When is the right time for city branding?

6 min read

“Is this the right time?” is a question we receive frequently at CivicBrand when discussing community wide city or place branding projects. While many city leaders and staff are attracted to and interested in the city branding process, we often encounter a lot of anxiety around timing. Often, the anxiety has to do with how to position a branding process alongside other projects like an upcoming comprehensive plan, a downtown master plan, or even an upcoming election. And sometimes branding is confused with marketing which causes many to struggle with idea of just marketing to external audiences like visitors or attracting external companies instead of spending tax payer dollars improving their community for their constituents.

To be fair, these are all huge undertakings requiring a significant investment of time and other resources so questions about timing definitely matter. This is why we urgently encourage our clients to NOT leave branding as the last step. Before we explain why, it’s important to clarify a few things.


Branding is not just for marketing

One of many key distinctions between branding and marketing is that branding sometimes requires conscious decisions that align with your brand’s values, even if they may have a negative financial impact. Your brand should serve as the primary filter for decision-making, not just focusing on the bottom line.

While financial impact is very important, it is unethical for a business to neglect sustainability for its employees and for cities to not be financially sustainable. That said, financial considerations should not be the sole factor when making decisions. Adopting a triple-bottom-line approach involves considering people, the planet, and prosperity.

Ask yourself: Is it worth pursuing profitability if it harms your people or the planet? Is it worth it if it contradicts your brand promise and values? Profitability alone should not dictate decisions; a holistic perspective is necessary for sustainable success. You can really only answer that last question when you know what your brand stands for.


Branding is more than a logo

Branding is not just about creating visual identity assets like logos, websites, and street banners. This is a misconception we encounter frequently. While we love great visuals, that is by no means what we mean by branding. Branding is an in-depth process focused on capturing the story, identity, and values of a place. Visual components can absolutely help communicate that story but they are not the brand.

So why do we say to do Branding first? With their emphasis on determining land use and preparing for real economic pressures like growth and development, shouldn’t comprehensive plans and/or downtown strategies take priority? While we believe that these plans and strategies are super important, here are three reasons they’ll be more effective if you take them on after you undergo a comprehensive branding process.


Reason 1: Branding allows you to reflect on and communicate the HEART of your city

A city is not just roads, buildings and stoplights. Cities have heart and soul. By this, we mean that all cities have a unique story and culture, a unique feel and look. Our branding process gives city leaders a chance to reconnect with that heart, a chance to reflect on and articulate the aspects of their identity that sets them apart from other cities. We also make time to observe the rhythms of life in the community and hear directly from residents and stakeholders on how they would describe the city’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. We then take all of those stories and observations to create a holistic vision that communicates the story, values and identity of a place. The visual assets that come out of this are part of an effort to communicate that vision but are not the ultimate outcome of the branding process. The ultimate outcome is having a deeper understanding of the identity, values and direction of your city and giving you an invaluable foundation and decision-making filter to make all future decisions about your community.


Reason 2: Branding will set a comprehensive plan up for success

By no means are we trying to discourage comprehensive plans. In fact, we see comprehensive plans as necessary and important tools and we run public engagement and project branding on numerous comprehensive plans across the country. The issue is that while most comprehensive plan proposals will say they start with community engagement and visioning, the depth and results of that vision leaves a lot to be desired.

Spending time on in-depth, meaningful, and equitable community engagement is a standard part of our branding process and is an excellent way to set your city leadership up to confidently develop a plan that truly fits the city. The visioning work done as part of a comprehensive plan or downtown master plan process often leads to vague “vision statements” that could apply to any city.

By doing a branding project upfront and therefore already having that clearly articulated vision you will free up the engagement on the planning project to be able get into the weeds of land-use, housing, mobility and truly understanding how those different elements ultimately will lead to the vision created in the branding effort. That is the role of the comp plan and the area of expertise of firms developing comp plans. Community-wide visioning and consensus building is not the expertise of planners and engineers. Timelines of comp plans and downtown plans typically do not provide enough time to the community-wide visioning engagement properly. By doing it upfront as part of a branding project the planners on the planning effort can dive right in and get moving on that project.

By giving stakeholders a chance to articulate their vision of the city and bringing together these various perspectives to create a holistic vision and sense of identity, our holistic branding process makes it easier to decide what fits within a comprehensive plan. If your city has an authentic story to tell about its identity, that will make it much easier to answer planning questions like what kind of developments should be welcome, what kind of land use should we embrace? What kind of transit strategies should we encourage? In this way, your city brand can be used as a decision-making filter for major policy decisions and help you stay aligned with your city’s heart.


Reason 3: A community brand is bigger than any election or elected official

Comprehensive plans and/or downtown plans are the two most common investments cities consider making before investing in branding but some cities also try to work around election cycles. The fear is that newly elected officials will toss out the branding strategy, preferring to start from scratch and create something in line with their opinions about the city. But when done propertly branding would not be tied to a particular elected official. Rather, a branding strategy would express and embody the collective stories and values of the people and stakeholders who call that city home and be much bigger than any one person or council. The purpose of branding is to identify the story, values and identity of a place and, when done well, that would be far bigger than any current political hot topic or candidate. Unlike branding projects that focus on superficial components like logos and slogans, it will be unchangeable, not something that can be simply tossed out with a new council or mayor.


Hopefully these three reasons make it clear that branding can help you have a more successful planning experience. And that’s the good news: branding and planning work synergistically together. You don’t have to pick either or, you just have to go about them in the right order: branding before planning.


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