Archive for the 'City and town identity' Category

If your city identity is a stew, you’re in hot water

Friday, August 20th, 2010

If your city identity resembles a stew—made up of a little bit of everything—you’re in hot water, identity-wise. An identity is ONE THING that reigns supreme. Too many ingredients will smother the extraordinary “you” that’s trying to stand out. When you’re a stew, all you can do is blend in. As a city, that’s not what you want.

How city identities can become stew-like concoctions

City identities, often against their best intentions, can easily fall into stew-like concoctions. In an attempt to please everyone locally, they often try to accommodate every local constituency and interest, as equal ingredients. To insure that no one is “left out” they add everyone in, pretty much at face value. The result is a compromise identity, usually stirred with a time-worn slogan that means next to nothing. A slogan like “Someplace Special.”

A compromise identity full of contradictions

A compromise identity can’t differentiate a city. The city will appear like every other city singing the same tune of “everything for everybody.” An additional peril is that compromise identities often teem with contradictions in their attempt to please all local interests and all potential outside interests. A city with such an identity will often be portrayed as a peaceful, walkable  hamlet—with the nighttime pulse of New York. It will be a city that’s both great for shopping—and wilderness hiking. It’s a city that’s dreamily romantic—and a kid’s paradise. It’s a city renown for its luxury boutiques—and bargains galore. Eventually the city’s identity boils down to a classic hodgepodge, i.e., a stew. It’s a mishmash, with nothing really memorable.

The city identity is not a directory

You can usually detect a city’s compromise identity because the identity itself reads like a directory. Everything—and the kitchen sink—is tossed into the mix. The city itself never transcends this directory. In effect, the city has positioned itself as a mall—which makes it harder for the city to stand on its own.

The solution: a higher context of identity

The solution to this common problem is to find a new context for the city that rises above the classic identity stew. This requires some careful, critical and creative thinking, because we want the identity to differentiate the city in a manner that’s most productive for its residents and businesses. We aim for a strategic identity that will serve the city now and into the future. As a first step we re-imagine the city as a platform for more meaningful values, and behaviors. These are often already there inside the city, in latent form, waiting to be developed.

Photo credit: wallyg — Flickr

If a city calls itself “Someplace Special,” what kind of special experience must it provide?

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Every city or town yearns to be “someplace special,” a unique and delightful community that attracts good residents and plenty of visitors for local business and events. Sometimes, nature lends a hand. Usually, though, crafting a standout civic identity entails a careful plan, time and resources. A city tagline or motto can help in this regard, framing the city in a differentiating and productive context consistent with city goals.

Mount Dora is “Someplace Special”

It’s a bit rare, though, for a city to simply call itself “Someplace Special” as its tagline or motto. “Someplace Special” is a cliché. But that’s what the city of Mount Dora (in central Florida) has done. (See above.)

Here is how the city describes its “Someplace Special” tagline:

Formally adopted by City Council in June, 2007, “Someplace Special” is a short, alliterative, descriptive phrase that quickly and simply reflects the City’s unique culture and relaxed atmosphere which attracts visitors, residents and businesses. It remains catchy for easy memory recall in a simple phrase that can be easily utilized in a variety of marketing campaigns.

A tagline that’s vague on purpose

“Wait a second,” you might say. “Someplace Special” really doesn’t indicate how or why Mount Dora is special. In itself, the tagline is meaningless (and more than a bit time-worn). Shouldn’t the tagline distill the unique essence that is Mount Dora, that special quality that clearly sets Mount Dora apart from all other places on earth?

Well, the Mount Dora tagline is nonspecific on purpose. Back to the city’s description:

The City’s tagline is intentionally nonspecific so it may be used to communicate with every constituent of the City: residents, potential residents, visitors, business owners, potential business owners and City employees. Additionally, “Someplace Special” works well with the many diverse events the City hosts. “Someplace Special” can speak of any event, to any constituent of any age, race or gender, at any time of the year, and it may be tied in with a variety of marketing themes that arise: romantic, historical, quaintness, charm, festivals, luxury, budget and more.

An “artful, strategic and persuasive message”

The city’s identity guidelines go on to say that the “Someplace Special” tagline “enhances the value and relevance of the City’s brand and extends its reach; it compresses the overall experience of living, visiting and doing business in Mount Dora into an artful, persuasive and strategic message.”

A tagline that says little and fits every purpose

And there you have it: a tagline that says little and fits every purpose, from luxury to budget. It must confer some practical value because “Someplace Special” has been used by the city of Mount Dora for three years. I wonder, though, whether “Someplace Special” really does justice to the many qualities that do seem to make Mount Dora special. Does it point toward a unique civic character found nowhere else? Does it grab hold of potential visitors with the promise of an exclusive destination experience? Does it spark their imaginations, resonate with their deepest values and elevate Mount Dora to the top of their must-see places? And for those who do visit the city, does the tagline help focus the Mount Dora experience, intensify it into something remarkable, and extend it beyond Mount Dora so visitors carry it far and wide?

One visitor to the city said: “Mount Dora was pleasant and worth seeing once.” Perhaps he would have longed to return had his experience had more focus, more intensity, and fully engaged the values that made him tick.

Mount Dora does have special qualities

I’ve never been to Mount Dora, but from what I see on the Web Mount Dora may be far more special than its current tagline. The city (pop. 11,600) has wonderful architectural heritage with carefully preserved buildings, is rich in American values and tradition,  has nice shops (especially antiques), a beautiful lake, a picturesque lighthouse, popular events (here and here) and whimsically offers a Florida’s best “mountain-top experience” (at 189 ft. asl). It certainly has aspects of a walkable and charming historic village.

A tagline of convenience

Mount Dora’s “Someplace Special” tagline is what I would call a “tagline of convenience.” It demands so little that it’s easy to agree on, and to implement. That gives it a certain pragmatic value, which can count for a lot in a small city. Of course, using that criteria a city could just as easily call itself  “The Cat’s Meow” or “The Bee’s Knees.”

Someplace special—somehow

While Mount Dora has an abundance of special qualities, the tagline of “Someplace Special” doesn’t really obligate the city to do or be anything special. It makes no promise, commitment or pledge toward any particular kind of civic or visitor experience. It doesn’t hold the city to any special standard, vision or quality of life, nor does it project any. As it is, the city doesn’t have to do anything special to make this “special” tagline “work.”

A context for Mount Dora

A signal weakness of taglines like “Someplace Special” is that they don’t provide a differentiating and productive context for cities and towns. Mount Dora, however, seems tailor-made for such a context based on the experiences that it does provide. To name just a few:

  1. Local heritage (100 years) and story
  2. Retail that connects present and past
  3. Preservation
  4. Outstanding architecture
  5. Village charm
  6. Respect for traditional American values
  7. Community values that only a small town culture can provide
  8. Respect for art, craft and craftsmanship

Many of these elements are in short or shrinking supply in today’s America. In Mount Dora they’re plentiful and real, and they constitute real (and rare) value. They work together, too. A tagline challenge would be to crystallize these elements in a short and remarkable metaphor or phrase that clearly specifies and evokes the uniqueness that Mount Dora represents.

Social media lends a hand

Social media may help point a way forward for Mount Dora. Mount Dora’s Twitter page already seems to be extending the context of Mount Dora beyond the non-specific “Someplace Special” formalized by the city. The Twitter page describes the city as “A super quaint, 100 year old, lakeside, hilltop, New England town in Central Florida.” There’s energy in that description and a sense of what the city might offer, albeit very loosely focused.

Local business lends a hand

The Mount Dora Village Merchants and Business Association is on to something (in my view) when they frame Mount Dora as a “village.” Villages are rare. A village experience is very rare. The Association extends “Someplace Special” too, by adding that Mount Dora is “Someplace Special to play, shop, dine, stay ….” Unfortunately, this extension, while fine for business, doesn’t really specify the singular experience that Mount Dora as a village represents. The extension could refer to any city, including nearby Orlando.

(The Merchants site does refer to Mount Dora’s “Southern charm,” which is surely true, but that’s somewhat at odds with the Twitter page description of Mount Dora as a “New England town.” Which is it?)

Identity is exclusivity, not one size fits all

Mount Dora’s Twitter page includes a nonstop stream of local events, deals and promotions. That’s commendable, but my question would be this: how can the city identity rise above the various promotions and events that flood the local calendar. It’s as if the Mount Dora  identity is being reduced to a directory, a calendar, and a list of features. Moreover, a city that tries to be “everything for everybody” is never someplace special. It’s a strip mall. Identity is exclusivity, not one size fits all.

A context, not a “theme”

Should Mount Dora (and cities like it) ever consider a more differentiating and productive tagline they would want to focus on their real context, and not on a pre-packaged or concocted “theme.” Themes are a dime a dozen. And they’re facades. The context of a city is real, and irreplaceable. Its roots are in the city’s character, and in its residents, in their past and present, and in their aspirations. Such a context can  be leveraged, too, and that can mean development opportunities downstream.

A context city: Carmel-by-the Sea

A famous context city is California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. It manages to be a world renowned tourist destination while remaining true to its roots, genuine through and through. And being “genuine through and through” is a major reason why it’s a tourist destination.

Image: City of Mount Dora