Following the last two posts about city branding, we were asked about any work that we’ve done in this area.  To respond, we begin today a two-part post about our work in Pensacola/Escambia County, Florida:

Pensacola, a region of 450,000 people in a spectacular setting on the Gulf Coast, lags behind its regional rivals in economic growth, downtown development, and reputation. To respond to this challenge, the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce set out to accomplish a key competitive strategy – to brand its region.

Their mutual goals, as identified Smart City Consulting and Stone Mantel (an international branding firm) were to develop a shared vision for the future of the people of the region, to create stronger self-identity and positive self-image, and to improve Pensacola’s awareness and competitiveness.

In keeping with the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s economic growth plan, a primary objective was to position Pensacola strongly to attract talented workers and business investment.

After conducting its in-depth process, Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel delivered comprehensive brand strategies that had immediate impact. Already, the new city brand has attracted strong support and widespread attention, and an internal program to engage Pensacolians as advocates for the brand has involved more than 45,000 people.

Frequently obscured by the predominant features of the region – water and wind, beach and barracks – is a city surprising in the charm of its historic district and downtown, its artistic and cultural reach, and its lack of self-confidence.

Pensacola was knocked on its heels in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed 10,000 homes, heavily damaged 27,000 others, flooded downtown, and left $6 billion in damage to the area. The scale of the natural destruction had not been seen in a century, and the psychic toll on the people of Pensacola was palpable.

Although the city wasn’t incorporated until 1822, it has played a pivotal role in the history of Florida and the United States – as the first European settlement in North America in 1559, first territorial capital for Florida, home of U.S. Naval aviation and the Blue Angels, and alternating Spanish, French, and English occupations, but its history often overshadows its revitalized downtown, signs of an emerging research center, ambitious plans to reclaim the waterfront, and other dramatic signs of progress.

As a result, the challenge for the Pensacola brand was to embrace the strengths of the past while speaking to Pensacola’s ambitions and aspirations for the future.

The approach taken by Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel set these objectives:

1. To create a higher purpose that gives meaning to stories about Pensacola

2. To drive intent into experience

3. To generate cultural value with those who live, work, and play in Pensacola

4. To act as catalysts for best thinking

5. To express what is true

6. To leverage all available assets

7. To bring people together and put them at the center

To meet these objectives, a unique process was developed to take Pensacola from its current perceptions to its aspirations for the future.

Milestone 1: Reading The City

The first step in the Smart City/Stone Mantel branding process was to gather first impressions of Pensacola.  The team began with a first-hand, unannounced two-day visit to Pensacola in which we assessed 36 qualities that define successful cities. More than 200 questions were asked in this evaluation, and the city was given grades in each of the 36 categories.

The highest scores for Pensacola were in natural and cultural assets building a unique quality of life, quality public space, attractive with a strong sense of place, festivals that celebrate the city, values and capitalizes on scenic resources, distinctive neighborhoods, pleasurable rides, strategic investments in strategic assets, and entrepreneurial leadership.

The lowest scores were in connectivity and design, balanced transportation options, an understanding of the big picture while paying attention to small details, a compelling national brand, green ethos, prepared for globality, and vibrant street life.

Milestone 2: Pensacola By The Numbers

To deepen understanding of Pensacola, Smart City Consulting and Stone Mantel read and analyzed all existing reports, research, and data about the region. Some of the information was submitted by the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce, and the team conducted its own independent research and analysis, particularly concerning demographic and economic trends for the region.

To complement this research, the team scanned the daily newspaper, traditional media, and new media, especially blogs, and to evaluate Pensacola’s digital identity, comparisons were made between Pensacola’s economic performance and its regional competitors.

From this exhaustive review, a 26-page report was written to profile Pensacola and to provide the team with context as it began the serious work of branding the region. The report included a general overview and impressions, history, tourism, economy, statistical and demographic profile, competitive comparisons, significant players in Pensacola, economic development plans, and strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel wrote a request for proposals for the creative firm that would be hired to convert the branding recommendations into a communications and marketing plan, and after evaluating the responses, a strong recommendation was made for the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce to hire Bpm, a Pensacola-based multimedia company.  Bpm participated in the entire process, and because of it, the brand recommendations were seamlessly converted into creative communications and marketing strategies.

Milestone 3: Dialogue: The People Who Know Pensacola Best

After these first impressions, grading the city on 36 qualities of competitive cities, and reviewing and analyzing research and reports, Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel began the multi-pronged dialogue phase of the brand process.

This phase included a meeting with a core team of advisers for Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel to introduce their methodology and concepts and to receive advice and reactions. In addition, 30 to 40-minute, one-on-one interviews were held with key stakeholders and community leaders to obtain their personal, emotional, and factual perceptions about Pensacola and their direction for the branding process.

Milestone 4: Audience Immersion

It’s impossible to get at the right answers if you don’t ask the right questions, and Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel developed an interview guide that triggered the imagination, that identified Pensacola’s heroes, and that grounded the purpose of the city.

After crafting provocative questions that inspired insight into Pensacola, dozens of one-on-one interviews were conducted with regular citizens, young professionals, tourists, and businesspeople.

Following this phase, themes that were emerging from the first half of the process were summarized:

• Pensacola is an intimate, personal experience to the people who live there

• Opinions about Pensacola tend to the extremes

• Pensacola is a layered city that reveals itself grudgingly

• There’s a growing sense of collective purpose although there is no consensus about what the future should be

• People like having options like the beach even if they don’t go there

• Hurricane Ivan left a discernible psychic toll, but there is a survivor’s pride in taking a blow and rebuilding community

• Parents want their children to have the option of good jobs that keep them in Pensacola after graduation

• Young professionals are looking for “peak experiences” – the best that can be found anywhere – rather than a variety of good experiences

Milestone 5: Competitive Review

Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel analyzed the competitive context of Pensacola with other cities to identify opportunities or gaps in the competitive landscape that can be filled.

It revealed the areas of the economy that were strengths and identified weaknesses in order to develop a full competitive context for the Pensacola region.

Milestone 6: Brand Charrette

The branding process culminated with two days of charrettes aimed at testing the themes and creating a common understanding about the strategies. By the time the charrette process ended, more than 150 people had participated in the process.

From the information that had been gathered, Smart City Consulting/Stone Mantel developed the overriding themes for Pensacola:

• Discovery and adventure

• The actual, cultural, and symbolic role of water

• History and heritage as a platform for innovation

Tomorrow: The Conclusions and the Brand