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Charlottes Emerging Brand

by Charlie Elberson

March 4,2005

We’re told Charlotte needs a message. When young residents are asked “What IS Charlotte?,”they fumble to answer. The cry often heard, again rises: “Let’s brand Charlotte!” 

And why not? Brands are everywhere. Wired Magazine reported that 5,000 new brands were introduced last year. Yet the average person can name barely a few. And that’s part of the problem – branding is simple in theory, but very difficult in execution. Brands have been around for centuries. Ever since craftsmen like Paul Revere began to put a distinctive mark on their wares (thus “branding” them), brand names have been equated with value.

Functional products lend themselves easily to branding – it’s why the first packaged brands were for things like cough drops. More abstract and arcane entities are harder to brand. This is why multinational conglomerates tend to select “Unisys”-style monikers and generic corporate imagery when describing themselves.

Cities that desire to market themselves often struggle with how to fit their messages under a common brand umbrella. And, because branding requires a single-minded focus, applied consistently over time, branding a city is often more frustrating than fruitful.

The branding process can explain why. A simple six-step example of the branding process might look like this:

1. Discover how customers/prospects perceive you and the universe within which you operate.
2. Compare the above to your goals, i.e. what you want to become in the long run.
3. Devise succinct, simple statements that integrate the two.
4. Evaluate statements with stakeholders and get buy-in for the one that best exemplifies the brand - called the brand premise.
5. Establish traits that reinforce and support this premise - we call this brand character or brand story.
6. Consistently and cohesively apply in all communications. Over time, brand association and perceived value will grow.

It’s not hard to see why municipalities like Charlotte struggle so with branding. I’ve had the task of branding Charlotte before and it’s not easy. (My firm developed the “What We Dream We Do” campaign a few years back). Grabbing hold of what this city is, focusing it, and hanging on is like trying to unhook a just-landed fish – slippery and prickly at the same time.

Who are our customers and prospects? What do our customers and prospects think of us? What are our goals? Who are the stakeholders? How can we hope for buy-in? Ask these questions in Charlotte and get a million different answers, depending on who, and when, you ask.

Still, lots of U.S. cities are “branded,” meaning they are already associated with a certain premise or character traits. Here are some examples:

Cities associated with single industries:
D.C., Orlando, Las Vegas, Detroit, Charleston, Nashville
Cities with notable perceived physical characteristics:
San Francisco, Chicago, Charleston, Miami, New York, Phoenix
Cities with universal historical significance:
Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, Richmond
Cities linked to food (and beverage):
Buffalo, Memphis, New York, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans
Cities with attitude:
New York, LA, New Orleans, San Antonio, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, Miami

As you scan this list observe one thing. All the brand elements: the industries, the physical characteristics, the attitude, the culture – all the above singularities are more or less organic to their communities. Some, like San Antonio, embrace their brand associations. Others talk around theirs (go to Nashville’s Chamber website and try to find the phrase, “Music City.”)

The fact that a city’s brand association tends to form around organic factors explains in part why the branding conversation for Charlotte has been unproductive so far. Frankly, it’s premature. We forget how young, as a city, Charlotte really is. We’re all excited about what Charlotte can become and frustrated it’s not there yet. A young sentiment about a young city.

Myself, I think Charlotte’s true brand is just starting to emerge. And it will happen organically, not something we fabricate. Time and the caring hands of people who want their home to become something worthwhile still have a lot to do. But, like the father who one day notices his little girl has grown up to become a remarkable and complete woman, ready for her coronation, Charlotte’s about to show us what she’ll be when she grows up. I intend to help her all I can.

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