BrandSpace, led by USC Annenberg Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, is an interdisciplinary project that examines the way in which new practices, imaginations and politics are being created within the parameters of commercial brand culture.
It’s what you drive, what you eat and what you wear. Is it any wonder that soon where you live will be its own brand name?
In our ubiquitous brand culture, today it is local and international destinations â€“ towns, states and even countries â€“ that are attempting to make a name for themselves. European marketers have developed flashy international campaigns, ‘I AMsterdam’ and ‘MADrid About You,’ complete with jazzy logos and glossy brochures in an effort to tempt both tourism and industry dollars.
And on the domestic side, we all know that what happens in Vegas stays there, right?
But what becomes the fatal flaw for many of these campaigns is the marker’s attempt to brand place using the exact same strategies that have proven successful in product branding. But what’s good for a sneaker or a can of Coke just won’t cut it for Finland.
Last week, the BrandSpace faculty working group, led by Communication Professor Sarah Banet Weiser, invited two experts in the craft of regional branding. Annette Schoemmel and Thomas Sevcik comprise the wife-husband team behind Arthesia, an advertising, branding and creative agency based in Zurich and L.A. They provided case studies that stressed not only the inherent challenges in branding place, but the complexities of brand management within the shifting landscape of media and social technology.
They Talk Back
Ah, social media! Just when brand custodians attempt to get a grip on their brand identities, the consumer now has the means and the platform to undermine the brand itself. And the audience is listening.
‘The consumer, the employee, the audience is talking backâ€¦it is no longer an isolated dialogue,’ Schoemmel said. ‘Now it is more the question: How â€˜open’ do I want my brand to be?’
With this new power structure in place, getting buy-in is now more vital than ever. That’s why Schoemmel and Sevcik encourage brands to relinquish some control to their customer.
‘Control has a different meaning nowadays,’ Sevcik said. ‘Brands today are more co-authored than anything else.’
As far as regional branding, this is nothing new, according to Sevcik. He used Monaco as an excellent case study in branding place. In the wake of World War II, the country went from a speck on the tail end of France to an exotic tourist destination. How did they do it? By marketing Monaco as a tax haven for the wealthy and marrying into Hollywood royalty (namely Grace Kelly), you create Mediterranean glamour. That is the Monaco brand.
Case Study: Phoenix, Opportunity Oasis
In 2006, the Metro Phoenix Partnership for Arts and Culture approached Arthesia for an image change. Schoemmel and Sevcik had the challenge of putting a small desert community on the map, so to speak. Their job: to define what Phoenix was as a city, and, as a result, help shape that city’s future.
For Schoemmel, this means becoming an anthropologist of sorts, meeting with stakeholders, business groups and residents, to identify values and attributes that would help inform the brand. For this project as with others before, they relied on a brand pentagon â€“ drama, story, theme, content and icon â€“ a five-part schematic that helped direct the process. What evolved became known as the Metro Phoenix DNA Project.
- Drama Everything â€“ every organization, institution and individual â€“ has an eternal conflict, according to Sevcik. It’s an internal opposition of sorts and something that will never be solved. ‘This is a source of energy,’ he says. ‘Strong brands are born out of conflict.’
Take Nike as an example. It brands itself as fresh and young, soliciting hot athletes and using gritty, urban enclaves as backdrop to its image. But with Niketown flagship stores in every major city, it represents the established brand in athletic apparel. Nike is establishment that yearns to be the underdog. This is its conflict.
As for the city of Phoenix, Sevcik and Schoemmel identified it as the final Western frontier. Phoenix was, to them, the undefined canvas and a place to reinvent yourself (ideas supported by the fact that Phoenix is a prime destination for the recently divorced, Sevcik said.)
Phoenix lacked any real identity as a city. Its conflict, Schoemmel explained, is that it was a city that will never be a city. From there, Arthesia developed a story behind the conflict.
- Story: From the conflict, you develop the narrative. What is the story you want to tell? For the Metro Phoenix DNA Project, the story became Phoenix as an ‘Oasis of Opportunity.’ If you couldn’t make it anywhere, you could probably make it in Phoenix.
- Theme: From story, you define themes that could be points of intersection that different stakeholders could use to develop their own messaging. ‘Themes are the baskets,’ Sevcik said,’ and it’s up to other people to fill them.’
For Phoenix, the Opportunity Oasis evolved into three thematic threads:
1. Urban Pioneering: here, you can have a fresh start and an opportunity to develop your potential.
2. Upscale Desert Garden: you can enjoy life amid a gorgeous desert landscape.
3. Open Space Thinking: Phoenix will help and support thinkers and doers.
- Content: You’ve christened Phoenix as an oasis of opportunity, now it’s your job to prove it. Content means identifying examples that can support your brand identity. As one of those rare destinations that offered affordable housing plus an international airport, Phoenix was a hotbed of opportunity because it offered good living and global connectivity.
- Icon: According to Sevcik, this isn’t necessarily a logo. It can be a moment, a gesture or a figurehead. It only need symbolize the drama. For the Arthesia team, this was still a work in progress.
Regional branding does not happen overnight and it can’t be done alone. Schoemmel and Sevcik will begin the process of repositioning a city or country. It can take years and rely on public buy-in to make the brand truly authentic.
‘Branding has changed. It is no longer top down. But what is it?’ Schoemmel asked. ‘Today, it is much more of a dialogue.’
You can read about ‘theme strategy’ in Schoemmel and Sevcik’s own words here.