Branding: the Pros and the Crowd

The furor over rebranding in Provo has died down somewhat, presumably as city and professional leaders work on revisions to previously released concepts.

This week, however, Fast Company highlighted similar rebranding efforts in Richmond, a city that lies in the heart of colonial and confederate America. That history has dominated Richmond for generations, apparently, but in recent years the city has become more entrepreneurial, creative, and dynamic:

The city had quietly been transforming into a more creative place, a hub of eclectic interests from indie music to mountain biking to biotechnology. But hardly anyone outside of Richmond, it seemed, knew anything about this.

Substitute things like BYU and Mormon history for Colonial and Confederate history, and the transformation in Richmond starts to look very much like the one in Provo.

What’s really exciting about Richmond, however, is that the city opted to go with a branding campaign that uses one unifying image onto which residents can impose whatever they want:

The campaign, “RVA Creates,” is built around a familiar acronym that serves as both a tech-forward hashtag and a blank canvas–one on which Civil War re-enactors and startup entrepreneurs alike are invited to project their own ideas about the city’s creativity. The Brandcenter created an online generator that allows anyone to upload into the “RVA” logo images from the local music scene, or the river-rafting community, or the downtown streetscape–or a nearby battlefield. Running throughout all of these scenes is the idea that creativity takes many forms and that, in fact, Richmond’s history has been defined by examples of it.

In other words, the branding campaign gives people an empty “RVA” logo, into which they insert their own images. This slide show reveals that people have subsequently paired the letters with images of the city, pictures of beards, a zombie run, and more traditional concepts.

The approach apparently has worked, and notably exists without a slogan:

Today, “RVA” is plastered all over the city, on the rear windows of hundreds of cars, on city fire trucks, downtown banners, highway billboards, T-shirts and arts festival names. O’Keefe eschewed any kind of accompanying slogan. Slogans never work in municipal branding, he says (quick: try to name two off the top of your head!). A city is too complex an organism.

I think this mix between grassroots branding and top-down professional control is something that could work well in Provo; after recent iterations of the city’s new brand there was enough negative feedback that the city returned to the drawing board. That suggests that people have strong feelings about their city’s brand, as well as good ideas for how to convey it.

Moreover, the most striking and creative branding image I’ve seen of Provo so far happens to be this grassroots effort, which was plastered all over the city by street artist Leuven.

All of this is to say that there is tremendous creative capacity within the community. Richmond’s approach to branding allowed it to capitalize on corresponding creativity there, while still maintaining a cohesive image. Provo would do well to learn from that example.


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