Making a Mark as a Community

Recently, municipal and state government organizations across the U.S. are putting increased focused on branding. Traditionally, these efforts are led by the local Chamber of Commerce or Visitors & Convention Bureau with logos and taglines presented as a part of a marketing toolkit. Their justification to the community is a return on investment with increased dollars coming back to the local economy in the form of additional taxes. Innovative organizations understand the benefits of collaboration and it’s not unusual these days for municipal government to play a leadership role with Chambers of Commerce and other organizations to create a local city’s “brand package.”

Any reputable marketing firm will tell you that a “brand” is more than a logo and a tagline. It’s more than a color scheme and typeface, more than a brochure and more than a website. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com says “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” It’s a unique, focused and clear identity.

A strong city brand not only represents a municipal organization; it reflects the culture of the larger community. That said, “the culture of a community” can mean hundreds of things to hundreds of people. The City of Fort Collins, Colorado, where I served as Director of Communications and Public Involvement, is known for an abundance of natural resources, including a huge pristine reservoir and nearby iconic mountains. It’s also known for local craft breweries. And, as the home of Colorado State University and Hewlett Packard. It’s known for music… and outdoor festivals… and bicycles. And, hundreds of other things. 

The brand of Fort Collins includes all of these things. The logo, however can’t literally represent all of these things. Such a logo would be terribly complicated and disjointed. Nike's “swoosh,” McDonald’s "golden arches" and Disney’s "Mickey Mouse ears" each represent a culture. Nike didn’t need to include the image of a runner and McDonald’s didn’t need to include a hamburger in their logo. Those logos didn’t create the culture or identity of these organizations, but they have come to reflect it. What a logo represents is defined over many years – just as a culture is developed over time.

Logos symbolize the culture of the organization. That’s why they are so powerful. A well-designed logo can provide a unified symbol for your community to unite under. It’s why the process of creating or changing any organization’s logo is often very emotional for those who care deeply about the organization.

When a City goes through a branding and logo development process, it’s not unusual to see a few raised eyebrows from citizens who don’t understand why it matters – especially when the money set aside for such an effort could be used to “help fill potholes.” I’m a fan of smooth roadways as much as anyone, but as Peter Kageyama says in his book “For the Love of Cities,” no one cites “not so many potholes” as the main reason they love their city. (He says, they might list less potholes as a reason a city “sucks a little less,” but that’s about it.)

It does matter. Clear branding, which includes common language and symbols, clears the way for the people of a city to unite under a shared identity. It gives residents–who are proud of all of the things their city has to offer–a directional beacon, so their shared stories aren’t diluted.

The best municipal logos become more than a unique symbol of a place. They become part of the very culture they represent. They can also become a symbol of how an organization, or city considers design itself. Roman Mars, host of the show “99% Invisible” said in a recent TED talk, “A well-designed flag can be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage.” One could say the same about a city logo.

It’s why I’m honored to be giving feedback on some city branding ideas (including a potential city logo) to my new hometown of Gallatin, Tennessee. And, it's why my feedback won’t just revolve around traditional technical aspects of design. (Is the logo legible when shrunk down? Does it work in color and black and white? Does the composition work? etc., etc.) I’ll also be asking questions about the culture of the town and what the community feels best represents that culture. Because as Mr. Mars also says in his TED talk, “It might seem frivolous, but it's not.”

- Timothy J. Allen,
V.P. & Director of Strategic Communications, Quindar Media, LLC.