What If We Treated Cities Like Consumer Products?

October 10, 2014


Brands have the luxury of starting over.  Even age-old brands that have been defined over the course of a century or so can re-invent, re-imagine, re-define.  It’s a difficult undertaking for sure, but it can and has been done countless times over.  It takes skilled hands, organizational cohesion, and clarity of vision and purpose.  For sure, in this day and age with media proliferation and fragmentation, information transparency and user generated content, it’s harder than ever for a brand to hold on to the image it crafts for itself.  Instead, the confluence of technology, awareness, and expectation allows consumers the immense power to define a brand as they see fit, regardless of the brand’s intent.  So yes, while a brand can’t always manage the message, given a quality product or service that fulfills a consumer need or want (and adds value, of course), the greater the chance of success.

So what of geographies, then?  Of cities, states, and countries?  Clearly to some extent during their respective creations such entities gave thought to the brand (long before the idea of a brand came to be) what with the design of a flag, choice of an anthem, economic and political models, languages, on, and on, and on.  And in today’s world as marketers agonize over lost control of the brand message, perhaps no more has this ever been true than it is with a geography’s identity, shaped over centuries and millennia by forces largely out of anyone’s control.  An almost completely organic brand evolution…which – depending on your perspective and the result - is sometimes less than ideal, or at minimum less than efficient.

So what if a city were to start over?  What if Chicago, for example, underwent a brand audit, and hired a brand agency, to re-design the Chicago brand?  They wouldn’t necessarily have to start from scratch, but they could if they wanted to for our purposes.  More likely though as is the case with legacy brands that have been with us for some time, it’s easier to leverage the existing attributes of the brand that are working and re-frame the narrative, or nudge the conversation in the desired direction.  Hundreds of years of identity, of course, is difficult to undo.  Smaller cities (or challenger brands, what have you), however, like Marfa, Texas have an increased ability to start from nothing, from a clean slate, and make themselves into whatever they desire.  They are limited only by ambition.

But a city of any size, of any history or legacy would surely want focus and clarity of its positioning, of its promise, of its values, of its voice, of its personality, of its essence.  Moreover, they would want alignment of their brand assets.

And among the most visible and far reaching assets of a particular American geography are its sports teams.  And because sports teams are not owned by the municipality in which they reside, and on which they base their name, civic brand alignment is not only impractical, but near impossible.  Other geographic brand assets of import are political, economic, environmental, educational, historical, cultural.  Many, if not most, of these are out of the jurisdiction of the civic powers that be, and instead in the hands of many independent and competing economic interests to boot.  In short, a good proportion of a geography’s brand assets are not controlled by the geography itself.

But reality notwithstanding, it’s a fun exercise to imagine how a city might approach this branding task should they have the proper influence and authority over all of the city’s brand assets and stakeholders. 

So you can start with a flag, an anthem…or perhaps a motto or a pledge…maybe a political and economic infrastructure. (We’ll leave the ability to re-name the brand off the table, even though it’s possible in corporate practice.)

As it is with real-life consumer product brands, you would start with a brand definition and positioning statement, followed by a creative brief that will lead to a brand framework and architecture.  Within the brand framework and architecture are brand colors, symbols, logos, voice, message, and communication strategy.

And the point of all this is to sell your geography by giving it a “reason-to-be” and an attractive, compelling identity.  The reward is happy citizens choosing to stay rather than leave, who will in turn become brand advocates, which explicitly or implicitly brings outsiders in to visit, or at best, to live.  It’s a literal payoff, being that the reward is economic on the quantitative axis, brand advocacy on the qualitative axis, thus creating a positive feedback loop.

The application of our brand’s re-design and architecture will occur across the majority of consumer touch points within the city.  No easy task for sure, so for the sake of practicality you first target channels that will create the biggest impact…and this can be thought of in the language of advertising:  reach, frequency, impressions.

Civic institutions will be targeted first, with the flag and/or logo required on all government buildings.

[As an aside, let us put to death the concept of a seal in favor of a logo.  A city seal as America knows it is usually dull, unimaginative, soulless, and indistinguishable from all others because there’s a pre-defined notion of what a city seal should look like.  A logo, on the other hand, is open ended and undefined until it is in market.  We can look to the Japanese for civic logo inspiration.]

Furthermore, all civic employees will be emblazoned with the flag/logo/badge.  Policemen, firemen, police cars and fire trucks, busses, trains, snow removal trucks, street sweepers.  All signage in the area, starting at the airport to public transportation, road signs, highway and interstate signs, and in the infrastructure itself, on bridges and railings, for example.

But the piece de resistance are the sports teams.  For the sake of originality, tradition, and variety, we’ll allow all sports teams to keep their current names as appropriate.  However, since sports teams are an extension of the city’s brand…and the most visible one to boot…they must abide by the city’s brand architecture.  That means all fonts are the same across all sports franchises, as are colors.  The precise design attributes can vary based on specific sport norms and traditions. 

And, why should it not be this way?  When certain colors come to define a brand, that’s powerful.  Just ask Target, John Deere, UPS, or Caterpillar.  A few cities have come close with their sports franchises….L.A. with the gold and purple of the Lakers and old-school Kings; St. Louis with the blue and yellow of the Rams and the Blues; but perhaps the best example…and evidence of what could be…is Pittsburgh.  Not only do the three sports teams don the black and yellow (we won’t quibble here over the Penguins current use of gold…it used to be yellow, and could be again), but their city flag is black and yellow as well.  This has an added benefit to Pittsburgh home games, where the chances of folks wearing the home colors are increased dramatically (even if to the detriment of sportswear revenue streams).  The black and yellow of the Steelers are iconic to the franchise, but are also perfect incarnations of the identity of Pittsburgh itself…blue collar, gritty, tough as nails.  So why shouldn’t that brand strength be leveraged across all sports teams…and unto the city itself?

The closest proxy we have to this idea in practice are universities, led in execution, scale, and impact of the large land-grant state universities.  In effect, they are little geographies unto themselves (or in the case of schools like Ohio State, Texas, Georgia…not so little).  The entire university is branded with precision, down to the vision, mission, positioning, targeted demographic, and of course, logo, anthem, cultural norms, history, and brand architecture.  And of course with the brand architecture, all athletic teams sport (pardon the pun) the same colors and logos, which seems so obvious such that it’s not even worth pointing out, nonetheless questioning.  And like Target, John Deere, UPS, Caterpillar, some have even been so successful that not only are they identifiable by color (Texas with its burnt orange), but for some we’ve even resorted to qualifying colors with a specific school (Tennessee orange, Carolina blue)!  And then there’s Oregon…changing all the rules of university branding.  That’s a discussion for another day.

And the purpose of this thought experiment as it concerns Civil Standard is to underline the importance of a civic flag.  While the flag is simply a tool, it’s a powerful one….a universal medium to transmit the brand identity you worked so hard to create and codify.  In essence, however, the flag is the brand and the brand is the flag.

So there it is…there’s my hallucination.  And what of it, do you think?  This happens on the national level, why should it not on the regional or local level as well?  Imagine if at the Olympics, or at the World Cup, our national teams each had their own name, colors, and uniforms.  If you find that a ridiculous notion, then perhaps it’s not such a stretch to consider it an equal absurdity for our smaller geographies to have numerous disparate identities and brands as well. 

The Defense rests.

For the moment, anyhow.