The Trouble With City Branding

Salon recently reported on the trend for cities to focus on branding and the difficulties they face in doing so. Beginning with Indianapolis, the article points out that many cities don’t inherently have single, coherent identity.

“People move to Indianapolis because it’s cheap, has great schools, is family oriented and offers easy living,” says urban analyst Aaron Renn. “Those are hard things to brand. For outsiders, it can be difficult to understand what it’s all about.”

With a few minor tweaks, that quote could just as easily apply to Provo. This makes branding tough; If you ask me, I’d say it’s a travesty to ignore Provo’s arts, food or bike cultures during branding efforts. Talk to executives at Nu Skin, however, and they might rattle off completely different but equally valid parts of the city’s identity. Small business owners, educators, kids, retirees, and everyone else all might have their own “must-haves” when it comes to branding.

The point, however, is that cities often chase “a standardized formula for success,” which of course doesn’t work because really cities are unique. The article then contrasts Chicago’s failed efforts to create an “aspirational brand” with Nashville’s successful embracing of its music heritage.

The author is getting at something very similar to what I wrote about in March when I highlighted a Grist article about embracing quirkiness in branding efforts.

What’s significant here, however, is that we seem to be at a turning point in the evolution of city branding. As the Salon article notes, cities didn’t always feel the need to brand themselves at all. That gradually changed, but for a long time cities have been stalled in the formulaic branding mode. Article’s like this, as well as a few select branding campaigns, suggest that we’re now experiencing a kind of sea change toward character-driven, quirky branding as opposed to the more staid efforts of the past.

In the end, I’m not sure where Provo’s recent branding efforts fall on that spectrum, but more than anything else I hope the city embraces its uniqueness and peculiarity. Doing anything less would sell the city short.



Filed under Development, Provo

2 responses to “The Trouble With City Branding

  1. Paul

    One on the difficult things about branding, especially for an entity as varied and complex as an entire community (as opposed to, say, a corporation that produces a single line of products) is helping all the people involved to get their arms around what brand development entails – that it’s more than just a logo. Branding reaches into everything the entity does, how it does it and how its individual components/employees come across in one-on-one interactions with its customers. effective branding also goes to how well a city can sustain its focus over time, through very public incidents which are often beyond its control, and through election cycles. What happens every day in the trenches can be difficult for people to relate back the ethereal concept of a city’s brand.

  2. Place branding is hard work. But, it can be due successfully. Here is a link to free information on how to effectively brand a community or nation –

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