This spring, Alabama was hit by terrifying tornadoes that ripped through centers like Birmingham. Although today's priority must be creating permanent shelter for the victims, there is an incredible opportunity to do much more.
The focus of this conference is how to rebuild using sustainable technology to create better, more futureproof homes. An equally important focus should be the opportunity to reinvent the brand of cities like Birmingham.
I would argue that all cities have brands. Some excite their audience (New York), some don't (Cleveland). Fixing a less-than-ideal city brand is a daunting prospect. After all, you're fighting status quo ideas and infrastructure that reinforce negative perceptions.
But a city that has endured a catastrophe has license to revamp its brand. Its residents are looking for a "reset" button -- they want to look forward to a better tomorrow. And if infrastructure has been destroyed, symbols of the old way can be replaced with symbols of the new.
That said, some key steps need to be taken to ensure the new brand is convincing, can grow, and has staying power.
Define Your Essence
Simon Sinek believes that most corporations and people (and, I would venture, cities) have no trouble saying what they do, or how they do it. But very few can define why.
This is due to the way we process information: the part of our brain that defines rational thoughts like what and how also happens to control our language. The part that controls deeper, emotional concepts like why isn't wired for words. So we can easily verbalize rational thoughts, but are tongue-tied when someone asks us why we exist.
Successful brands like Apple have cracked this code. They've created legions of fans not just because they create cool devices, but because they understand their reason for being: to challenge the status quo (perfectly encapsulated in the Mac vs. PC commercials). And that why forms a bond with every tech user who doesn't want to be perceived as a geek.
So the first lesson to any city that wants to build its brand is to begin with some serious soul-searching. You need to define your why.
Find Your White Space
Once you've defined your essence, you need to run it through a very critical filter. Can it claim its own white space?
White space is the space in your target's psyche that is unoccupied by other brands. Find it, and your brand sticks. Don't find it, and you're quickly forgotten.
There are three key questions to ask yourself to assess whether you've struck white space gold:
- Is your essence a natural fit? If you live in the frozen North, claiming to be a sunny paradise simply won't wash. You aren't being honest with yourself. Your essence needs to line up with an attribute that is true, and recognized by your audience as true.
Futureproof Your Brand
Our world is going through unprecedented change: climate change, technological change, cultural change. Is your brand resilient enough to thrive in this environment?
Although there are no guarantees, building the following five elements into your brand will give it a better-than-average chance of success.
- Sustainability: Sustainability needs to be a strong undercurrent in everything you do, not only because it draws the best and brightest potential residents, or because it keeps punitive legislators away, but because it makes financial sense. Sustainability is newspeak for infrastructure efficiency, and that saves money. Which city doesn't want to save money?
Define Your Brand, Or Be Defined
Building a brand isn't as simple as creating a logo. It takes commitment, courage and time -- ample reason to put it on the back burner while you address more pressing issues, like rebuilding your city.
But if you don't define your brand, someone in your audience will. Chances are the perception they create about your city won't be as flattering as you might like.
It's your city. It's your brand. Futureproof it.
This piece is an abridged version of a speech delivered Sept. 15, 2011 at the Green Building Focus and Conference in Birmingham, Ala.
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