Does your city need a tagline or a messaging framework?

4 min read

Many people think branding means designing a logo and coming up with a tagline; that once you have those two elements, the branding process is done and you’re ready to plaster that logo and tagline all over the world. Some people even go as far as locking up the logo with the tagline, thinking that will do the job of communicating the brand’s promise just by nature of seeing it.

But that couldn’t be more untrue. Your city’s brand is not your logo or the slogan you use, and what you are aiming to communicate about your city will not be accomplished solely by a logo and a short phrase used over and over.

Instead, we define a brand as the system of beliefs which defines an organization (in this case, your city) and attracts others to it.

You are most likely trying to attract many different types of people to your city, and for different reasons. That means you have multiple audiences, and different messages will resonate with each one. For example, your economic development department’s audience is entrepreneurs and business owners, and they will resonate with a message about business growth and opportunity. Meanwhile, your tourism efforts could be geared toward travelers who are looking for an adventurous, thrilling experience. And at the core of it all, you have your residents, who have their own set of needs and the loudest voice.

It’s for this reason that, in most cases, we don’t believe a tagline is the answer for messaging on citywide branding initiatives.

How can you possibly communicate to so many different audiences in a way that will grab their attention and encourage them to act with a singular, standardized tagline?

Alternatively, a messaging framework is a far more versatile way of communicating about your city. A messaging framework provides the platform or jumping off point for how you’ll talk about your city in relation to your multiple audiences. It is a singular idea that communicates your brand story, but it’s executed in such a way that it’s flexible and can change based on the audience it is directed toward.

The best way to illustrate how a messaging framework works is to give you a real example. In our work with Waupaca, Wisconsin, the messaging framework centers on the idea of a word or short phrase that applies to both sides of a 50/50 visual, accompanied by a grounding statement of, “From the Chain to Main” (where the “chain” refers to the Chain’ O Lakes, a popular tourist destination, and “main” refers to Main Street and Waupaca’s growing downtown). “From the Chain to Main” keeps the message consistent, while the first part of the statement allows the messaging to be taken in different directions depending on the intended audience. It also allows it to grow and change over time — the City or CVB is not limited by one defined tagline.

Managing the brand is key to being able to pull a messaging framework off. In the absence of an official tagline, and because many people still assume a tagline is required, a city staffer could simply create a phrase that actually becomes the tagline — without even intending to. You should have a dedicated brand manager on staff, whether that is their only role or part of other duties, in order to make sure the brand guidelines are followed and the messaging framework is used correctly.

But don’t worry, there is still a time and place for taglines. When you are able to be hyper-focused on one audience, we think taglines can still be applicable. For example, your EDC could have its own tagline, so long as it falls in line with the messaging of your city as a whole. And sometimes a tourism-focused tagline can work too, depending on your needs. Everyone is familiar with the iconic “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” tagline that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) used from 2003 to early 2020. Because the LVCVA was targeting a very specific audience in search of a very specific experience, they were okay with potentially alienating other audiences by using that tagline — and had the resources to do so. Smaller cities don’t often have the resources to take that risk, so you could find that a framework is still the better way to go even for specific parts of your city’s brand architecture.

The point is not that you shouldn’t use a tagline, but that a tagline is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to messaging.

Most cities don’t actually need a tagline, they just need an effective way to talk about themselves. We believe developing a messaging framework is often the best approach.


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