Anyone want to buy a monorail?

I remember thinking how great a monorail would be after watching Lyle Lanley pitch one to the lathered-up crowd in Springfield. Watching at 14, I was right there with them, caught up in the excitement of the slick, sleek vision he was selling. And even now – in places a lot less fictional than Springfield, and to people much wiser than I was – the kind of idea he was pitching is seductive.

A magic bullet: a simple, one-step solution to solve the problem of a city’s brand.

But, as the rest of the episode illustrates, that promise of a quick, easy fix is dangerously empty– no matter what that traveling “place brand” salesman might have said.

“You know, a town with money’s a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it!”

Lyle Lanley

Years later, almost a decade ago, Mayor Mandel invited me to join his task force on Edmonton’s image and reputation. And although, looking back, the research we based our assumptions on wasn’t perfect, the approach we ultimately took was as close to the right one as I’ve seen. We agreed to focus the bulk of our work on proving the brand truth through action – living the brand first and foremost, and talking about it second.

What even is a brand, really?

“Branding” is one of the most used and least understood terms in our industry. People use it to describe everything from designing a new logo to building a new mission statement and renaming it “brand purpose.” There’s nothing wrong with those things – they’re part of what a good branding process can be.  

But when all is said and done, when all the logos are designed, the monorails built and the campaigns in-market, your brand is, simply, what your audience perceives it to be. It’s the sum total of their experiences with your organization, all the interactions that form their understanding of who you are and what you stand for. It doesn’t live in your logo, or in anything else you directly control – it lives in the hearts and minds of your audience.

You don’t own and control your brand, and we can’t build it.

Many years ago, about the time Justin and I realized that we don’t actually know everything, we shifted the way we looked at brand. Our approach moved from treating brand as something that we, or our clients, can control – a process where we “rebranded” clients – to one where we created the conditions for people to understand our clients differently.

As we’ve learned more about this process, particularly in a public-sector place like Edmonton, we’ve worked on this kind of project with government, many times. And for governments and cities in particular, “brand” is a tricky thing to tackle.

Branding cities

And, what are we “branding?” Is it the physical community? The government and their policies? The perception of the city’s people and their diversity?

And, given that your audiences’ experience is what brand is really about, the brand of a place is inherently more complicated than most. The full experience of visiting or living in that place, which is itself the sum of thousands of smaller experiences, shapes how a city’s brand is understood. With that volume and complexity of interactions at play, it becomes clear that there are no easy fixes. Whatever rebranding project a “place branding expert” described in their song and dance is not going to remake your brand for you.

So why is it so believable that a flown-in expert can help your community rebrand? I think it’s because, for some products and companies, this is actually possible. For a company like Coke, brand is largely a communications problem. Over the course of your life, most of your interaction with that product has come through brand communications – label design, advertising, the cups at the drive-through and literally thousands of other small places. People’s interaction with the product itself is actually quite limited – to actually drinking the beverage. In that kind of relationship, it is the marketing that makes or breaks the brand. Our collective understanding of brand has come from these behemoth consumer goods brands that have invested billions in marketing to associate certain ideas with their products – and it works because the interaction with the product itself is simple and brief. Unfortunately, for a city, the ratio of communications to experiences is much different. When every real-world experience you have in a place shapes that place’s brand, communications and marketing shift to a supporting role.

So, what do you do?

There’s another reason it’s tempting to hope that “place branding experts” can do what they promise. The process of really shifting a city’s brand is, well… hard.

How could you possibly manage every experience that someone has in your city? How could anyone? For a visitor, that city brand is defined by all the meals they have, the streets they drive on, the people they meet and the staff at the hotel. For residents, it’s defined by almost every aspect of their day-to-day experience. You don’t control all this. You can’t. Certainly not with marketing, no matter how brilliant your marketing is.

When a city has a reputation issue to address, the solution is complex, and that’s when one of the place branding snake oil salesmen will inevitably appear and offer what seems like a simple fix. In the last decade, municipalities across North America (and elsewhere) have hopped on this runaway train.

Place branding (and indeed, all branding in complex stakeholder environments) has to stop being treated as a communications problem for marketers to solve. What we need to understand is that this kind of brand work is, in fact, an operational issue, not a marketing one – one that can only be addressed by making fundamental change to the experience people have with your place.

The best you can do is help influence or shape the experiences that people have. The best thing you can do is try to make those experiences better.

In the end, Marge was the only one in Springfield who got it. She wanted them to use their money to improve their main street – to improve the actual experience of being in Springfield. Marge was right. A monorail won’t fix things. A shiny new bridge won’t fix things. A careful, thoughtful effort to improve your audiences’ experience – a slower, often messier, but much more meaningful process – is pretty much the only thing that can.

Michael Brechtel is a partner at Berlin Communications.