The company I work for, Story Engine, pitched the City of Edmonton on something strange back in January, 2012. I had worked on the City Vision for 2040, and I had noticed — in community halls all over the city — that citizens were obsessed with the Edmonton story. What makes this place different from other places? Where did we come from? How does it feel unique? What does Edmonton want and what is stopping us from getting it? What are we most proud of? They spoke in anecdotes and shouted at each other: yes, yes, that’s it!
Only it was not our job, in those meetings, to work on an Edmonton story — or on a single theme that binds the most powerful Edmonton stories. We were in 2040, in vision time. I realized, riding home at the end of one autumn meeting, we were discussing the dénouement of the Edmonton story: the happy ending.
My business partner and I wondered if an Edmonton story, now that we have a vision, could inspire a certain kind of action in the city. If we could figure out a theme, a story Edmontonians could internalize and tell to each other and to people in Toronto and New York and Raleigh-Durham, maybe it would be more valuable than the traditional branding initiatives we had all witnessed. We have found it works for companies, to build their identity and their strategy out of a single unifying story — a master story — rather than a pile of buzz words. It would work for cities too. We had case studies. Here are good examples. Here are ridiculous ones. We talked about Austin, Texas.
The pitch inspired another meeting. Then… we didn’t hear anything. In business I think this is what we call a noble failure. So we started working on it anyway.
We began to notice a common theme, interviewing people: blue collar and white collar, artsy and accountant-y, old Edmontonian, young Edmontonian, immigrant Edmontonian, First Nations Edmontonian. It was different than the theme I had started with, as a hypothesis, which had something to do with northern-ness. Edmontonians don’t think about that a terrible lot, as delicious as it would be for a copywriter and a graphic designer.
I did similar interviews in Calgary, to be sure what we were hearing in Edmonton wasn’t just “the universally good thing of the moment.” The stories and themes were different, just 300 kilometres down the road.
One of my interview subjects summed up the Calgary spirit quite well. His proudest day as a lifelong Calgarian, his most Calgary day, was when the front page of The Globe and Mail was: Imperial Oil moving head office to Calgary. A few days later there was a lifestyle feature in the same national newspaper about humidifiers and cowboy boots: Torontonians will learn to walk the Calgary walk.
He kept it on his fridge until it turned yellow.
So what about Edmonton?