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Why Rebuilding Cities Need Rebranding

When disasters strike, cities have a chance to rebuild better

Submitted by: Marc Stoiber

Posted: Nov 23, 2011 – 05:23 PM EST

Tags: sustainability, future thinking, greenbuild, innovation, branding


By Marc Stoiber

This story is an abridged version of a speech delivered at the Green Build Expo in Birmingham, Alabama.

This spring, Alabama was hit by terrifying tornadoes that ripped through centers like Birmingham. Then, the priority was about creating permanent shelter for the victims, but there is an incredible opportunity to do much more.

The focus of the conference was rebuilding using sustainable technology, creating better, more future-proof homes. An equally important focus should be on the opportunity to reinvent the region’s brand.  

I would argue that all cities have brands. Some excite their audience (New York), some don’t (Cleveland). Fixing a less-than-ideal city brand is a daunting prospect. After all, you’re fighting status quo ideas and infrastructure that reinforces negative perceptions. 

But a city that has endured a catastrophe has license to revamp its brand. Its residents are looking for a ‘reset’ button – they want to look forward to a better tomorrow. And if infrastructure has been destroyed, symbols of the old way can be replaced with symbols of the new. 

That said, some key steps need to be taken to ensure the new brand is convincing, can grow, and has staying power.

Define your essence

Simon Sinek believes most corporations and people (and, I would venture, cities) have no trouble saying what they do, or how they do it. But very few can define why.

This is due to the way we process information: the part of our brain that defines rational thoughts like ‘what’ and ‘how’ also happens to control our language. The part that controls deeper, emotional concepts like ‘why’ isn’t wired for words. So we can easily verbalize rational thoughts, but are tongue-tied when someone asks us why we exist. 

Successful brands like Apple have cracked this code. They’ve created legions of fans not just because they create cool devices but because they understand why they exist: to challenge the status quo (perfectly encapsulated in the ‘Mac vs PC’ commercials). And that why forms a bond with every tech user who doesn’t want to be perceived as a geek.

So the first lesson to any city that wants to build its brand is to begin with some serious soul-searching. Define your why.

Find your white space

Once you’ve defined your essence, you need to hold it up to a very critical filter. Can it claim its own white space?

White space is the space in your target’s psyche that is unoccupied by other brands. Find it, and your brand sticks. Don’t find it, and you’re quickly forgotten.

There are three key questions to ask yourself to assess whether you’ve struck white space gold:

  1. Is your essence a natural fit? If you live in the frozen north, claiming to be a sunny paradise simply won’t wash. You aren’t being honest with yourself. Your essence needs to line up with an attribute that is true and recognized by your audience as true.
  2. Is your essence important? You may be the silly putty capital of the world, but if your audience doesn’t care about silly putty, you’ll be preaching to empty pews. Your essence needs to line up with something your audience finds attractive.
  3. Is your essence hard to copy or compete with? How many cities claim to be ‘friendly’? In your case, friendliness may be true, it may resonate with your audience – but it will never differentiate you from your competitors. If this seems obvious, check into how many cities in North America are claiming to be capitals of sustainability. If you don’t differentiate, you’ll become a ‘me-too’. And waste your branding money.

Futureproof your brand

Our world is going through unprecedented change. Climate change, technological change and cultural change. Is your brand resilient enough to thrive in this environment?

Although there are no guarantees, building the following five elements into your brand will give it a better than average chance of success.

  1. Sustainability. Sustainability needs to be a strong undercurrent in everything you do. Not only because it draws the best and brightest potential residents or because it keeps punitive legislators away but because it makes financial sense. Sustainability is newspeak for infrastructure efficiency, and that saves money. Which city doesn’t want to save money?
  2. Innovation. Innovation is one of the most used, and abused, words of the past three years. But no matter what you call it, fostering an environment for creativity and invention is a powerful tool for building a better city. It’s an incredible brand attribute to be known for.
  3. Design. English no longer rules the world, and words aren’t the best way to communicate with a diverse audience. You need to incorporate strong design into your brand, to enable your audience to intuitively and instantly understand you. 
  4. Insight. Is your brand built on an insight with a ‘best before’ expiry date or an insight that’s perennial? On the surface, BMW’s iProject is about creating electric cars. But look deeper and you see they’re working to an entirely new insight: mobility. The company is investing in new, exciting ways for people to get around without cars, because they understand the future is about megacities, where public transport and hyperdensity will make cars an expensive novelty.
  5. Social interaction. Don Draper, RIP. The new world of branding is about interactivity, meaningful dialogue with consumers and creating movements instead of campaigns. That means your brand needs to be able to listen as effectively as it speaks. And, more importantly, it needs to be able to turn feedback into action.

Define your brand. Or be defined.

Building a brand isn’t as simple as creating a logo. It takes commitment, courage and time. Ample reason to put it on the back burner while you address more pressing issues, like rebuilding your city.

But if you don’t define your brand, someone in your audience will. Chances are the perception they create about your city won’t be as flattering as you might like.

It’s your city. It’s your brand. Futureproof it.

About Marc Stoiber

Marc Stoiber is a creative director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist. He consults with clients across North America. He also speaks and blogs extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of today's brands.

Readers: Bringing home sustainability: Can the message drive the brand, or the city? Tell us your thoughts on Talkback!

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