Our country is plastered with logos. Your toothbrush, your coffee, your steering wheel, your computer, and the very floorboards on which you walk have all been carefully labeled and categorized by the companies that made them to invoke certain emotions and associations when you encounter them. Your city also has a brand, though you might not have noticed. It’s on your water tower, and that sign you pass every time you come home from a road trip: “Welcome to ________” in a font and color-scheme tailored to your city. Indeed, whether we notice it or not, the dominance of branding in American culture—the insidious hold that it has on our every-day lives—means that we have to take the branding of our own cities seriously too. We have to understand the ways in which these images are created, determine the purpose of their creation and decide whether they are worth having at all.
What is city branding?
The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about branding is logos, and most cities have a logo, though it might not be very memorable. However, “a brand is not just a logotype,” says Peter Saville, who designed the current branding for Manchester, England. “It’s a set of values that are communicated through actions.” The words used to describe a place, the people and objects associated with it, the images that encapsulate it, even the very font used on its letterhead, comprise branding. For example, Las Vegas has coined itself as “Sin City” and utilized the tagline, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” This attempts to communicate a sense of adventure, risk and allure that Las Vegas hopes will bring in tourists and new residents who seek a thrilling lifestyle. You probably recognize their famous billboard (above), too—another piece of branding.
City branding usually takes into account the existing history of a place, so a marketing consultant who is tapped to help with a branding project might ask, are there any significant events that occurred in the city? Does the town host an annual festival that is popular in the region? Is there a natural feature that might draw people toward the place? This iconography can be enhanced to articulate the spirit of a town and create a distinctive selling point for outsiders. Nashville, which has long been known as a center for American music, capitalizes on its history with the tagline “Music City” and the musical note incorporated into its logo, as well as a rock-band-like font for the city name. In my opinion, Nashville’s is not a particularly attractive logo, but it gets the idea across, and it tells tourists what they’ll discover if they come to the city: fresh concerts, an exciting nightlife and maybe even celebrities on the streets. Nashville’s branding also achieves star power without being too pretentious.
Besides existing data on a place, town branding can also promote a new image that the government (which usually takes the lead on branding efforts) thinks will increase its traffic and income. For example, this article explains how the central business district in Beirut was rebranded as “Solidere” in an attempt to unify this divided city around a common identity and encourage people to frequent the downtown. (Unfortunately, the rebranding didn’t go over too well.) In other instances, a municipal government might wish to highlight its outdoor activities, it’s revamped art scene or its stellar academic institutions—whatever will encourage new business to take root in the city.
So why do we have it?
The intention behind any branding is to distinguish one thing from its competitors and communicate a desirable image of that thing to a targeted market. In the case of cities, this means attracting investors and residents who will bring their tax dollars and wealth to a particular city because they feel that the place in question has something special to offer. Maybe it’s low taxes for small businesses. Maybe it’s beautiful scenery or quality schools or safe neighborhoods. But whatever it is, city branding seeks to showcase that quickly and easily to anyone who might be interested. I asked my graphic designer brother to weigh in on city branding and he told me that it should “help people associate a city with something positive.” Branding can also be about internal identity. Cities that have suffered economic hardship or a recent tragedy may not be ready to bring in millions of dollars of investment, but they can seek to redefine themselves so that their remaining residents won’t leave.
Take, for example, Litchfield Park, Arizona—a place probably most of you have never heard of—but a place that, when you just see its logo looks sunny, carefree and fun. Almost like a resort. The Litchfield Park government worked with a marketing agency to create this logo and accompanying tagline “Discover the Park” in 2012 as part of a rebranding effort to “promote economic growth, retain and expand businesses, update the identity of the city, broaden the tax base, communicate the values and characteristics of the city.” Litchfield Park’s annual report claims that the rebranding has—astoundingly—already accomplished all of these goals, although it provides no proof. A quick google search suggests that Litchfield Park was already kind of a swank-fest anyway. Maybe they didn’t need much help.
Is branding worth it?
A couple weeks ago, I found a humorous article on Streets.MN (my favorite hometown urbanism blog) cataloguing the outdated, ugly logos that adorn many Minnesota towns. It made me laugh, but more than that, it made me ask whether these towns would find it worth their while to invest in new branding. I mean, if their logos are this crappy, why shouldn’t they?
And so the wider question: How much does branding actually accomplish, and for whom? As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, a city’s brand often goes unnoticed by a large portion of its residents. (Think, for a second, about whether you can picture your own city’s logo.) Branding projects are almost always undertaken by the municipal government, which spends taxpayer dollars to create a shiny new image of their home with the help of an outside consultant. Citizens are rarely asked to participate in this process, so the image may be false and it will definitely gloss over many aspects of city life. It probably won’t account for the multiple ethnic cultures present in the city or the diverse socioeconomic landscape of the neighborhoods, preferring to focus on one or two key marketable aspects and not much else.
When I floated all this by my brother, he told me he didn’t think city branding was “crucial” (which is saying something because I’ve watched him critically analyze the logo on a retirement home). Branding can help a town bring in business, and give it a level of legitimacy when you’re on its website, but it can’t do much more. A city brand will never eclipse the people, the economy, the neighborhoods or the governance that already exist in that place. It might be able to manufacture good feelings about a town for an outsider who saw its ad in an airline magazine, but that person will probably do some research before he or she sets foot there, much less moves in. In short, I think branding might catch the eye of an interested party. Beyond that, its up to the town to shine on its own.