Balancing Authenticity and Aspiration in City Branding

3 min read

When asking questions during engagement in the place branding process, people always ask us, “Are you wanting me to answer that for how we are now (authentically) or how we want to be (our aspiration)?'” Our answer is… both.

Authenticity and aspiration don’t have to be opposing forces and instead can be complementary facets of the same identity. The goal is to capture the essence of a place while envisioning its highest potential. At the end of the day our work is all about helping communities become the best version of themselves.

This is why I love this quote by Strong Town’s Chuck Marhon, when he was on our podcast, and was describing the work we do at CivicBrand,

“I’ve seen a lot of people who try to do what you do and often what comes out of the other end is a brand logo that people in the community look at and say that’s a bunch of BS – that’s what we pretend to be to someone else, but that’s not who we are. I’ve seen enough of the work you’ve done and the process you use is to say how do we do this authentically and how do we help you become the people you want to be.”

In further answering the question of do we answer this as we are now or how we want to be, an analogy that we often share is this – imagine shopping for a new outfit. You want something fresh and new, something that resonates with you and still feels like you. It’s not about putting on a costume but rather discovering a new you. I imagine we’ve all had that moment where we put something on that is brand new, totally different, but it makes us feel great and we say “this is me!

So yes, it is authentic and based in reality, but it’s an attainable aspiration and still an aspriation that is exciting and motivating. City branding is about fostering a vision that reflects the core values, heritage, and aspirations of the community. It acknowledges growth and change while honoring the roots and reality that anchor its identity.

The path from reality to aspiration is not without its challenges. Many place brands falter when they fail to translate their vision into tangible action. It’s not enough to craft a compelling narrative; you must also lay the groundwork for its implementation – to make it real. Otherwise, it’s just a fake campaign – not a real brand. Branding is about casting a vision and then fulfilling that brand promise consistently over and over.

Authenticity cannot be manufactured—it must be lived and breathed. A successful city brand goes beyond surface-level aesthetics; it permeates every aspect from the built environment to the culture of engagement.

That’s where our work in shaping the built environment, placemaking, and building a culture of engagement all come into play in making that aspiration a reality and making it authentic. City branding is not a single exercise or project but an ongoing dialogue between the past, present, and future—a journey toward realizing the full potential of a place while staying true to its roots.

Successful place branding lies in striking the delicate balance between authenticity and aspiration. It’s about getting really honest with where you are now, daring to dream of a brighter tomorrow, and then backing it up with the actions that make tomorrow a reality. When done right, it’s not just a brand—it’s a reflection of the soul of a city, an invitation to all who encounter it to become part of its story.


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