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.
- Is your essence important? You may be the silly putty capital of the world, but if your audience doesn't care about silly putty, you'll be preaching to empty pews. Your essence needs to line up with something your audience finds attractive.
- Is your essence hard to copy or compete with? How many cities claim to be "friendly"? In your case, friendliness may be true, it may resonate with your audience -- but it will never differentiate you from your competitors. If this seems old hat, check how many cities in North America are claiming to be capitals of sustainability. If you don't differentiate, you become a me-too -- and waste your branding money.
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?
- Innovation: "Innovation" is one of the most used and abused words of the past three years. But no matter what you call it, fostering an environment for creativity and invention is a powerful tool for building a better city. And it's an incredible brand attribute to be known for.
- Design: English no longer rules the world, and words aren't the best way to communicate with a diverse audience. You need to incorporate strong design into your brand, enabling your audience to intuitively and instantly understand you.
- Insight: Is your brand built on an insight with a "best before" expiry date, or an insight that's perennial? On the surface, BMW's iProject is about creating electric cars. But look deeper and you see they're working to an entirely new insight: mobility. The company is investing in new, exciting ways for people to get around without cars, because they understand the future is about megacities, where public transport and hyperdensity will make cars an expensive novelty.
- Social interaction: Don Draper RIP. The new world of branding is about interaction, meaningful dialogue with consumers, and creating movements instead of campaigns. That means your brand needs to be able to listen as effectively as it speaks. And, more important, it needs to be able to turn feedback into action.
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.