Thursday, December 2, 2010

A 'Brand' New Edmonton

Artist's rendition of the Expo that could have been.

Ever have your mom tell you that you could go to a movie, then change her mind and say you can't? How about a boss that approves an expenditure for upgrading your office, who retracts the offer before you can cash in on it? Ever have a federal government encourage and support you in bidding to hold a world exposition in your city, only to change their mind at the last minute with tenuous reasoning?

It's a lousy feeling. It's grossly unfair. It's a tremendous amount of money wasted pursuing a special event that's not going to happen.

But is the money actually wasted?

Having Expo 2017 denied to us by the Feds is gruesome. Especially after being encouraged by the same people to apply in the first place. But we can sit back and pout or we can put that work to good use. You see, we had a committee of extremely talented, diverse individuals, extremely committed to the city, looking hard at Edmonton and trying to come up with reasons for the world to visit us for three months in 2017.

Why not keep that group together and task them with coming up with reasons for the world to visit us all year round?

It must be noted off the top that this is not a slag towards EEDC or Edmonton Tourism. These organizations work very hard to bring business and visitors to the city. Heck, even Bigfoot is trying to promote Edmonton as a destination. There is no question that many people in this city love it for many reasons and want to share those reasons with the rest of the world.

But the problem with making Edmonton appeal to the world is a branding problem. It's based on a faulty perspective of Edmonton as a grubby, cold, backwater oil town in the boonies that is devoid of culture. Even people who live and work here are guilty of painting that picture. I'm certain that's part of what caused the Feds to change their minds. The view from the outside is that we are not capable of achieving anything ambitious. Like the bullies on the playground, the outside world has assumptions about us and laughs at us when we claim to be able to do something spectacular.

The city claims to have a progressive city vision, but there's a problem: it's not specific enough. It doesn't scream Edmonton. A basic branding exercise is to take your name out of your vision and put your competitor's in. A properly crafted vision will fall apart with a different name. Our city vision has some specific elements, but far too much of it could be said of a dozen other cities in the country.

We need a stronger vision, something more specific and concrete. We need to give that to Edmonton Tourism and EEDC as a tool for continuing the work they do. But coming up with a strong, unique vision for our city - any city - is a challenge. It takes intelligent, divergent, critical thinkers. Individuals with vision. Individuals who are committed. People who live, breathe and love Edmonton and are passionate about sharing it with the world.

People like the currently defunct Expo committee, maybe?



  1. I'm not so sure it's a branding problem. I think a more fundamental issue is that Edmontonians don't know enough about their own city. Invariably, as people learn more about the place they live, they like it more, and the tend to want to get involved, to make a difference.

    For the view on the outside to change, we need to first start thinking positively about our city on the inside. Talking about the good things, and tackling the bad things head on with a "we will succeed" attitude.

    On a related note, I'd love for you to check out The Edmonton Champions Project!

  2. Hey Mack,

    I think we're both right... it's a combination of the two. I totally agree that there needs to be more enthusiasm and connection from within, which (much as I hate the over-use of this phrase) starts with education. I really admire and am inspired by initiatives like Edmonton Champions (I'm now on the mailing list) and similar organizations (which I am also on the mailing lists for now).

    Then someone has to be able to find a way to take that identity and wrap it in a concept that can carry beyond the city gates. I'm not talking about a slogan or a new logo, but an actual, concrete brand that resonates. I think, if properly, this can work both ways. The brand can give Edmontonians a vision that helps coalesce the initiatives mentioned above, and the initiatives can then give the brand credibility when it's presented to the world.

    It's a tall order to create a brand, especially for a city. Silicon Valley, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Vancouver - all of these cities have a brand that is tricky to put into simple words, yet the names of the cities conjure instant images that people use to identify them. What are the instant images that go through the minds of people when they hear 'Edmonton?' Instead of letting that externally perceived identity form by default, I think we should be attempting to craft it.

  3. Maybe I misinterpreted what you meant by "brand" - makes sense, thanks!

  4. Great blog Randy and good discussion. We would describe brand as the collective influence or lasting impression of all people see, hear, experience, touch etc. about a product, service or in this case a city. The key in my opinion is that the brand needs to be authentic so we can't overlay something on to Edmonton and expect it to stick (not that this is being suggested). As citizens, simply asking ourselves why we live here can help to highlight the differentiators we can build on.

    I agree that there is an education that needs to go on about what's here but in my opinion there's also a lack of confidence that exists here. I'm not sure how we've gotten there to be honest but we often feel we're inferior to other cities in Canada. This is compounded by that lack of education or the simple lack of desire for people to experience this city and all we have. I think this is the first step. We have to build the internal belief in who we are and what we do which will then translate into how we're perceived elsewhere.

    Thanks for the discussion guys. In this city it's long overdue.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion. I for one am not terribly upset that the Expo bid failed, as Expos have historically proven to be an inefficient use of tax-payer dollars. What I am much more interested in, as Randy stated, is what can come out of this in terms of a fresh, new branding initiative. Some thoughts in this regard:

    1. A distinction needs to be made between attracting TOURISTS (as the expo would have done) and attracting RESIDENTS (which can be accomplished by a good branding strategy). The former is temporary and transient. The latter is long-lasting and can substantially improve our city - especially if we're able to attract innovative, creative, and passionate people that are driven to excel in their chosen endeavors. We should aim for the latter category when crafting our brand.
    2. The best branding initiatives build on existing strengths. What are Edmonton's strengths? Why do people live here, really? Even as a resident of almost 10 years I can't really think of such of anything off the top of my head. This is a problem.
    3. Our current branding, err, kinda sucks. There is nothing UNIQUE about it - you could substitute pretty much any other major North American city and say the same things. Every city claims to be "progressive" and have "world class" something or other. No one believes it. Nor should they.
    4. Ultimately, the city vision needs to be articulated by our elected officials. The city recently released as series of guiding documents ("The Way we Grow, The Way we Move, etc.) which set out what the city will look like in 30 years. It's not terribly exciting or innovative, and seems pretty boilerplate to me. Edmonton will be, by 2040, for instance, an "energy city", which speaks to both the petrochemical component and the human energy component. Yawn. How about making a commitment to be entirely self-sustaining by 2040, with green roofs and solar panels doting the landscape? To having the highest per-capita income in all of North America? To have the best technological sector in Canada? To aspire to be the best city to live in on the planet, as Vancouver was a few years back? To be the best place in Canada to grow a small business? THESE ARE VISIONARY STATEMENTS! They are seemingly impossible goals that can be realized, given the right conditions and group bye-in. Most importantly, they motivate and attract.

    Anyway, these are some of my thoughts; I'd be happy to hear what everyone else has to say.

  6. Excellent thoughts.

    I think that if we have a strong identity figured out, we don't exactly need two separate brands, one for tourists and one for residents. There will be different approaches to the two audiences of course, but they should come from the same place. You may act differently with your wife than with your boss, but you are the same person at the core. I think a strong brand should be able to apply to both audiences. Again, this is the more comprehensive meaning of brand, as an embodiment of the identity, not just a tag line on expensive "Welcome to the City" signs.

    I think you're bang-on with the 'visionary statements' comment. We need to make strong choices, which will both help out brand stand out in the world, as well as motivate the residents by giving them a vision to believe in.
    Without a vision, we are a city full of disparate people, all trying to make their own way, regardless of anyone else. How can a city with a population of around a million people hope to go anywhere if everyone is going off in separate directions?

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