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Want a Great Brand for Your City? Don't Sell It Like a Product

Places have personalities, just like people. But because they’re inanimate, we tend to call them “brands”. They’re a product of the combination of its design, its culture, and how people use it. And a place’s personality is memorable only if it adds meaning to people’s lives.

This came up recently in our office during a conversation about an ill-conceived rebrand for a consumer product. At one point, someone said, “If the product stinks there’s nothing even a good rebrand can do.” But we stopped, because given our work in placemaking, we knew this wasn’t true. Unlike lousy software, or consumer goods that have a fixed design, places play by a different set of rules. They’re fluid: influenced by multiple owners and multiple audiences, and used in many, many different ways.

Whether it’s a neighborhood, a campus, or an entire city, places are vastly more dynamic than consumer products. Part of this is because they are used by large numbers of people for different purposes. Whereas a consumer product is sold to users who each have their own discrete incarnation, a place is teeming with users, who all perceive and use it in slightly different ways, adapting it as they go. This dynamism has a delicious upside: places change as they grow, bringing different traits into the spotlight and pulling others back into the shadows, then changing yet again. Think of the arc of a city. Sacramento has changed over the years from a cattle town to a steady but sleepy state capitol to a now on-the-cusp city with a buzzing food scene. A place’s brand should reflect that dynamic vitality and, if constructed carefully and communicated deliberately, incorporate the changes as they come. This is a key reason why people relate to places as if they were people. A narrative of change tells a story that is far more compelling than that of a static product. It resonates with residents because it feels alive, because they can interact with it, and because they can benchmark their changing lives against the changing backdrop.

The people who occupy a place - residents, visitors, shoppers, you name it - all go about their daily routines, generally lost in thought and interacting with their environment as if it were theirs alone. This creates a complexity and fluidity to the user-product relationship that doesn’t exist in consumer goods. A simple consumer product like an electric razor may result in a few different use cases: different body parts to shave, varying stylings to produce. A complex product like a mobile phone, which has intermediate contributors (app developers) similar to urban spaces (which have developers), will have more: varying apps to use and people to connect with, but at its core it is still a finite object in your hand. Places, however, have thousands. Most are relatively predictable uses like shopping, traveling, and dining, but quite a few are delightfully bizarre, because the way people inhabit and use a place is a reflection of their personality, and there’s no limit to those.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, there was a fountain where people would hang out and enjoythe sound of the water while they sat alone or talked with friends. But then there was the guy who came lugging his bird cages and proceeded to let his birds enjoy their regular bath and water buffet. Because of course that’s how one uses a fountain, at least in Berkeley. The way Bird Dude used the fountain became part of the fountain’s personality. I would take study breaks down to the fountain hoping to get my fix of aviary performance art - a distraction from thesis writer’s block I highly recommend. The personality of that fountain - it’s place brand - isn’t just the sum of its inanimate parts and visitors, it’s the way it makes you feel for having been there.

Having multiple owners and operators (who themselves are a rotating cast) creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlike with traditional brand strategy for consumer products, the revolving set of property owners are a key audience group. A place-brand influences business decisions of current and future property owners, which in turn changes the nature of the place itself as these owners build new properties or adapt the program of existing ones. Places attract people like house parties on a college campus. The easy example is the Bay Area’s tech economy, which began as a result of Stanford graduates starting companies nearby. Over the years tech’s success has cemented that brand so effectively that people come here to start tech companies because…well, because people come here to start companies. And developers can’t keep up with the demand. This kind of brand reinforcement by uncontrollable outside actors isn’t possible with a consumer product, since the makers control everything from design to manufacturing.

With static product branding one can try valiantly (if in vain) to put lipstick on a pig; creating an urban brand strategy is a different animal altogether, more like nurturing the reputation of aperson who learns, grows, and follows their own character arc. Urban brand strategy is not the art of describing a thing, it’s finding a place’s fluid, hidden characteristics and introducing them to the world, knowing full well they’re going to change.