James Fenton, the executive director of Gallatin, Tenn.’s Economic Development Agency, made a startling discovery about his city in January 2015: despite being over 200 years old, people nearby didn’t really have an opinion about Gallatin.

Fenton had convened a focus group of Nashville, Tenn.-area residents to get a feel for public opinions on Gallatin, as Tennessee’s capital lies about 30 miles southwest of the city. After he asked them what they thought of Gallatin, “the first thing out of their mouths was, ‘there’s no brand. We don’t know who you are’,” he recalls.

Gallatin (pop. 37,000) certainly has character. Reader’s Digest named it the nicest place in America in 2017. Mayor Paige Brown describes Gallatin as a ‘little sister’ to Nashville whose historic community is tight-knit, comfortable with their place and proud of their home. But the city lacked a cohesive brand to communicate these ideals.

These characteristics were ultimately captured in Gallatin’s new brand, summed up in its tagline of “True Grit. Amazing Grace.” Place branding firm North Star helped Gallatin officials define and ultimately launch this brand in December 2016, at a cost of $82,000.

Gallatin’s brand is centered on its brand narrative, an 826-word document intended for circulation that defines the brand and lays out its emotional tone. Brown says that it’s “very, very accurate,” and Fenton calls it “the most important thing that came out of this for us.” Both say that the work that went into the new brand has brought the city tangible and intangible benefits, such as valuable community research, a tighter community identity and fodder for expanding cultural programming around the city.

Their viewpoints align with those of multiple city branding experts: Clearly and cohesively defining a city’s brand identity yields benefits in multiple areas, from communication to economic development to community unity.

Branding’s bountiful benefits

If anything, branding is an externally and internally strategic initiative for cities, says Bill Baker, chief strategist of place branding firm Total Destination Marketing (TDM) and the author of a book about destination branding for small cities. Internally, a well-defined city brand and brand strategy serves as a “strategic guidance system” that functions as an effective tool for self-managing a city’s identity, he writes in a TDM eBook. 

Consistent messaging also helps build residents’ understanding of city services, says Kim Newcomer, founder and CEO of place branding firm Slate Communications, who previously served as Fort Collins, Colo.’s communications and public involvement manager. 

“That’s really important when you start to talk about, how do we spend taxpayer money, and how do we stay accountable to the dollars that we do spend and to the taxpayers of our communities,” she explains.

Externally, branding initiatives can help build community pride, engagement and form connections with the people a government serves, Newcomer says. Effective brand implementation can boost economic development efforts and focus them as well.

Ultimately, a clearly-defined brand makes a city more attractive to visitors, residents and investors who want to be associated with such a brand, Baker says. It also helps a city stand out in a competitive marketplace.

It was this goal that Gallatin officials wanted to attain when they began trying to define the city’s brand years before they first got in touch with North Star, according to Brown. “We felt like we needed to improve our image regionally to entice more people to move to our area and attract businesses and attract jobs,” she says. 

Behind these benefits is a rigorous process that ultimately defines a city’s brand. It’s one that can be rife with misunderstandings and potential pitfalls for cities, from defining the brand to choosing the right partner to help do so. experts say. 

Arguably the greatest misunderstanding however, is what a brand actually is.

What exactly are we discussing here?

In a word, a brand entails communication. Experts define it slightly differently, but all agree that many clients place far too much focus and importance on their logo and tagline. Those assets are ultimately small parts of the brand as a whole.

Baker explains a city’s brand as being a promise to people of what they’ll get from that city. Will Ketchum, president of North Star, the place branding firm that handled Gallatin’s branding initiative, describes a brand as an experience and an attitude that transcends a logo.

Both agree that a successful brand must explicitly distinguish its subject from the pack. It must also have boldness and some edginess, such that it can’t necessarily please everyone, Baker says. 

Generic brands often fall flat for this reason — Ketchum cites brands like, “small town charm, big-city amenities,” “a great place to live, work and play” and “our people make the difference” as examples that are heavily used but that are wholly undifferentiating. “People do make the difference, but the trick is, give me a definition of what makes these people different,” he says.

“You have to have positioning that stands for something that hints at your competitive advantage,” Baker explains. “What is it that you can do best that your competitors can’t easily match but your consumers, your target audience out there, values?” 

At its most concrete, a brand consists of both visual and messaging components, Newcomer says. The visual components are the logo, colors, fonts, graphics, etc. The messaging, or brand platform parallels the concepts that Baker and Ketchum describe. 

“What is your community about? What makes you unique? What values do you subscribe to as an organization? That’s the piece that really brings it all together,” she says of the brand platform.

North Star’s intensive research directly led to the definition of Gallatin’s brand. After Gallatin officials signed an agreement with the firm in August 2015, that research commenced and consisted of surveys of people in and outside of Gallatin, as well as interviews with elected officials, stakeholder groups and groups of people in nearby communities that city officials assembled, Fenton recalls. 

After compiling insights from this exploratory research, Ketchum explains that North Star will create a client’s “strategic DNA platform” through a statement to distill the brand’s essence. Once North Star reaches consensus with officials, the firm will then begin devising creative assets. Gallatin eventually received a 300-page brand print report that contained the research findings, brand narrative, strategic DNA, creative assets and action plans for rolling out the brand, as well as other insights. “Ultimately, we came out with something I’m happy with,” Brown says.

While North Star seemingly did a lot of the heavy lifting, Gallatin (and other cities) play an active and important role in the brand defining process.

The keys to success

Each firm goes about the branding process slightly differently, but the processes that TDM, North Star and Slate Communication employ however, all share similar cornerstones. Each one does extensive assessment of a city and research into what constitutes that city’s brand, each uses those insights to devise the brand components and a rollout strategy, and each then helps their client in implementing that rollout strategy.
The firm itself is a major part of this process, and a city should be highly discerning in choosing the firm. Baker, Newcomer and Ketchum agree that proven experience and expertise in place-specific branding is key.

Logo design experience alone isn’t enough, Baker advises. A firm must understand the nuances working with a city, such as tourism, economic development and target markets. Working with a firm experienced in branding cities also allows for a more efficient branding process, as well as the implementation of lessons learned from past work with other communities, Newcomer says. 

“It’s generally not wise to seek out a generalist,” Ketchum explains. “A lot of generalists can come up with good brand solutions, clearly. But you don’t get the upfront immersion and community-wide input that a specialist can facilitate.” 

Even with the firm actively chiseling down the city’s brand, the process still requires internal management. That entails having a champion who will “rally the troops if you will to get this process done and get it done right,” Newcomer says. 

Such internal management often involves the convening of a branding/advisory committee, or a small group of decision makers that can run the process. Ketchum recommends electing a group of six to 12 people — large enough to adequately represent the interests of all community stakeholders in the community, but small enough to make arriving at singular, bold answers an easy matter.

“It brings in a brain trust beyond just the city or the convention and business bureau as well,” Baker says. “When it’s time to release or reveal the brand, it [wouldn’t have been] just the city or convention bureau that did it behind closed doors.” 

Gallatin officials’ branding committee included a local businessperson, the head of the local chamber of commerce, a local industry professional, and a new resident who had helped another city with its branding process, Fenton recalls. While not part of the branding committee, Mayor Brown attended the final meeting in which creative assets were finalized.

Gallatin spoke with five groups during its procurement process, Fenton says. What sold officials on North Star was its experience in only working with cities and counties and their promise that the majority of their work would lie in speaking with people in the community and surrounding communities. 

“It wasn’t about the logo, it wasn’t about a tagline. It was, ‘let’s figure out who you are,’” Fenton says. 

Not all cities pursue branding in such a fashion. Done differently, a city might undergo an experience similar to Vancouver, B.C.’s attempt to introduce a new logo in 2017.

Vancouver and the logo that wasn’t

In June 2016, Vancouver councilors began exploring an update of the Canadian city’s visual brand assets to a more simplified design to align itself with changing city demographics and evolving popular culture, according to a Feb. 14, 2017 city report. City officials discussed a larger rebranding effort, but didn’t pursue it due to the high cost of doing so, Vancouver City Manager Sadhu Johnston said in a Feb. 23, 2017 Daily Hive article.

Vancouver officials hired the lowest bidder in its request for proposal, and costs ended up totaling around $6,100 in U.S. dollars, per the report. The new logo consisted of “City of” in green letters atop “Vancouver” in blue letters, typeset in the Gotham font. In the report, officials indicated the intention to develop a phased rollout plan.

The council approved the new assets on Feb. 23, 2017, per the Daily Hive. One day later, over 200 Vancouver designers sent an open letter to the Vancouver government, expressing disappointment in the logo’s approval and the process that led to its rollout. The criticism included using an uninspiring and inauthentic logo design, choosing the lowest bidder, possessing neither a comprehensive rollout plan nor a budget, justifying a simpler visual identity and the new logo being used prior to the Mayor’s motion being passed. 

On Feb. 28, 2017, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced in a news release that the city would withdraw the logo and would work with local stakeholders to design a new one. 

Vancouver officials have since scrapped plans for a new logo, according to an emailed statement. The design community advised the city not to proceed unless a new logo would be part of a larger brand redesign, and Vancouver officials noted a lack of time and money to accomplish this during the current council term. City officials declined to comment further.

What differed between Vancouver and Gallatin’s approaches? Cost appeared to inform much of Vancouver’s decision-making. In doing so, the city opted only to update its visual components, without updating its messaging components. City officials intended to devise the rollout plan itself, and designers accused it of not including digital use guidelines in the unveiling. 

“A civic identity refresh can be a significant city-building opportunity if done properly,” the Vancouver designers wrote in the open letter. “If the City is not ready to invest in a cohesive new identity with resources and time to do it right, it is better to not redesign at all than to do it half-heartedly.”

In contrast, Gallatin chose a larger brand definition project and selected North Star based largely on its experience and method. In return, they received a defined, encompassing brand and a detailed rollout plan based on extensive community-related research.

But that’s not all Gallatin has gotten out of its branding process.

Identity crisis no more

Gallatin officials knew that the full rollout of the new brand would take at least two years, Fenton explains. Gallatin first rolled it out to employees and “just let it go,” with more and more departments coming on board over time.

“It wasn’t something you can force. You just truly need to just kind of let it seep out into the community,” he says.

Businesses in the community have since adopted the logo. In place of the city’s tagline of “True Grit. Amazing Grace,” Fenton’s office uses “True Success. Amazing Opportunities.”

But the 300-page report that culminated North Star’s work with Gallatin left the city with far more than just an identified brand and a rollout plan.

For starters, Gallatin has access to the immense body of community research that North Star conducted. Insights from research has led to a number of initiatives, such as the creation of a beautification committee to oversee the cleanup of areas that people had identified within the research as places they wanted to see cleaned, Fenton says. A common complaint was the city’s lack of a signature event — in August, the city will host its first music festival, called Fire on the Water. Insights from the research also led to the creation of a youth council in a bid to get people involved in local government at an earlier age, Brown says.

Fenton believes that the most exciting by-product of North Star’s research is the implementation of the city’s first-ever strategic plan, which people’s feedback is directly informing. The strategic plan has a five-year component as well as a 10-year component, with the first two years well-planned. Land use and capital investment plans are also being developed, Brown says.

In addition to these tangible by-products and an encompassing brand, Gallatin’s brand initiative has brought officials and residents another benefit that’s as valuable as it is straightforward: a top-of-mind, confident and distinguishing answer for anyone who asks, “What’s Gallatin like?” 

“Now, we never struggle with how to describe ourselves or how to market ourselves,” Brown says. “We have confidence in who we are, and we have the tools to be consistent in messaging. So, I think that it’s helped us put ourselves out there much more professionally and consistently.”

“It’s worth the effort and the energy,” Fenton adds. “And it is a lot of effort. But it is truly worth it.”


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