A city story: what the hell does that even mean?


I remember an illustrated Globe and Mail page a few years ago with Canadian cities and their iconic images. Toronto had the CN Tower. Winnipeg had The Forks. Halifax had its harbour. Vancouver had the glass and the mountains. Calgary had its own tower and its own mountains.

The photograph the editor chose for Edmonton was an open pit mine north of Fort McMurray.

Reputation is worth millions, even billions. It’s the key to product development, investor relations, marketing, human resources. We can build our reputation with logos and copywriting or we can build our reputation with a story that informs everything: including the logo and the copywriting.

Before we talked to anyone, we looked at what city branding companies have been doing in North America in the last fifteen years. For the sake of proximity, we looked at two examples close to Edmonton. These examples are perfectly representative of what else is happening on the continent.

For years, Calgary was “the heart of the new west.” This has worked beautifully for the city. Some Calgarians are uncomfortable with it, with the hocus-pocus of the Stampede mythology and an inconsistency between luring new head offices to a hip, new urban centre and the worst aspects of cowboy imagery. Some years ago, during Alberta Week in Washington DC, I sat with some Americans who were mighty confused by all the cowboy stuff at the Calgary party.

“I don’t want to be rude but… ain’t that ours?”

The city administration, at some point, agreed. They retained the services of a Los Angeles-based marketing and branding firm that came up with Calgary: Innovative Energy. For a fuller explanation of this process, consider reading my friend Chris Turner’s beautifully-written essay in The Walrus about The New Calgary.

“It’s a meaningless phrase,” Turner writes, “a multi-stakeholder committee’s overwrought idea of catchy, a slogan better suited to a consulting firm.”

Enough people agreed that the Innovative Energy banners came down. It is now “Calgary: Be Part of the Energy.

This slogan is what comes up when you click the Calgary’s Story link at Calgary Economic Development. Only it isn’t a story. It is an invitation, which is better than two multisyllabic nouns, but it isn’t a story. The testimonials to prove it out seem random. They are reflections of universal civic awesomeness, what every city says: innovation, creativity, diversity, sustainability.

Edmonton: sustainably diverse. No, no. Edmonton: diversely sustainable.

Regina’s latest branding initiative resulted in Regina: Infinite Horizons. The prairies are flat. Regina is a city of opportunity. Again, any flat city with jobs could use this phrase just as any city with oil and gas, or coal, or nuclear power could use innovative energy.

The best city story we found was in Austin, Texas, a city I mentioned in the previous post. At the end of the last century Austin was, like Edmonton, a medium-sized government and university town with challenging weather for five months of the year. Its music scene was oddly wonderful, as Edmonton’s theatre scene is oddly wonderful. But Austin was overshadowed by Houston and Dallas, even San Antonio, to say nothing of the Bay Area and New England.

A librarian named Red Wassenich used the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” on a radio station in 2000. He was concerned by all the big box stores and chains moving into town, making it difficult for independent business. To Wassenich, a spirit of wacky independence was at the core of what made Austin Austin. The dude who makes Jesus out of hub caps? That’s Austin. And it was under threat. In story terms, this is the status quo. The inciting incident, the call to action: let’s all of us work, in our own ways, to keep this place weird. What are you doing, Mary? How about you, Steve? Mohammed? Sally?

Let’s go do it!

It isn’t perfect. There is an anti-corporate bias in it, for some people, and others would much rather make Austin normal.

There are battles over who owns the phrase, but the independent business association and, eventually, the city government, recognized what was happening a few years into a mini T-shirt and bumper sticker revolution. They adopted it. Edmonton’s city manager, Simon Farbrother, tells a story about visiting Austin’s city manager. Austin’s city manager said he has one job: to keep Austin weird.

If you have this, a story like this, you know whether to say yes or no when someone calls with a brilliant, expensive idea. Is that us? You can test your initiatives against it. A medium-sized city can’t be everything to all people, but it can develop a feeling of coherence and focus that will help a festival like SXSW explode and encourage entrepreneurs to set up in a city that will support them.

Can Calgary or Regina’s city managers say this? Are “Be Part of the Energy” or “Infinite Horizons” assets, in this way? No, because they don’t operate like master stories, which I discussed in the last post. One is a bland invitation and the other is a multisyllabic description. They live in the land of the buzzword. A good copywriter or designer can slap a sentence together, with these themes, but how does a Calgary or a Regina citizen, at a cocktail party in Toronto or New York, use them?

Of course, Calgary doesn’t have the reputation problem Edmonton has. It can afford to live in the land of the buzzword, if it insists.

A master story, for a city or a business or a politician, can’t be borrowed by any other place or corporation or person. We support the story with key anecdotes, mini-stories that every ambassador and evangelist can use: plumbers, CEOs and ballet dancers. You can see how “Keep Austin Weird” is an anecdote generator, a way to honour the past and the culture, and it’s a provocation, an incitement to further action. It sounds like a slogan now but at the time it was just a challenge, a three-word story.

So, back to Edmonton…






26 thoughts on “A city story: what the hell does that even mean?

  1. I’ve always thought that “Wild at Heart” would be a great fit for Edmonton. This cheeky catchphrase would highlight not only the physical wilderness in the heart of our city, but also act as an antidote to an image of us as a boring, stuffy, government town. Our elevator pitch could include our Ribbon of Green, Folkfest, Fringe, and other festivals, sports teams, Winspear, AGA, new RAM, new arena, etc.

    Instead of the oil sands, our iconic image would be the massive, green expanse of the river valley in the heart of the city, with the shiny new Walterdale bridge juxtaposed against the historic High Level, with the streetcar paused mid-span, and newly restored waterfall flowing to the river below.

  2. No allusion to The City of Champions? Our once-relevant label that has now become a snicker and eyeroll, I think that adding to the complexity is our inability to move on (for lots of reasons – comfort, denial, effort expenditure, self-realization, doubt…).

  3. Love this. I thought “City of Champions” wasn’t that bad…but people couldn’t get beyond the idea that “Champion” could actually refer to something other than a sports team…something like people. “City of Festivals” seems appropriate and true and wonderful, but I think you’re right…the story first…then catch phrase will come.

  4. You mentioned the G&M photo of the tar sands to represent Edmonton. I can see that causing resentment in Edmonton. I heard just as much resentment in Whitehorse over Edmonton calling its summer festival Klondike Days. Talk about misappropriation!
    When I came to Miramichi, one of the local communities staged a horseback bank robbery to celebrate pioneer days. This in an area with the most colourful history of log driving, ship building, fishing and world wide trading imaginable. Sometimes it is difficult for us to see how interesting we are.

  5. Good questions to keep asking. We have the Globe photo spread framed and hanging in our office. We do not like the story it tells.

    I have heard about the challenges and hard work finding genuine meaning in the Bike Town moniker in Devon (http://www.destinationdevelopment.com/portfolio-items/devon-alberta/) and I salute their diligence at escaping the oil town story they had invested in, yet come across many in the community who reject it as representing their community. Time will tell… stories.

  6. I completely agree with what you’re saying and I’m glad you’re bringing it up because we need our story. This is the hard part- how do we move from recognizing the problem to creating the solution?

  7. It is true that it is hard to think of one thing that signifies Edmonton. I’ve visited dozens of times over a lifetime and very much like the city. The ravine is probably the thing that stands out as unique among the cities I’ve visited but there are so many features. I would be interested to know what your former poet laureate, Alice Major, thinks is the common identifier.

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  9. I have always liked Aldo Leopold’s quote from his book “The Land Ethic” – Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. it is wrong when it tends otherwise”.

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  14. I’ve thought for a while that “Edmonton: Make It Yours!” would work well…but there is no imagery that goes with that.

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