Brand Building or Brand Breaking?

Can you be heard if you aren’t saying anything? The Town of Midland (Ontario, Canada) seems to think so. They’ve decided to run an open competition to create a new logo for the town.

As with most speculative design contests, information is limited, but I would suspect that the Town feels that a new logo will give them a new look and a new identity. Ultimately, they must believe that economic development will increase as a result of their shiny new mark. Why else would they go down this path?

A new logo isn’t the cure-all for whatever ails the Town of Midland. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem. They critical questions should be ‘how well is our brand working for us?” and “how can we make it better?”

“Brand” is what is perceived about you on the basis of your name alone. For organizations, products and places, “brand” exists beyond their logos, advertisements, or buildings. Because Midland operates in connection with a definable group of people (citizens, tourists, government, business), they already have a brand. How they manage that brand is the the real issue. A well-managed civic brand is always on, always communicating and constantly engaging its audience to build long-term, sustainable relationships. Is this what a logo will bring?

From my perspective, the goals in place branding are:

  • to communicate to outside audiences a missed or misunderstood truth,
  • to create a better vision for the future based on existing strengths and long-term plans,
  • to differentiate the community from others by communicating its unique attributes

This process demands honesty and realism. Building and managing the Midland brand means framing a picture of the community’s future. It means identifying both strengths and draw-backs, challenges and opportunities. And it means understanding the background of the communities living with the brand, and the audiences to whom it is being presented. It means finding Midland’s true place in Southern Ontario, Canada, and beyond.

As cities, regions, and other destinations vie for awareness in the minds of citizens, Midland must constantly evaluate how the town is positioned in the mind of the prospect. You can’t do that with a logo. “Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect”, write Al Ries and Jack Trout in their landmark book Positioning: The Battle for your Mind (McGraw-Hill, 1981). Traditional advertising may support and reaffirm the meaning established by other tactics, but it can’t create meaning.

The basic approach is not to always create something new and different, but to manipulate what people are already thinking, to retie the connections that already exist and, if necessary, make new connections that forge a relationship between the Town and the target.

Furthermore, the hallmark of all well-managed brand is consistency. When every behavior of, and contact with, your brand is managed to consistently support your value proposition, you see a shift in the way you are perceived. Managing perception, therefore, is the goal of all successful branding initiatives. Perception is reality for each individual that interacts with your brand. How well you control the manner in which you are perceived is a direct result of how well your brand is envisioned, expressed and managed.

The Town of Midland should look to hire a brand consultancy to develop the strategy and communications platform that will help them understand and shift these factors in their favor. They need to develop an actively working and culturally relevant set of phrases, expressions and images that work together to externalize the full potential of their community.

Oh yeah. And throw in a new logo.

Craig Swistun, RGD, is a creative thinker, brand strategist and marketing services professional with a broad range of experience. He has worked in traditional advertising agencies and was a partner in a successful graphic design firm. He has also held senior branding and marketing positions with major Canadian corporations.

Postscript: I’ve written about speculative projects before, and the web is rife with information on the subject. It’s a rare case where both the client and the design community stand to lose. I don’t need to re-hash the arguments. They’ve been made here and here and here. Indeed, professional design associations universally decry the practice of spec work as being unethical, unprofessional, and unproductive.

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