The Branding of Places

Place branding counts among the most difficult of all types of branding. Shoestring budgets and critics from all quarters put these under pressure and under scrutiny. Having worked on a handful of such engagements, I have felt both firsthand. One place brand continues to be used after more than twelve years. Chile’s “Always Surprising” was originally intended for their exports but grew into the country brand. It even ended up as stamp.

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One for my home province of Manitoba did not have the same longevity. The brand committee selected a header we named for a category of creative work rather than one of the real taglines we authored. The strategic work was fantastic, the creative incredibly sophisticated and layered around the four seasons but the public and media could not abide the tag, “Spirited Energy”. It limped along for years but never caught on. We also rebranded the government’s image and that has been in use for close to ten years. I would have bet on Manitoba doing better than Chile but it was the exact opposite.

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On the subject of place branding, I have been interviewed and quoted in:

  • The Place Branding and Public Diplomacy Journal
  • Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity by Melissa Aronczyk
  • Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business From the Suds of Global Obscurity by Andrea Mandel-Campbell
  • Tourist Destination Images and Local Culture: Using the Example of the United Arab Emirates by Verena Schwaighofer

And I was recently interviewed for a new book coming out and was asked to comment on work in this area. Here are some of those thoughts. It is very easy to be critical so believe me when I say I have empathy for everyone of these efforts. Also note that I do not have the brief or the strategy behind these rebrands – this is a purely subjective analysis – much like what takes place when the public sees a new place brand for the first time.

Rhode Island has just been through the process with Milton Glaser. The old logo leaned on the nautical and slightly pirate look. It conjures up a Disney ride more than a place to visit.

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The new look is a bit retro and appears to solve the problem of tourism being stronger in the summer months than winter. It swaps out pirates for preppy sailboats which may be a stab at attracting the more affluent. It is catching a ton of flak online for the Cooler & Warmer tag (I have big empathy).

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Budapest is long-time blend of two cities. It most recently opted for a modern wordmark separated by a crest as a metaphor. The crest was lost due to the colour and communicated no real meaning. The new look is winning fans for a return to an old Europe sensibility with modern connotations. It looks less about touring Budapest than doing business in Budapest. It is more professional, clean and clear but now competes with every crest in the world.

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I do not need the overwhelming voice of others in the industry to think that Pennsylvania has gone from bad to worse. The keystone shape that always needed explanation has been replaced by a fun Transylvania look or the top of a margarine lid. The tag is a variation many regions have used and are in use…”Discover your…”, “Find your…”. It is definitely more approachable and has greater personality but leans towards the juvenile.

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Florida’s economic development arm has made two big decisions with their recent rebrand. First, they ditched the glib business references with the graphic tie and nod to their environment in the tag. There was also something too Sunkist about it. Now they have opted for a distinctly NASA look. And, as we know, it is tough to arrive at one tagline that works and is timeless. I recommend using tags as mini-campaigns so there is nothing wrong to have a small portfolio at your disposal. Still, I enjoy this tag and like that it is being used in their URL.

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Montreal needs tourists. The once-great city has the component assets even though they are crumbling too rapidly. So it was a grand idea to lose their cheesy (fromagy) and dated look. However, the new look is far too corporate even if the wordmark is intriguing. It comes across better in the execution as are most logos (see further down). Still, there are so many amazing design agencies in Montreal that I would have expected something more original and awesome.

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By the way, I believe the province-wide tourism agency is far more appealing in appearance. Both Montreal’s and Quebec’s share the same thought and that is the logo will be an accent on any execution not the main event.

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Super Natural British Columbia is Canada’s I Love New York. The tag has been used for decades and is just darn good. So it is no surprise that it survives in the newest incarnation. A very generic landscape has been replaced by an irreverent wordmark that speaks to the province’s First Nations people, its creativity, and somehow, its outdoorsy personality. Adding the maple leaf was smart too.

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A couple of quick hits include New York’s Meatpacking District. This is how granular place branding has become when neighbourhoods get their own attention. There is a MOMA quality to this work as it is timeless (maybe because it reminds me of The Beatles wordmark).

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And lastly, for some reason this work for Moldova caught my eye. It is beautiful and beckons you to learn more. Sure it looks like a subway map and the tag is a bit trite, yet, it makes you wonder what Moldova is all about. So it works. Perhaps I am a bit biased as it suggests a complexity that we once tried to apply to Manitoba.

All of these show how difficult it is to get this stuff right and how quickly they can disappear. What I have not mentioned is how much citizens dislike their tax dollars being spent on this type of work so brand consultants are under pressure the moment they start. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

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(most images were found on the site BrandNew).

6 replies
  1. Chaz Gromiti
    Chaz Gromiti says:

    I find that most of these have expectations that are too high. So the tourism bureau and the branding people are doomed from the beginning. Only one in hundred seems to succeed.

    Reply
  2. Sharon Hampstead
    Sharon Hampstead says:

    Out of what is shared here I like Manitoba and Quebec the best. Moldova is interesting but is trying to hard. B.C. is to quirky.

    Reply
  3. Taylor Montcrieff
    Taylor Montcrieff says:

    All place brands are just logos. The strategies behind them are always weak. You forgot to mention how many are just logo contests. That is why these get so much criticism.

    Reply
  4. Mark Garnett
    Mark Garnett says:

    The Canadian work is certainly more polished than any American. Logos, as you pointed out, are subjective but still we react to them. If given time, they represent and create meaning. Too bad the Manitoba one did not take off. I remember the whole thing and laughed when Saskatchewan and Alberta emulated or stole much of the creative. It never felt like there was any government commitment behind it.

    Reply
  5. Thomas Wilson
    Thomas Wilson says:

    I still have my Spirited Energy t-shirt! You got robbed on that one. It was the NDP government that screwed it up by not backing it 150%.

    Reply
  6. Alan Ludlow
    Alan Ludlow says:

    I heard Jeff Swystun speak in Winnipeg at a conference and went up later to ask him a question about the Manitoba brand. It was such a shame. The work was solid but there was no follow-through. Once it got passed to a Winnipeg agency, the whole thing fell apart.

    Reply

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