What does America’s oldest city have in common with one of its youngest? The urge to define itself.

St. Augustine, Florida, launched its initiative in 1715 by petitioning the King of Spain for a coat of arms. Upon his receipt, the King assumedly delegated the request to his creative services department who, in turn, set out to define the message and visually articulate the city’s identity.

The resulting execution diligently captured St. Augustine’s essence—a strong, Christian safe haven, noble and serene, with a familial affinity for France and lasting respect for the mighty military garrison that founded the city—though, sadly, the completed logo was ultimately caught up in a bureaucratic morass and never delivered until the city issued a follow-through memo in 1991, some 276 years later.

Here in our modern age, such efforts tend to move a bit faster. Perhaps a bit too fast, however, as the recently incorporated city of Dunwoody, Georgia, discovered when roll-out of its new identity drew less than flattering notice for its eerie similarity to a certain big box global giant.
Identity Crisis
Despite the nearly 300 years between them, both of these efforts are grounded in the same municipal desire. Like any organization, cities yearn to present themselves. To embody their complex wholeness in snappy visual shorthand. To brand themselves.

This is who we are. How may we help you?

All of this leads to a basic question, and certainly not a new one: Who am I? Contrary to what all-too-often defines municipal branding efforts, it’s this question—not the wishful thinking of swooshes, tag lines, and color schemes—that lies at the heart of what branding is all about.

But that’s not the way it typically plays out, which reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what branding a city really means. Talk of “creating a brand,” as one might do with the roll-out of a revolutionary new shaving cream, suggests some sort of blank slate, a point of ground zero where the process of definition can begin.

Logo: Dunwoody: Smart people - Smart placeBut cities are living organisms, built upon evolving visions with a legacy of past behaviors and no shortage of current, on-the-ground realities, which means—like it or not—they already have a brand.

Such lessons bordered on the sacred during the 12 years I spent at J Walter Thompson, the global advertising agency named for the godfather of modern branding and pioneer of many of today’s widely accepted practices. When it comes to organizational identity, the firm’s century and a half worth of experience provides a wealth of precedence and yet, to really understand the necessary rigors of meaningful city branding, it’s still not enough.

Instead, you have to go back a bit further than that. Say, about 2,400 years. To Plato, and the idea of Being and Becoming.

His contribution: You are what you are. And the trick is deciphering what that is.

The anchor, as Plato saw it, is Being, which could be described as the very idea of you. Consider it a city’s transcendental essence—a sort of promise of possibility—which exists not as a physical reality but as something ethereal, permanent and unchanging. In tandem with this lies the state of Becoming—the perpetual unfolding of life, with all the inevitable machinations that entails. With each passing day, the city, like the person or organization, moves one step closer to—or one step further from—the idealized state of what it really is.

To become what you are you must know what you are. Which is when brand identity stops being a tool of promotion and starts being a litmus test for every level of decision making. A guiding light in the murky depths of the arbitrary. An environment where you don’t decide what move to make next. You simply know.
Becoming You
For cities, this means listening. It means being a good study of history. It means deciphering the language of your streets and the stories they tell, responding to collective will instead of special interest, and leveraging partnerships to reinforce shared ownership. A city’s Being is not a concoction of the Chamber of Commerce or the Tourism Bureau. It’s not a major league franchise or top notch schools or temperate weather. It’s none of these things and yet, at the same time, it’s all of them. And more.

Plato: the father of branding.

The ongoing state of Becoming entails meaningful action in service of self-fulfillment. And that’s the rub with city branding, because meaningful action is dependent on genuine leadership and good governance which, sadly, are often in woefully short supply.

Heed this warning: If your city branding efforts don’t begin with top down commitment to both your foundational principles (Being) and your aspirational goals (Becoming), you are wasting your time. It doesn’t matter how many meetings you attend, how many resident focus groups you hold, or how many Addy award-winning agencies you interview.

If your community has not done the hard work of self-examination, building consensus, defining goals, and demonstrating commitment through meaningful actions, it just doesn’t matter.

If your leadership fails to engender trust, you can’t sell strength. If your policies are not incentivizing what you want and penalizing what you don’t, you can’t sell vision. If your zoning promotes sprawl and your citizens are disconnected from civic participation, you can’t sell community.

No matter how pretty your logo or clever your tag, you are wasting your time.

In marketing, this is what’s known as getting the product right. Unfortunately, with cities, you can’t just send it back to the development lab. It takes years of faithful vision, labor and commitment, with government, citizens, businesses, and institutions all working together, in celebration of their often grudgingly acknowledged interdependencies, to reach one’s ideal. Or even get close.

It’s hard. And when things are hard, the thought of just picking up the phone and calling the local ad agency can seem pretty darn attractive.

Don’t buy it. Become more than that.