City (and place) branding is notoriously difficult. Some argue it can’t be done at all, but I disagree. As long as you remember why you are doing it and who you are doing it for, I believe it is possible to define a city in terms of a single core thought.
Canberra is in the process of introducing a new brand, and I haven’t seen the brief, but usually the stakeholders are looking to attract inward investment (which brings in jobs and money), more tourists (who bring in money and create jobs) and attract the best talent, whether these are entrepreneurs, students or skilled workers, moving in from the rest of the country or elsewhere in the world. Get it right and it can help drive the city economy, create more opportunities for everyone, including existing residents, and improve the quality of life for all. I don’t think any city would have an issue with these outcomes. What can also come with this success is an increased sense of civic pride with people speaking positively and spreading the word often more effectively than any marketing activities could achieve.
The primary target audiences for this type of brand usually lives outside the city, in other areas of the country or further a field. These audiences will be very broad and respond to very different messages. So the brand has to work hard, often via national and international campaigns. There is also a need to appeal to the locals, but these are usually the secondary targets, even if they have the louder opinions.
Getting the branding right is obviously the tough bit. A city is made up of so many people, stories, histories, experiences, philosophies and backgrounds, defining and differentiating it from other cities is hard. The brand needs to based on truths and have proof points to back up the core proposition. A city can’t just decide to change the way it markets itself, if it is not happy with the way it actually is. And it also needs to consult widely and test the proposition to make sure it has got it’s thinking right before creating a new visual identity and tone of voice.
In my opinion, Canberra is famous for government, being the capital, administration and for being a bit dull. Its nearly 20 years since I was last there, so I co-opted my good friend and Canberra boy, Marcus Hickman, for help with some more up-to-date views. I enjoyed my stay, but almost everyone he knows who has visited the city has found it boring. Canberra is a quiet but very comfortable place to live, rather than a vibrant and innovative city (which the brand team seems to want it to be).
So whilst I like the new CBR visual identity and the use of the airport abbreviation, I would not associate the city with being confident and bold. This is my big issue with the brand - I don’t think they have got the thinking right. I believe brands need to be aspirational and big enough to grow into, but they also need to be rooted in enough truth for audiences to believe. I suspect Canberra has gone a bit too far with the confident and bold, hoping that the city can grow into this without the sort of backlash that city brands can attract.
If I was looking to define Canberra, it’s not automatically obvious what it’s strengths are. According to Marcus, these would include the National Art Gallery, National Museum of Australia, Parliament House, Tidbinbilla, Canberra Deep Space Tracking Station, Australian War Memorial, National Portrait Gallery, Questacon and politics in general. It’s a bit like a smaller, watered-down version of Washington DC, and maybe the city could have learnt a few things from how that city is branded. The team has obviously rejected a lot of these strengths in the search of something new and more exciting, portraying it as bold and confident, which in my opinion is shaky.
And I’m not surprised that the locals have not responded positively. As well as Australians being a pretty cynical bunch, the city residents have seen-through the definition and rightly asked questions. They also probably don’t really understand why it is being done and why. The proof of the pudding will be in how successful the brand is with its primary targets, and how successful it is in achieving its objectives. Done well, a the brand can bring everyone together and be the platform for significant change, so I hope for Canberra’s sake, it has got its design thinking right and I am wrong.
This piece originally appeared in The Drum on 2 December 2013.