an internal capacity for thinking about your brand is an essential step in renewing its story for a new age of constitutents.
And that leads me, thirdly, to internal branding
Organizations are in such a hurry to persuade customers about their brand attributes but do employees know what makes their organization tick? Making sure employees can correctly tell the organization’s stories is a vital requirement in successfully managing a brand as an asset. “When all levels of an organization grasp the core truth of a brand, Scott Bebury writes, “there is continuity of thought and less delay between idea and action.”
Constantly remind people what “it” is all about. Stories tie individual employees to the organizational identity, its basic beliefs, and cultural nuances. If they know its stories they can work to help advance its fortunes, they can share your vision and sense of common purpose. But everyone has to see the same big picture and appreciate what their organization must do to succeed.
Divining a brand promise is one thing…promoting it is another. If we’re concerned about the lack of differentiation between brands, why is everyone is doing the same thing?
Possibly because we rely too heavily on the advice of consultants – who are too absorbed by their tactical biases – to develop the brands we need. Instead of the marketing blueprint that describes, by whatever function necessary, how to meet your goals, the agents you hire steer you toward tactics – advertising, direct mail, an updated logo, a marketing tagline, a flashy building…because that’s their product. Still, we defer to them.
In An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde wrote, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, Martin Filler wonders if this is “true in architecture, whose modern history is replete with eagerly contested public commissions that have turned out to be quite the opposite of the triumphs their winners first imagined them to be.”
Perhaps Filler is thinking about the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has decided that to reach out to the mass marketplace and command attention, its brand will be Frank Gehry; the AGO is not Frank Gehry, and it isn’t his job to take a broad view of what the AGO brand requires. Similarly, the Royal Ontario Museum has embraced Daniel Libeskind.
Unfortunately the AGO and the ROM will learn a building, like a logo, only goes so far in communicating the essence of a brand. Nor does traditional advertising sufficiently inform people and give them confidence in your product.
Admittedly, I have my own biases, and here they are: first, trying to build a new identity without leveraging the past undermines your chance for a durable brand. Second, you need compelling, inspiring tools that sustain long-term relationships. Third, creating a brand involves stretching the product’s message beyond the visual.
Look at Michelin. Andre Michelin started producing tires in 1906 and then asked, “where can you go on them?” His maps and travel recommendations gave rise to the popular notion of “the nice little Michelin trip,” and in turn to an enormous publishing empire we know as the Michelin Green and Red Guides. These ventures, incidentally, helped sell a lot of tires. One pundit calls Michelin’s brand “naïve” – an idea that worked because it was launched in an age when we weren’t so cynical and there were no focus groups. His idea seems so innocent: who promotes the same brand for tires and travel guides? That comment itself seems the height of cynicism: we’ve forgotten how extraordinarily brilliant an idea it was. Michelin didn’t underestimate consumers’ needs; he didn’t follow consumers’ direction, he provided leadership and interaction. He created a story.
The lesson: the right form of thought leadership can market almost any product. So, here’s your differentiating idea: To become a durable brand name, you need to be as innovative in thinking about how to communicate with your audience as you are at designing and constructing facilities and logos. Bring your capability for expressing identity in verbal terms in-line with more traditional practices of expressing identity visually.
Places redefining their brand need a range of stories that reach back into history and project forward into the future. Unless you want to be seen as being like everyone else, don’t neglect the potential of language to creatively demonstrate your unique personality. Tell your stories.
Words engage imagination, and help us understand what the brand stands for. Stories carry the day:
In Ancient Greece, the retelling of familiar stories created central myths that defined what it meant to be Athenian, and gave this society a sense of share purpose.
In foreign services, diplomats are renowned for crafting pleasant-to-read reports so political masters can more easily understand the nuances of what is going on around the world, can assess the mood, and be able to adjust policies accordingly.
Do you communicate a unique position of leadership in the marketplace, or do you merely respond to trends? People are engaged by organizations that prove their vitality. Leadership is a hook. We need to remember, as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras remind us in Built to Last, that “high ideas,” are not a luxury.”
What can you be bold about? Set the bar high and don’t underestimate people.
The NFL didn’t: it is now easy to forget that until the late 1960s, Sunday afternoons were considered television’s dead zone. We forget the NFL single-handedly made sports a prime-time event. How? It recognized that storytelling – documentary films and book publishing – were catalysts to differentiate pro football from the more popular baseball or college football.
It was NFL Films, more than the actual game, which shaped America’s fascination with professional football. By creating myths, and highlighting the league’s quality and sophistication, NFL Films showed there were other ways to enjoy the game: a movie, or a carefully-assembled highlight reel, could be as entertaining as the game itself. Other innovations followed NFL Films storytelling lead: by 1970 ABC’s Monday Night Football was giving every game a narrative structure and, consequently, “a greater sense of sport as a performance rather than merely a game.”
Not every nonprofit can become a cultural icon, but some have learned to mine the benefits of effective storytelling. The Mayo Clinic may be the best-known hospital in the world but, like the NFL, it wasn’t born this way. Its name clearly and widely evokes associations of confidence and well-being because of a very deliberate decision to make educating the community beyond its walls, providing what it calls a “sharing of trusted answers,” a core component of its mission. To deepen its reputation and advance this mission – and not so incidentally support its fundraising and recruitment goals – the Mayo Clinic has created a wide range of high-quality, pedagogically effective, and strongly integrated Knowledge Products: including websites, books, newsletters, and media relations pieces.
Organizations that can identify, tangibilize, and promote their insights possess capabilities and tools to advance their broader aims. Cultivate a broad view of where stories can come from. What ideas can emerge from the permanent exhibits of your museum and galleries? Develop a strategy for capturing and leveraging the knowledge of your community.
For years, the Field Museum in Chicago struggled with the concept of publishing for the popular market. But the public response to the series of children’s books it published about its fossil “Sue”—the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found – has been overwhelming. The Sue books were the first produced by the museum at a commercial level. Early on, the exhibit team sensed Sue’s story would resonate with the public and made four important decisions: they acknowledged that the Field had no experience publishing for children; they chose not to self-publish; they wanted to develop a series of books; and they wanted the books to appeal to a big market. Realizing that a children’s publisher would know what would sell, the museum engaged an agent, who led them to Scholastic. Today, there are seven titles in the Sue series—each one very successful…to the tune of 250,000 copies each. And the books are just one part of the 200 different products that have been developed to support the Sue exhibit. As a result, staff are thinking about how to mine other permanent exhibits for book ideas.
This is one good example of imagination at work, here’s another…
The Children’s Museum in Boston considers everything it does as fodder for a potential publication. Its vice president of program development brings together various people to talk about ideas that emerge from the museum’s galleries. Then she puts the concepts together and presents them to a literary agent who can position and package the work in a way a publisher understands.
Museums like the Smithsonian are showing how to blend this practice into broader institutional strategy. In the early 1990s, it created Smithsonian Business Ventures – a marketing division, essentially, to mine its intellectual capital for commercial gain. By uncovering new opportunities, finding the right partnerships to execute new business, and controlling access to museum collections, SBV staff work to make the publishing process as painless as possible so curators can concentrate on their core mandate.
The National Geographic Society has a similar group, and the result has been a dazzling array of new products intended to connect new groups of readers to its brand.
Developing a strategy for taking advantage of a organization’s intellectual assets—mapping the knowledge within the institution—requires someone to sort out what’s worth marketing to what groups—someone well-informed and well-connected, innovative people who can pinpoint the most valuable links between corporate knowledge and marketing.
What stops many organizations in their tracks is cost. Communicating can be a leap of faith, but the risk in innovating too little is at least as great as the risk of too much spending. Moreover, oversize budget cuts deprive them of their facility to understand what they want to be bold about. Is communicating a profit-centre? May be not. A value-centre? Almost certainly.
Good branders never stop communicating. They try to define themselves in a less-cluttered marketplace by telling their stories because they know it supports and advance the brand’s differentiated ideas. NFL Films was not about maximizing profits, yet it built huge brand value for a burgeoning NFL. Ed Sabol’s view of his product, was “You remember the quality long after you forget the price.” Perhaps Rozelle gasped at the price (we’ll never know) but he protected the autonomy of these vehicles, and nurtured them. Like a good blocker, Rozelle ran interference for his stars.
In 1997 a Dominion Institute survey conducted by the Angus Reid Group concluded that we are not adequately passing on to young Canadians the historical knowledge necessary to sustain a sense of membership in the Canadian enterprise. We can debate the cause another time, but the consequence of this neglect has been a diminished sense of national purpose. This is important because in a global economy, the perception about the strength of a nation’s values and what it stands for – its brand – is important. National branding should be rooted in compelling stories that reflect the best of what Canada has to offer, that make sense of where the nation has come from and where it is going. Stories help citizens to understand history; they create a sense of membership in a common endeavor; they create a sense of excitement; they create a kind of national social capital that bonds communities.
It is the same for municipalities – be concerned about your own “grand narrative.”
Telling the stories that truly animate us does not mean, however, that we should be reducing a state’s, or a city’s, diverse reality into a single image. Municipalities redefining their brand need a range of “new stories that both reach back into our history and project forward into the future.” But few have made the link between the political and cultural aspects of identity and their economic significance. This is what Mark Leonard, in his book Britain(TM), called the “‘identity premium’ that flows to businesses when identity is being managed well.”
By sponsoring the telling of stories – neatly transformed into marketable products – cities can build their own brand just as effectively as the NFL, or Michelin Tire, or the Mayo Clinic, or New York City.
Who are your storytellers? Always start with your citizens.
Commenting on Toronto’s brand angst, and the new “Toronto Branding Project,” the Star’s Christopher Hume wrote “Those who can change do, those who can’t undertake branding exercises.” What he mocked was the city’s decision to figure out its competitive position by asking the public, via the Toronto Branding Project, for their vision for the future of Toronto.
Hume’s criticism is unfair because change needs to be well thought out and discussed. It sounds like he would like decisions made by fiat, to invest city official, developers, and architects with the responsibility to determine and implement the city’s brand. My guess is that’s what has happened to Collingwood.
It is critically important to find out what citizens think about the city. Place brands will only succeed if they are rooted in the essence of the people who live there and their experience. And to be successful, those same people must be willing to defend their place, their product. So citizens, the brand’s ultimate custodians, must have a chance to contribute their voices.
Are people willing to be engaged about place identity? Time and again the general public reveals it has an appetite for thinking about and experiencing what it means to be a citizen.
Don’t get me wrong: cities still have the responsibility for managing identity and selling their stories. And for that, municipalities need a better model. Cities like Toronto or Peterborough can look to Boston. Boston may have launched America’s grand narrative, but it also risked being swallowed by it. It also needed to sweep away more recent images of a traffic-bound and racially-torn metropolis. The Boston History Collaborative (BHC) was born from the desire to tell stories about the city’s defining moments.
This partnership of civic and business leaders asked, “What do we have to be bold about?” Well, if you’re Boston, you can of course, lay claim to being the cradle of the Revolution. You can talk about your role as a pioneer of American civic, economic, and scientific life: home to the first public school, the first public library, now home to some of the best research and health care institutions in the world. (Notice I didn’t mention sports: though they can also lay claim to recent success on fields of play, that kind of fame is too fleeting for a brand).
Through its book, websites, and tours, the Boston History Collaborative keeps local history alive in order to develop new convictions about what the city stands for: a world-class city of firsts in patriotism, healthcare, science, technology, the arts and education.
BHC’s innovative thinking – to show why Boston’s history brand was strategically important to local organizations – has uncovered a key piece of potential for the city of Boston. Its brand renewal is succeeding because BHC specializes in working cooperatively with local corporations and institutions to tell their stories individually and as part of the region’s history. It is educating these businesses about the strategic, mutual benefits of aligning themselves with the local Boston brand. A number of companies and institutions have now gone so far as to arrange for internal celebrations of their own role in innovation, focusing on helping their employees see how their institution has contributed to the overall story.
A truism about branding is that it is a long journey from launching a brand to it becoming the accepted wisdom. The lesson of BHC’s collaborative efforts is that people have become engaged in a way that rarely happens, they now see themselves in the broader context. They see themselves as being innovative “because we’re from this region.” And through these combined efforts – borne from a sense of the value of lateral thinking and unity of purpose – the task of telling citizens “know where you live” is becoming self-sustaining.
Successful brands are ensemble pieces. Is Peterborough working with business and nonprofit leaders and with citizens to create a cohesive message? Broad public involvement, blended with leadership, and money to support renewal, is essential to establishing vision and bringing in new ideas.
And don’t forget the central role museums and libraries must play to nurture your capacity for thinking and for telling the city’s stories. The real measure of success for these two institutions should be on their ability to keep people connected and in long-term relationships. If they can promote their own collections, the city has a better chance of developing its own extraordinary identity and establishing a community that wants to stay connected.
Get your team in place then tell the stories that build your mystique, whether its about a business, a product innovation, or about a home’s place in local or national history: Who lived here, what did they do, what was their connection to the area? It’s knowledge that adds value because it helps make an emotional connection.
Rebranding shouldn’t be the experience you dread. It should be – hopefully – an exciting and optimistic process everyone enjoys. At least I hope it’s that way for you because it never ends. Perhaps that’s why naysayers see it as purgatory.
But if you know where you live, you know how to brand.
Address to the City of Peterborough, Ontario, to commemorate Heritage Week 2005, Peterborough, Ontario, 21 February 2005