When I sat down to create my first community brand in the late summer of 1999, I had no clue what I was doing. Branding was a very new concept and didn’t have a name. Communities certainly weren’t savvy on telling their own story yet. Why would they be? They’re places not branding agencies.
The experience economy thing was brand new, and the thought that a city would have to be good at communicating was as silly of an idea as walking around with a supercomputer in your pocket and a phone on your wrist.
But I noticed something. People liked to talk about their home. They liked to share the passion that they had for their place. And that’s what I wanted to capture.
A Community Brand is not a Theme
Citizens are often skeptical of a community branding process, as they should be.
Especially when an out of town consultant talks more than listens—telling communities that as they develop their brand, they need to embark on a quest to identify their “one unique thing.” The thing that makes them different.
These consultants are wrong. This is the worst advice. It sounds good at first pass, but you know where it always leads you to? A high-priced consultant trying to force an entire community under the umbrella of a single inauthentic theme. That’s not branding, it’s just lazy consulting.
Then when the dust settles, those citizens don’t even recognize where they live anymore.
Communities shouldn’t try to have that one special thing, instead, they should try to be that place that’s comfortable in its own skin and easy to feel at home in.
Because the real point of a good branding process is to identify what the locals cherish, the things that are truly authentic, and create tools and assets that help preserve it.
Successful community branding efforts provide ways for people to connect.
By turning a local into an evangelist, a visitor into a docent and a business owner into a community concierge.
Can we talk about logos?
Your logo doesn’t have to be a map of your state with a star on it. In fact, your logo doesn’t have to have anything literal on it. The job of your logo is NOT to tell every story your community has to tell.
Your logo is just a springboard for storytelling—a basket, holding people’s passion, a tool to help start conversations.
Wait. So your logo can actually generate word of mouth advertising? Yep. It can, and it should.
Organization vs Destination
One of the biggest things that I have to teach communities is that it “deserves” its own brand.
The City, Main Street, the Chamber of Commerce, or CVB are all organizations with boards and policies and the occasional touch of BS.
The community, on the other hand, is shared by all. A community brand should be open-source, available to everyone.
- Event organizers are able to connect the events they produce back to the brand.
- Businesses are able to create products they can profit from.
- The people are able to show the pride they have in the place they call home.
So what’s good branding look like these days?
I know this is a lot to digest, so I’d like to share an example from Jonestown, which is a historic neighborhood in downtown Baltimore.
Jonestown is the home of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, The Jewish Museum of Maryland, the third Oldest Synagogue in America, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, The Carroll Mansion & Phoenix Shot Tower, and the Baltimore National Heritage Area.
With all of these amazing amenities, how could a place like this go unknown? People knew Fell’s Point and they knew Pigtown, but no one had heard of Jonestown. And to complicate things even more, the name Jonestown has been a bit tarnished by the mass suicide of a Kool-aid drinking cult in South America.
So that’s where we started. An unknown neighborhood with strong roots to Jewish Culture, Baltimore’s origin, the State cultural center, and the birthplace of patriotism. How do you tell that story?
We try to combine thoughtful color palette selections, typeface, message and graphics to create an expandable brand system.
The colors were all directly drawn from the immigrant groups who settled Jonestown. The five-color palette allows us to wrap our arms around these stories even simply by using colors.
The next element that we wanted to bring in was the Star-Spangled Banner. It was written here in Jonestown. The house is a major tourism attraction and point of pride for the community.
Our next goal was to bring in Maryland pride and highlight the fact that Jonestown is the home of many state-level cultural museums. This subtle reference to the state flag helps to blend pride on multiple levels.
Baltimore City also has a flag that features the Shot Tower, and historical asset right there in Jonestown, so what better way to celebrate a neighborhood known for flags than to incorporate the City Flag as well. We even designed meaning into each of the eight elements to the right of the flag, each representing one of the 8 City Landmarks that call Jonestown home.
One of my favorite details of the neighborhood icon is that it contains a Star of David, as a tribute to the Jewish Heritage, the Historic Synagogue, and even being the home of Corned Beef Row.
When you combine it all together, you get the Jonestown Banner Icon. This serves as the basis for the neighborhood’s graphic identity.
With all of the focus on the icon, it is easy to overlook the message—but the tagline is my favorite part. What better phrase to describe an immigrant neighborhood connected with the drafting of the Star-Spangled Banner than “Proudly We Hail.”
When a community seeks to create a brand system, realize that it’s not a reinvention, or a Halloween costume. It’s a process where a community can establish a guide for the place they all love. A bonding session that allows a community to talk about their values, and then figure out how to share those values with friends, neighbors, leaders, and visitors.
Ultimately a community brand helps build pride through the preservation of their essential character.