Archive for the '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

Brand lessons from the BP oil disaster

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010


It’s not too early to discern some strategic brand lessons from BP’s horrific oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is a global oil giant with a highly visible (and controversial) brand identity: a major oil company that’s positioned itself as “beyond petroleum.” Yet today the BP brand is smothered in oil as far as the eye can see, a symbol (and agent) of massive pollution.

Why the BP disaster is a big deal for brands

The BP oil disaster is a big deal for brands because it marks a catastrophic failure of a top-tier brand. As such, it stands to have far-reaching consequences that will play out in time across all brands. At this early stage, three immediate “big deal” factors stand out to my mind:

  1. BP has become the antithesis of its proclaimed identity. It has gored its own icon. How could that happen to a billion-dollar brand?
  2. We may be witnessing the greatest sudden loss of brand trust by a company in the history of business. This is much more than a brand doing a poor job of crisis management. It appears that the BP brand took its eye off the ball and allowed the crisis to happen, a transgression no brand—or business— can afford.
  3. Events suggest that BP’s reliance on “positioning,” “messaging” and “mindshare” (an advertising approach to brands) helped decouple the brand from operational realities. The resulting BP brand was “positioned in the mind” of a campaign audience but had diminished presence in BP’s drilling operations, where it was desperately needed before and after the blowout. Current cost of this disconnect: $2 billion (and growing).

What are the long term brand consequences?

As I see it, the BP oil disaster will contribute to a reassessment of the conventional “mindshare” approach to brands that treats brands as media artifacts in a persuasion package to shape perceptions. This superficial “branding” approach can blind the brand to operational issues desperately in need of brand direction. There’s growing evidence that this is exactly what happened in BP’s case. The brand outcome is the full story. It can’t be bottled in a mindshare campaign.

Due to the enormity of BP’s brand failure I’d expect to see a new emphasis on brands  as a method of delivering operating value, rather than symbolic campaigns. In this structured brand value approach, brand principles and priorities directly drive business decisions, with a brand’s full emotional force. This is a working brand of company culture, rather than campaigns.

What went wrong with the BP brand?

What went wrong with the BP brand? The framing question, as I see it, is this: Did BP fail its brand? Or did the brand fail BP? At present, I’d say the answer is “Both.”

We also want answers to related questions: Were there critical flaws in the BP brand approach? In the brand model? In the brand strategy? In brand program execution? Was the problem weak brand leadership? Or was the brand simply marginalized, relegated to media campaigns and decoupled from essential company operations (e.g., brand practice in the oilfield) where it might have made a difference?

If the BP brand was indeed “beyond petroleum,” what precise vision and values guided BP’s oil production business, and its dedicated employees? BP’s 80-page  Code of Conduct, “Our commitment to integrity,” makes no mention of the BP brand. How is that possible?

Not surprisingly, other oil companies are distancing themselves from BP’s oilfield practices.

A note about this post

I’m writing this as events unfold, so my assessments are preliminary. I’m also aware that BP is not the only company with responsibilities in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. My focus here is on brands as a form of strategic and operational leadership, and that means a focus on BP.

With a failing brand, BP’s troubles just keep gushing

When a brand fails, everything fails, and BP’s travails certainty point to systematic brand failure. We have BP’s CEO being raked over the coals in the US Congress. BP is currently facing possible criminal charges, accusations of cover-ups, fines of up to $258 million per day, and accusations of blocking reporters from covering the story. There are also serious allegations that BP had been cutting corners on safety.

BP’s brand failings have jeopardized the credibility of the oil industry itself, and will certainly lead to greater—and more costly—industry regulation.

What’s especially troubling is that these are the kinds of breakdowns in quality that brand programs are designed to prevent. A more effective BP brand program might have saved the $20 billion that BP must now set aside in escrow to pay for environmental and community damages.

The BP brand could have been a hero and shining star in this tragic episode.  Currently, it bleeds copious amounts of trust with every passing day.

Basic brand lessons

What follows are some basic brand lessons from the BP oil disaster as I see them at the present time. 7

1. “Positioning” the brand where the core business isn’t (in BP’s case, “beyond petroleum”) puts the brand at risk.

The BP oil catastrophe may herald the end of artificial “brand positioning” as an element of brand strategy. Under its striking Helios logo BP claimed a high-profile positioning as a “green” renewable energy leader “beyond petroleum.” As such, the BP brand was aiming for a make-believe category in people’s minds, since BP’s business was petroleum for the foreseeable future. Instead of being an enlightened brand of  innovative and responsible oil production, where 99% of its business resided, BP apparently let its “beyond petroleum” positioning blind it to a disturbing pattern of  risky design practices and short-cuts over a decade of operations.

In the real world, it’s the vision and values at the operations level that position the brand—and the business—to succeed.



A test of identity for the US Marines

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

In December, 2008 a Marine Corps F/A 18 fighter jet suffered a dual engine failure on a training flight near San Diego. En route to a Marine Corps airfield it crashed into a populated area, destroying three houses and tragically killing four members of one family.

Identity is defined by actions, not symbols

This tragedy was a test of identity for the US Marines.

The crash of a Marine fighter jet in San Diego that killed four people was “clearly avoidable” if the pilot and officers on the ground assisting him during the emergency had followed proper procedures, a Marine general said today.

The Marine officers relieved of duties include the squadron commander, operations officer, standardization office and maintenance officer.

Besides the four Marine officers who were relieved of duty . . .  nine other Marines have received administrative reprimands.

The plane’s pilot, who safely ejected just moments before the plane crashed, has been grounded ever since and will receive a further review to determine if he should keep his wings.

Read the full ABC News account here.


Google: the brand behind the logo

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Behind every logo is a brand trying to reach out to customers. Since a designer’s job is to help a company unfold its potential, one hires the best designer one can afford when developing the identity and logo. A good designer can raise a logo from “packaging” to long-term brand performance.

Wired’s How Google got its colorful logo describes the iterative steps taken by Google’s founders and their designer to work out the current Google logotype. The step-by-step details are fascinating. Through design, the brand behind the logo emerges front and center.

A brand identity with a customer context

Sergey Brin and Larry Page knew what they wanted in the Google identity, but weren’t sure how to express it. The different design iterations helped birth a Google brand identity with a strong customer context. For starters, the logo/brand respects customers, by not getting in the way of doing a search. Second, the generous white space on the search page sets off the logo, and invites customers in. That big white space is customer space. Third, the vivid colors announce that this is a space for human expression—where Google and searchers team up.

Room to grow the brand

Of course, the Google logo itself doesn’t make Google search any better. You need sharp engineers for that. What it does do, however, is provide room to grow the brand. The design helps make the Google brand friendly, relaxing, inviting, unpretentious, fun and productive, so that Google connotes discovery and opportunity, never “work.” Long-term, this can set an engaging tone that makes adding more Google apps and services to one’s life easy, or maybe even automatic.

And then there are Google Doodles.

Logo: Google

Social sites extend the brand identity mission

Monday, November 6th, 2006

While corporate brand strategists are busy re-thinking brands at the top, the most powerful brand innovations may be taking shape at the bottom. In the digital age, brand leaders are born at the customer level, far from boardrooms and PowerPoints.

Brand innovation at social network sites

Prime examples are social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook. These sites, and others like them, are quietly redefining the brand identity mission. In traditional brand practice, the identity mission was to craft a company brand identity that was coherent, consistent and compelling, and then use brand programs and practices to drop it like a silo over customers. In contrast, the social network sites are turning down the volume of their own identity messaging so they can amp up their capabilities to become identity creation platforms for their customers.

This is a development all brands will eventually adopt, to some degree, consistent with their objectives and market situation.

Customer identity platforms

In effect, this new dynamic turns the traditional brand identity mission on its head. The new brand identity is less about promoting a company identity and more about using the brand to help customers build their own identities through the brand, as an integral part of the customer creation process. It creates customers as brand partners rather than brand subjects.

In other words, instead of being an identity silo, the brand becomes an identity platform for customers. As the brand extends the customer, the customer extends the brand, and the company. The silos (and silo thinking) are left behind.

And thus, brand identity is no longer a front-loaded belief system that must be imposed on customers. It becomes a shared workflow, collaborative and multi-faceted, gaining strength because its social rather than private.

Customer identity drives social network sites

Social network sites are becoming the new medium for helping customers forge their own selves. For people in their teens and twenties, identity is a very big deal. You have to roll your own, gloriously, and painfully. The sites understand this, and instead of dictating a preordained site brand identity to the customer, the social network brand frees customers to discover the interactions and identity contexts right for them. Instead of being a static symbol of the company, the brand becomes a customer process, flowing customers into new contexts of meaning and relevance.

The brand as customer platform

In effect, the MySpaces and Facebooks of the world are becoming customer platforms. That’s the ultimate sweet spot for any brand. As a customer platform, the brand becomes a customer partner in exploring and delivering relevance. Rather than dictate monolithic “branding” messages to them, it becomes their infrastructure for personal growth. It’s the brand as a social place, a value network, a home away from home.

Fred Stutzman is doing some pioneer work in this area, and has pointed out that social network sites are popular in large part because they help young adults negotiate the primary contexts where they can articulate their emerging identities. See Fred’s “Situational Relevance in Social Networking Sites” for an overview. (And see also my earlier post which is based on Danah Boyd’s seminal work.)

The brand as identity enabler

I really like the phrase, “to articulate one’s identity.” That’s something a brand can help customers do. The brand becomes a preferred vehicle for customers to discover and articulate their own identities. It does so by providing them with contexts relevant to their lives. This is the brand as an enabler: active, open, potent and personal.

Brands designed to create customers will have an easy transition to being enablers of new customer identities. Strategically, they’ll be creating customers around new freedoms, where customers will find new avenues to grow themselves. The business goal, of course, is to grow the customers that will drive the business forward.

Learning from social network sites

For brand builders, social network sites like MySpace and Facebook are a “proof of concept.” The task now is to see which enabling elements of these sites can help other brands do a better job of creating customers. Since brands are always in “learning mode,” this process should not be difficult.

What’s clear to me is that to survive, a business must actively create customers. As part of creating customers, it must offer new identity platforms as springboards for customer development, no matter what it produces. The faster it grows its customers, the faster it grows itself.

Don’t forget what makes a brand great

An apposite entry from our New Brand Glossary: “What makes a brand great is not that it does more for its customers. A great brand frees customers to do more for themselves.”


There’s hope for the Dell brand

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

At long last, there’s hope for the Dell brand. Dell’s new partnership with AMD signals a potential turnabout in Dell’s recent fortunes. After two decades of being the street seller for the Microsoft/Intel consortium, Dell had hit a brand ceiling. Brand-wise, there was no way for Dell to go. Certainly no way up. Microsoft and Intel made history, and Dell sold the souvenirs. Because the other two companies picked the game and held the cards, it was hard for Dell to create a strong brand identity with a strong customer connection.

A global faceless follower

Dell, based in a state of rugged individualism, had become a global faceless follower. And it’s no accident that everything that Dell isn’t, Apple is.

For a while, Dell’s claim to fame was its service. But that suffered when Dell decided to monetize service via outsourcing and cost cutting. Service quality crumbled, and Dell’s “service” cachet dropped off the cliff.

Recreating the Dell identity

The Dell brand can use the AMD deal to help recreate its identity. There’s energy in fresh starts. While the Dell/AMD relationship is limited, and currently focused on server technologies, there’s no reason it can’t expand to laptop and desktop markets, and carry a new Dell with it.

Let’s see: plucky AMD is the perennial chip outsider, now with a lead in chip performance. Dell is a proud Texan tired of being a hollow front. Down-to-earth Dell competes with the polished Apple. There’s the rough cut of a gritty brand story here, ready-made for this guy.


Apple gets the sofa, Microsoft gets the door

Saturday, September 16th, 2006

It’s way too early to predict whose products will define the emerging “home media center,” but at its big “Showtime” extravaganza this week Apple ran across the room and boldly jumped on the sofa. It can’t claim to own the sofa—far from it—but it certainly acts like it belongs there, with its Front Row remote in hand, new full-length movie downloads from iTunes and its sleek “iTV” device streaming Pirates of the Caribbean to our widescreen TV’s in early 2007. “I think it completes the story, and shows you where we’re going,” said Steve Jobs.

Microsoft, which has powerful technology of its own in this market, doesn’t seem to be inhabiting the same room as Apple. It’s standing uncomfortably back by the door, as if still wondering how to fit its classic market control strategies into this new high-touch, high-design world of mom, dad and the kids.

Apple’s brand advantage

What we’re seeing in Apple’s initiative is how a customer-centric brand strategy can undermine the market dominance of a far stronger player. Microsoft owns most of the cards, but it’s Apple who’s picking the game, and it’s Apple who’s dealing. It can do so because:

  1. It leads with its brand
  2. It has structured its brand as a holistic expression of the customer
  3. Apple has integrated innovation into its brand, creating clear customer pathways to higher levels of value.

These three elements contrast with Microsoft’s historic strategy to control customer choice, a strategy that puts internal limits on Microsoft innovation. While Apple is just as hard-nosed as Microsoft in its business dealings, it understands that by making Apple a brand of innovation it can create market opportunities in areas Microsoft can’t easily reach. Case in point: Apple’s five-year head start between the first iPod in 2001 and Microsoft’s Zune in 2006.

Some observations:

The power of customer-centric brands

Brands can be “about the company” or “about the customer.” Apple’s brand is the latter. Its brand has a supple, sensory texture that helps customers feel more alive. Through its customer-centric brand strategy Apple appears to be your personal agent in bringing about everything you’d want in the promised land of digital innovation and digital media: convenience, performance and completeness. Apple exudes a focus on “you” with such easy, holistic confidence that you want to jump on the sofa beside them. (That, of course, is the plan.)

Brands as “the customer inside the product”

One way to think about brands is to consider brand to be “the customer inside the product.” A brand built this way will radiate a strong customer presence. It does so because your brand strategy has integrated the customer’s forward path into the product. When the customer is “inside the product” you complete the customer as you complete the product, creating a powerful brand advantage. (A contrast to note: Apple works on completing its customers; Microsoft works on completing its controls.)

Apple’s “brand path” effect

I’ve previously described the concept of “brand space” and how a company can use a brand space strategy to gather strength in new markets before its products are ready for launch. There’s a corollary to this concept that we might call the “brand path” effect. Think of the brand path as a vectored brand space infused with your brand vision and brand qualities. It’s a customer pathway paved by the brand, in the direction you are taking your customers, even though your full suite of products hasn’t been delivered. They can see it, and feel it. Apple may well have the reigning brand path in the home media center space.

Brand path is somewhat related to the “halo effect.” For the last five years marketers have debated whether an iPod halo effect would boost sales of the Apple Mac line. Well, it turns out that was the wrong place to look. The real halo effect of the iPod will be in the home media center, thanks to the brand path Apple is constructing. Apple’s brand path is the iPod scaled up to the entire house.

The real “video iPod”

In other words, in the brand scheme of things the home media center will not be a “computer.” It will have nothing to do with computers. It will be an extension of people, as laid back and as comfy as the sofa. It will be a holistic, brand-enabled media experience, the purest experience possible. It will have the simplicity and ease of use of the best consumer devices, as typified by the iPod. In more ways than one, the home media center will be the real “video iPod.”

Photo: re-ality, Flickr