Branding helps communities by defining and promoting what is special about the place. But what makes some places unique is the fact that they can’t be defined or pigeonholed. Such was the case with South Main in downtown Memphis. This Historic Arts District offers the kind of artistic quirkiness and authentic grit that cool hunters are searching for. But its low marketing profile meant that it wasn’t on the radar for many visitors except during major events. And retailers and attractions were cautious about putting down roots in a place without a clearly defined reputation to attract customers. How best to brand South Main to attract people to its streets without destroying its soul. In the words of one stakeholder, “the minute you label a place as an arts district, the real ‘artists’ leave”.
It’s not that the South Main experience is indefinable; it just resists defining by people who aren’t “of the South Main streets”. The eclectic mosaic of creative individuals who make up South Main are certainly not at a loss for describing what the area means to them…although the medium for that description may range from poetry to performance art to graffiti. The key is to give all these South Main warriors a simple and consistent armature in which to express their love of place and then – get out of the way. And remember, when a brand is growing organically, nothing will kill it like too many rules.
There’s nothing harder than developing the armature within which an organic brand can grow. It must be compelling enough to capture the attention but open-ended enough that people want to complete it with their own ideas. It must attract but not distract. Using the simple statement “South Main Is,” North Star prompts the artists and entrepreneurs of the region to fill in the blanks with the words, art, music and flavors that are in their soul. The statement surrounds a simple round empty mark that can remain a blank canvas or can be filled in with people’s visions of the place. (The line stands strong on its own, “South Main Is” but it never dismisses the perspective of others.) All canvases in the community are open to brand interpretation from the walls of buildings to special events to a vibrant, real-time digital media campaign.