Branding isn’t placemaking, but placemaking is branding

4 min read

In our work, we specialize in place branding and placemaking. This work, when done well, overlaps and works together. When working on branding projects, we always push our clients to think about how this brand will affect the built environment. When we work on placemaking projects, we always push to make sure that the public space is reflective of the community’s place brand.

The problem we see today is that both branding and placemaking are often used to describe the most basic forms of what they really mean. We’ve all seen it. That ad agency that says they’re doing ‘placemaking’ when they name a district and highlight the logo on a street banner. Or the design firm that says they did ‘branding’ by creating a catchy tagline and website for a district. These things aren’t bad – and usually are great assets for places – but they only scratch the surface of what place branding and placemaking actually look like.

Let’s start with place branding. Yes, of course, a place brand can include a logo, website and messaging, but if we’re honest, those designs and wording will evolve over time. In reality, your place brand is your place’s constitution. It’s the values that are authentic to your place, and principles you hope to live up to. When we view our place brand as this, logo designs and assets should be used strategically to represent those values. When we value a place’s brand in this way, it doesn’t stop with logo design, it serves as a decision-making filter for everything. Yes, everything.

When a city values its brand, it should be used to direct its communications and tourism efforts, but it should also, and more importantly, direct its policies and the built environment. This is where placemaking fits in. Placemaking isn’t that branded street banner or that new branded mural. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. Often when we finish a branding project with a city, we’re tasked with working through an implementation strategy. What is surprising to many of our clients, is that when we’re implementing a brand, putting those colors and new logo in the built environment is less important than helping that place live out their brand values in the built environment.

To give an example of this, take a look at our recent project in High Point, North Carolina. High Point’s brand strategy is built around the idea that they are a capital of creativity and that all residents of High Point are creators. We used a temporary placemaking activation to highlight how this brand should be implemented long-term throughout their city. The activation showcased murals painted by local artists, live music by local musicians, beer by local craft brewers, and opportunities for people to build, paint, perform and be in a space that reinforces the claim that because they are in High Point, they themselves have creativity inside of them. As part of the activation, we had a local fabricator build furniture that was intentionally designed to be moved throughout the space. Why? Because creators choose where they sit! On the backside of a mural being painted by a professional artist, residents got to paint and draw whatever they wanted. Why? Because we wanted to provide a space for dreamers to share their ideas of beauty! The space was designed to allow residents to not only understand High Point’s place brand, they got to experience it.

Whether it is a branding or placemaking project, we begin with an exercise we call a Place Brand Audit. With an audit, we begin by researching a place’s digital environment before arriving. What does their social media tell us? What does their website tell us? How are people talking about it online? We do this because that is what people do to your place everyday! We all have an assumption about somewhere, good or bad before we actually get there in person. Once we’ve researched that place online, we visit it in person. Time and time again, we have seen a repeating pattern. The place’s digital presence uses all the right words like ‘vibrant’, ‘historic’, or ‘live work play’, but we arrive and that expectation doesn’t meet the experience. A branded banner isn’t going to make that experience better either. To us, when we say the solution is placemaking, we mean that – we have to make places! And those places have to be formed using the values of our brand. If your city has a brand principle of being ‘welcoming’ – do you have public spaces that feel inviting and safe? If your city has a brand of being a ‘music city’ – does music fill the streets with buskers or outdoor instruments? Are there places for musicians to hone their skills and collaborate? Placemaking should not only complement your brand, it should prove it. That’s why we say branding isn’t placemaking, but placemaking is branding. Your brand itself isn’t creating great places. But your brand values should enact change to your built environment, and one way or another, your places are actually revealing your brand and what you value.


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