Eyes On The Street : Episode 4  by CivicBrand

Episode 4

Branding, while something we’re all aware of is something that is so misunderstood. A brand is a promise that has to be lived up to every day. It is built through a series of consistent and ongoing cumulative experiences.

Skeptics of branding think it is just a logo, tagline or lipstick on a pig – unfortunately they are right in far too many cases. Very few approach branding the right way and develop a system and structure that allows them to truly live the brand.

In today’s episode we’ll be talking with Jason Thorne with the City of Hamilton, ON about real and practical ways that cities can identify, implement and live their brand on a daily basis.


Jason Thorne

Planning & Economic Development at the City of Hamilton, ON

Ryan Short


behind the scenes


Ryan Short: Branding; while something we’re all aware of, it’s something that is so misunderstood. A brand is a promise that has to be lived up to every day. It is built through a series of consistent and ongoing cumulative experiences. Skeptics of branding think it’s just a logo, tagline, or even lipstick on a pig. Unfortunately, they’re right in far too many cases. Very few approaches branding the right way and develop a system and structure that allows them to truly live the brand. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking with Jason Thorne, from the City of Hamilton, Ontario, about real and practical ways that cities can identify, implement and live their brand on a daily basis. Enjoy.

Jason, you’re not on here as an endorsement of civic brand, and we actually haven’t even worked together. But I saw you speak of about a year ago, I guess, at a City Nation Place event and, you know, you just shared some of the things that you’ve done and that you’ve accomplished with your, in your time with Hamilton, Ontario. And so, just wanted to have you on the podcast and chat about some of those things, because I think there’s some really valuable examples that that you guys can share that other city leaders should really take a look at. So, I guess, do you mind first just introducing yourself and your role?

Jason Thorne: Sure. And thanks for having me on your podcast. So, my name is Jason Thorne, and I’m the General Manager of the Planning and Economic Development Department at the City of Hamilton. So that’s a department that includes, obviously planning and economic development as two divisions, but it has a number of other functions within it as well. So, we essentially are responsible for all aspects of development approvals in the city, whether it’s a planning approval or engineering or a building permit, but also responsible for economic development for art and culture and tourism. Hamilton made the choice as a midsized city, we’re a city of about half a million people to bring all of those roles and functions together, really in recognition of how linked they all are in terms of their purpose and their mandate, especially in a midsize city like Hamilton, to have your planning and your development and your art and your culture and your economic development all kind of going in the same direction.

Ryan Short: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think just, you know, your job title and how the organizational structure setup speaks so much to what I wanted to talk about today with you and what you guys have been able to accomplish. And, you know, at civic brand, we talk a lot about this idea of living the brand. And I think that’s exactly what you guys have done. And, you know, when we work with cities on branding projects, sometimes we’ll get a lot of crossed arms where, you know, there’s people that think that, it’s just a marketing gimmick, or it’s just a campaign. And so they sometimes have a negative idea of branding that they think it is just a logo or thing, and I’d love for you to share what that means to you and specifically, the example that I remember is that you gave was, you know, Hamilton wanting to be known as a Music City. And obviously, you guys could have gone and create a logo that says Hamilton’s a Music City, but that truly would have just been a logo and a tagline. You wouldn’t have been able to live that out on a day-to-day basis.

And so, I guess you mind just sharing some of those examples of how you guys do live that and how the different departments played a role in that?

Jason Thorne: Sure. And I’d have to say that I’m probably sympathetic to that skepticism about what is branding, because I share that a bit myself. Because I think sometimes it is exactly what you described there where it is a bit of a, it’s just a logo or it’s just a name or it’s an attempt to try to be something that you are not, and then to try to sell that to the public or sell that to the broader world. I think sometimes, unfortunately, branding can be that. And I have to confess, I don’t necessarily think the idea of place branding was not really, I don’t think in anybody’s heads necessarily in terms of the work we’ve been doing in Hamilton. It’s been really just more about trying to develop some of the strengths we have as a city.

And I think the music sector that you spoke about is a good example of that. And we do have an aspect of branding to that. There is actually a logo and we talked about Hamilton as a Music City. But I think the important thing is we didn’t start there. And we weren’t trying to create something that wasn’t already true and authentic to who we are as a city. Our city has been a Music City for generations. It’s always been a big part of who we are as a city, and we’ve always had a very strong vibrant music sector, whether it’s great venues, great performers, producers, managers, like we have kind of the whole music sector ecosystem in our city. And I think there was a recognition within government, within the municipality of this being very important to us in terms of brand and identity, but also just in terms of playing economic developments. There’s, you know, somewhere near 8000 jobs, people working in that music sector. That’s a significant economic driver in a city, the size of ours, you know, over 500 different businesses in our city that are all sort of related to the music sector. That’s really important.

And so, we started from something I think is his key. This was not trying to pretend we were a Music City when we were not. We were trying to build on a strength that already existed. And then the other key thing is we, I’m a bureaucrat, I’m a government official, we didn’t try to own it or to define it or direct it, we try to help. We tried to do things that bureaucracies and governments can do to help a sector that quite frankly was already a strong and vibrant and successful sector. What more could we do as a city to help move that along? And I think it’s through that it’s by demonstrating you actually are trying to be successful in something or you’re trying to work in partnership with those businesses that really, that is the brand that we are a city that doesn’t just acknowledge that we are a Music City, but just trying to find different ways that we can establish that and be successful in that.

So, I know some of the examples that I’ve spoken to at the conference that you were referring to earlier, a lot of it is not necessarily really what I’ll call big ticket urbanism, big cost projects. We are not a big city. We are not a wealthy city. We didn’t go out and build $300 million concert hall somewhere as our demonstration of the importance of being a Music City. We don’t have the means to do that kind of thing. And frankly, most cities don’t. But there was lots of things that we could do. And that has included doing some, everything from capacity and skills development within our music sector, providing opportunities for musicians and performers to develop their entrepreneurial skills. To do some business development for some of the producers and the folks who work in the broader sector.

And then we also looked at very, very, I’ll call them sort of small subtle things. And one example that I’d like to give, sort of a creative one and it was a small thing, but when we first established, we established a Music Advisory Committee within our city to help advice us as a city, what things we could do to help the sector. And sort of a conversation started to emerge from some of the venue operators about really what I’ve just characterized as a nuisance and the nuisance of loading zones around the venues. And the nuisance being that the rules we had around when you could and could not have loading in those areas was really more designed for other types of businesses that don’t work the weird hours that venue operators work, and there was this nuisance of getting ticketed when musicians were actually loading which is like 2 o’clock in the morning or 3 o’clock in the morning which was not allowed at the time.

So, we created these special musician loading zones around some of our key venues, which you know, the cost of that is whatever it costs to print a sign to say this is a, musicians are welcome here and this is a new musician loading zone. And those kinds of things, yes, I suppose they help with branding yourself as a Music City. But they’re really, I think, important as symbolic gestures of a government and municipalities say we hear you and we’re going to try to sort of do some of the things that we can do as a city to make your life a little bit easier, make your sector a little bit more successful. So, we’ve tried to find those sorts of things along the way to really, I guess, brand ourselves as a Music City by doing things to help the music sector.

Ryan Short: Yeah, and I love that you mentioned, you know, it’s often the small things and kind of the, what’s the next cheapest, smallest thing we can do, versus grand plans and master projects. I think that’s, you know, for anything is such a great way to start. And my next question was going to be what was the kind of engagement or audit process to uncover some of those things you should change but you kind of answered that in that you established that advisor committee. So, I guess, can you just tell me a little bit about the process of establishing that and how do how did they meet and how did that work?

Jason Thorne: Sure. And it’s a, so it’s a group that’s fairly broadly representative of the sector. Like I said to something like in music, there’s a pretty, pretty broad group. And it is important to have a bit of a cohesive strategy. And so, that was the primary exercise that we worked through with this group is to say, you know, what is the strategy we need to do as a city, not just things that the city and the bureaucracy can do, but also what can musicians and others in the sector do themselves. And some of those actions related to branding, some of those actions related to marketing and celebrating the music sector in the city. So for example, we had a really interesting public art call that came out to put a piece of public art in our main square in our city that we call a Gore Park, right in the center of the downtown, a large public art piece celebrating our Music City, celebrating our history as a Music City, and it included a performance series. So, we have a, we started doing a weekly new now or performance series right in front of the City Hall, create opportunities for performers to perform.

In some cases, it was identifying a challenge or a goal without necessarily a solution. So, one of our challenges was creating more places for performers to perform. And that can be a challenge, again, if you don’t have several hundred million dollars to build a concert hall, which we didn’t. So, what we looked at was what could we do, where could we create more opportunities for performances. And actually, what we ended up doing was we look around our city and we said, okay, we don’t have $300 million, but what we actually have in our city is we have lots of places of worship. And a lot of those places of worship are actually struggling to stay afloat as they are in most cities across North America. And so, we did a rezoning initiative. And so, we zoned a number of our places of worship to say they can also be a performance space. So, really at the cost of a regulatory change, or the cost of writing some policy papers and taking them through council for approval, we created potentially dozens of performance venues all over the city that these places of worship can do concerts and events, help the congregations and also create places for performers to perform.

We also looked at outdoor patios. So, I’m not sure what the situation is in the States. I know in Canada, in many cities, we actually have zoning rules that prohibit you from having amplified music or live music on outdoor patios, because of noise issues. So, we actually changed all of our zoning to allow that to be able to happen. Again, these are not – none of these steps in and of themselves is going to make a great big difference. But the hope is that the additive effect of many of these smaller, more strategic moves will collectively add up to something that really makes a shift and really makes a positive shift in what the sector is able to achieve.

Ryan Short: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, I mean, it is so many small collective, you know, ideas and changes that have to happen, but they’re spread across a lot of departments. And it sounds like, you know, Hamilton is a little bit unique in that, you know, city leadership, at least at one point under structure of the departments and the oversight of those where it was more collaborative, because we work with a lot of cities that are so siloed that it’s thrown purely on one department to, you know, and as you said, help foster being a Music City, but they can’t do that. They have, you know, it takes bylaw enforcement and tourism, economic development and planning and all those different departments. I guess, can you speak to, I mean, were you around when that organizational structure was established, or did you kind of come into that, or do you have any advice for cities that are needing to restructure to make something like that more possible?

Jason Thorne: So, I was fortunate enough to inherit it. So, it was a structure that was established before I came to the city, what, six years ago now. And it was, as I said earlier, it was very much in recognition of the fact that, and I would say, again, it’s probably especially true in smaller and midsize cities, that you need to have all of these different roles and functions within a government bureaucracy working towards the same goals. So, just to reflect on some of the examples I gave earlier, that idea of musician loading zones, well, that was an initiative of parking enforcement, which sits in my department. The issue of allowing performances on patios, a lot of that is about bylaw enforcement, which sits in my department. The issue around rezoning places of worship, well, that’s a planning initiative which sits in my department. The idea of doing noon hour concert series out front of City Hall came out of the culture group that sits in my department.

So, yeah, so many of the things that I think are impactful and make a difference are not doable with in necessarily sort of the traditional role or function of government that is told, okay, you little group here, you are the culture team or the music strategy team, your job is to implement it. If you don’t have the support of all these other functions, you’re not going to be very successful. I can tell you that in my department, I have probably the equivalent of, you know, not even a full-time equivalent staff person to deliver all of these things on a music strategy. We’re just not a big enough city where I can say, all right, we’re going to be a Music City, I’m going to create a department of 10 people to drive all of this. I don’t, I have a very strong cultural group, but they’re – they don’t just do music, they look at other sectors as well.

So, you really have to leverage resources in many other areas if you’re going to be successful. You know, maybe Los Angeles or something like that, I’m sure they have a whole division dedicated, developing an executor, I don’t know. That’s not going to exist here. It’s never going to exist here, so we have to use every resource we’ve got very strategically and moving in the same direction. Because, again, if you have those roles and functions divided up, then not only would they potentially not be there to help you be successful, they can very much work against you. And those sorts of things can start to be barriers, your zoning can be barriers, your bylaws can be barriers, your parking regulations can be barriers. So you got to make sure that the people who work on those issues are also part of the broader goal and understand that your job may be parking enforcement, but in a way, your goal is to make the music sector in your city successful and you need to be part of that.

Ryan Short: Uh-huh. And do you think that that organizational structure has helped you guys in kind of this COVID-19 situation to be able to, you know, obviously, it’s a challenge for everybody, but to be more able to quickly adapt, and adjust and as you guys start to come out of things and come into recovery mode, able to more quickly adjust certain, you know, whether it’s how restaurants can use the streets and things like that?

Jason Thorne: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s actually a good example. So, we actually just, it was just last week, our council approved a, what we call it the outdoor dining district’s initiative, where we are going to look at using road space, parking space, sidewalk space, and so on as outdoor dining areas. We have a very strong culinary scene in Hamilton, a very strong restaurant scene in Hamilton. And we want to make sure that they come out of this pandemic strong and viable. And so, we wanted to create this opportunity for them to get their businesses up and running again.

And again, if you reflect on all of the approvals and all of the roles and functions that need to come together to, for example, close off the lane of traffic to create a dining area, you’ve got parking issues. You’ve got traffic issues. You’ve got bylaw enforcement around potentially noise issues. You’ve got potentially zoning issues. You’ve got some of your economic development and your business outreach, all of these things have to be coming together supportively to make an initiative like that happen. And so, the fact that pretty much all of that exists within one team, one team of planning and economic development of the City of Hamilton, makes it much easier. I was able to sort of pull together a team to drive this initiative of four or five individuals from all over my department. That are really all the pieces we need. So, I’ve got someone who deals with liquor licensing. I’ve got someone who deals with parking. I’ve got someone who deals with zoning. I’ve got someone who deals with business outreach, all really strong individuals from within my group, pull them together, you’ve got an instant project team that can make something like that work.

Ryan Short: Yeah, that’s great. That’s so great to see. And I think that, I mean, that plays such a huge impact for your businesses and your residents for you guys to be able to be really nimble and quick and respond to things because, you know, in these times, like every day and every week, you can’t get those things through, and you can, it’s just hurting people more. And so, I think that’s so important.

One thing I’m curious about, because we see this a lot in some of the clients that we work with is, you know, cities are responsible for so many things, and I think there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes and things that cities do that they’re responsible for that a lot of residents and just people in general don’t realize that the city’s doing for them, and they sometimes only notice when things go wrong. And so, the city doesn’t get credit as often as maybe it should for all the great things it’s doing and all the hard work that it’s doing. And when there’s potholes and things go wrong. People sometimes complain to the city. I mean, do you think your structure in this process helps with that, or helps with the city being more visible of how the city is helping and moving forward and driving and shaping things?

Jason Thorne: Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, people are still going to complain about potholes. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. So, I think what it does, or at least what I hope it does is if you’re running a restaurant or you’re operating a music venue or you’re running a bookshop or just trying to run a business and be successful in the city, my hope is that despite the fact that, yeah, we’re also a regulator and yeah, sometimes we say, no, sometimes we won’t give you the building permit because there’s problems with your proposal, we are the bad cop often enough. But my hope is that there is a sense that notwithstanding the fact that we have to be the regulator, we got to make sure public health and the public interest is protected, we’re also there as a partner to help you be successful.

And that again, I think is an important symbolic gesture when you bring together the people who do building inspections and bylaw enforcement and planning approvals with the people who do economic development and cultural development and business improvement, because it does kind of suggest that we are an entity, we are a group who is there to kind of help your business be successful, help your effort be successful, and help develop the city. We aren’t just there to regulate and say yes or no. So, I think there’s a, I’m hopeful, at least that there’s a bit of appreciation or understanding that that’s the role we see ourselves in, even though quite frankly, sometimes we have to be the people that say no, and that just comes with being in the government.

Ryan Short: Yeah. And you reminded me of another example I think that you gave of, because I think there’s a lot of just nuance, though, to how you say no and how you regulate things, I think there was a example you gave where I think it was, maybe your health inspectors or you looked at changing their uniforms from looking more like cop uniforms to like branded tools. I mean, so that just gives the vibe or the feeling that we’re here, we’re on your team, we’ve got to look out for the public good, but we’re not here to just write tickets.

Jason Thorne: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good example. That was actually, that was, I take no credit for that whatsoever, that was an initiative of staff themselves who were officers, business licensing officers, so they were responsible for business licensing. And if you’re operating a business without a license, they’re the people who will show up at your door and tell you, you need to get a license or issue you a ticket or issue you a charge. And this idea of, you know, our goal is not to get you to pay a fine. Our goal is to get you to be properly licensed and successfully running. And so, these officers kind of see themselves as ambassadors actually for the city of saying, not just, hey, you don’t have a license, but hey, you don’t have a license and here’s how you get a license, and can I put you in contact with someone. And they help facilitate you through to being legally operating and then successful.

And so, the initiative actually came from them that they traditionally wore bylaw officer uniforms, you know, it’s got the badge, it’s got the dark navy coloring, and they look like police officers. And of course, when someone that looks like that and dressed like that comes into your place of business, you’re not feeling like, hey, here’s someone who’s coming here to help me out, you’re feeling like here’s someone here to get me in trouble. And so, it was their initiative to, say, you know, [indiscernible] [00:23:23] let us look more like being ambassadors and being people who are there to help so just, you know, light blue golf shirts and it makes a difference. It makes a difference in terms of the interactions you have with your customers and clients when you don’t come in looking like you’re there to crack down and make a charge and get them in trouble.

Ryan Short: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s so great. And so I guess if I had to just kind of recap, I guess what I feel like I’m hearing you say and kind of the things that are important is, you know, first, if you are going to try to brand yourself really latch on to an identity, it has to be authentic. It’s not about fabricating something out of thin air. It has to be looking at something that you already are, that’s truly there. And then you have to have the right organizational structure because it does require so many different departments. You’re never going to be effective and efficient if it’s just put on one siloed department.

And then from there, you have to listen, like you guys did with the Music Advisory Council, you have to listen to people from all different walks of your community, in your example, you know, musicians to promoters and club owners. You have to listen to what their needs and challenges in the areas where you’re getting in the way of helping them. And then last is to be more helpful. You know, like you said with the compliance, like helping them become compliant, not trying to get them to pay a fine. So, being authentic, the organizational structure, listening and then helping, and does that – is there anything that I’m missing there? Do you feel like those are kind of the key points to really like living the brand or whatever you want to call it?

Jason Thorne: No, I think I’ve never tried to summarize like that in my own head, but that’s a pretty good summation of I think the key elements. And I think it’s, you know, part of the living your brand is you’ve got to embrace it broadly across the corporation of government. So, it can’t just be that the four people in your cultural group think that you want to be a Music City and are committed to being a Music City, you’ve got to have that spread across your whole organization, like I said, through parking and bylaw and planning and building and all the rest of it have to feel that they’re part of that strategy too. It can’t just be something that a couple of people in the corner of the bureaucracy are trying to push as their own.

It has to be very broadly embraced, or it’s not going to be successful and it has to be politically embraced. A lot of the stuff I’m talking about did require council approvals and political approvals and go in front of counsel and making the argument as to why these were good idea. So, you need that political vision and political support as well. And you need that, also, I think just a sense of purpose. So, starting with the strategy was important. The strategy didn’t spell out every single action that had to be done, but it started us down a path and it created some common sense of vision and common purpose. That was a really helpful way to start as well.

Ryan Short: Awesome. Well, keep up the good work that, I think it’s super inspiring and I think there’s a lot of communities that could really take a good look at what you guys are doing there and how you’re doing it. I think it’s just really strong examples. So yeah, I appreciate your time and I appreciate you taking the time to just come on and chat with me about it. And I hope you have a great weekend and thanks a lot.

Jason Thorne: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it. Take care.

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