When it comes to community branding, process must be equal to creativity

A community – no matter its size, demographics, psychographics or location – faces a unique set of challenges when creating or modifying the representative markers of its brand identity. While considering or introducing new elements of a brand may often seem simple, especially when they are timely and relevant to the current perceived makeup of a place, the risks of an uncalculated process always outweigh the potential benefits. 

You’ve heard us say before that branding has a branding problem. This is especially evident in community branding, which, when executed correctly, results in much more than a new seal, logo, mark or website. It requires a deeper, more strategic process to understand and articulate what makes a community distinct. 

That process must involve receiving input and perspectives from all corners of your community before creative work ever begins. Ultimately, your bottom line is the welfare of the people who call your community home. Ensuring their voice is heard and the outcome of the branding process appeals to and benefits them is critical. 

Thus, both the development and rollout of a new identity must be controlled and purposeful in order to keep the ultimate bottom line – your community – on your side. If it’s not, the outcome and final product could backfire.

For example, the State of Utah recently introduced a redesigned state flag that aimed to showcase more vibrancy while still honoring its history and heritage. Unfortunately, the flag received heavy criticism from residents and resulted in national headlines. Detractors accuse the process of being politically driven and that it aimed to remove key parts of the state’s history. Our objective assessment is that Utah’s process was neither of these things. Rather, the process was compromised by a lack of upfront awareness, resident input and the decision to ask for public ideas from designers – “an amalgam of submissions” – which inherently turns design into a free-for-all.

There are three key lessons that community marketers can learn from this project, which is receiving negative attention and feedback despite its good intentions:

  • Brand changes must be driven by strategy. Projects that focus on visual changes only, without a deeper purpose, risk community speculation or rejection. The creative elements are a vehicle to achieve a broader strategic objective; they are not the objective themselves.
  • A widespread, research-based effort is a must for any branding or visual identity project. Get input from as many residents as possible and ensure they understand the project’s goal.
  • Take a democratic approach to perception gathering, not creative development. The Utah project engaged 72 community-based designers to contribute to the redesigned flag. It is best to instead engage the community when gathering input on the strengths and spirit of the community, then allow a smaller team guided by a professional contractor develop creative based on those insights.  In addition to these lessons learned, marketers can ensure their next community branding endeavor results in a positive outcome by prioritizing these key activities.
  • Communicate “the why” early and often. Share why you are pursuing the project, what’s involved and how it will benefit everyone. Transparency is key to keeping your community engaged and on your side – and also from it being considered a fluff project vs. a strategic driver.
  • Don’t shy away from doubters. These individuals are often your most passionate residents and stakeholders. Embrace two-way conversations so they understand the project’s purposes and objectives. This will often minimize misinformation and speculation and generate more buy-in.
  • Prioritize stakeholder research and talk to everyone. Proper research is imperative to the success of a community brand project. Your residents and nearby stakeholders know your community best. Ensure you’re receiving input from every corner of your community, then allow it to shape how you articulate your place’s DNA. 
  • Always refer back to your inputs and objectives. It’s human nature to react with personal opinions or consider current events in the creative process. Don’t let those perspectives change the course of the brand. Always prioritize the findings from community research to guide you forward. 
  • Plan a strategic brand rollout, not a “reveal.” No ta-da’s or unveil events, as these encourage the public to evaluate the project as simply a new logo, when the purpose is much deeper. Given the breadth of social media engagement, they usually go poorly and leave the branding entity on its heels. Find ways to slowly, but boldly, communicate the strengths, story and DNA of your community, as well as any important context (such as “the why”), before visual elements are introduced – especially with electeds. This helps to ensure that stakeholders understand the full picture and feel part of the process; it also increases endorsement by leaders.

Community branding is a complex process but can deliver meaningful returns when executed carefully and methodically. If you need clarity on how to get started and throughout the process,
we’d love to hear from you.