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…