Branded Wayfinding for Cities

The word “brand” is an illusive term. Most people think a logo and a tagline constitutes a brand. This is a common misperception. A logo and a tag line are only the visual signatures of a brand. You will find several definitions for “brand” in the dictionary as both a noun and a verb. It’s believed that the word brand was derived from an Old English term, bærnan that means to burn. The word is commonly used to refer to mark something denoting ownership. The practice of branding can be traced back to 1300 BC in the form of potters’ marks on Chinese and Roman pottery. In the 1200s, English bakers and metal smiths were required to put their marks on their goods to insure honesty in measurement. As far back as 2000 BC, cattle and livestock were branded for proof of ownership. Ranchers still use red-hot irons to brand their marks into the hides of livestock. These same brands often appear over gateways as ranch identities World Brands.

In the 1800s, consumer product companies like Proctor & Gamble began branding their products with package graphics and print advertising. During this time, advertising began to emerge as an profit center unto itself. Advertising specialists became strategic partners for companies who used marketing to sell their products and services. A company’s image (brand) was influenced by advertising, product packaging and the resulting public perception.

By the late 1990s and the early 2000s, branding became a central focus for companies and their products. It also was a significant tool used by municipalities, institutions, organizations and individuals.

The American Marketing Association defines a “brand” as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers.” Ideally, the development of a well-crafted brand will result in more visitors, economic growth and sustainable urban development.

When asked to define brand, I give people the short version first. “Simply put, it’s the impression other people have of you regardless of your intention.” But there is more to it than that. In his book, Destination Branding for Small Cities, Bill Baker explains “a true brand is an organizing principal that will influence everything you do as a DMO (destination marketing organization) in order to orchestrate outstanding customer experiences.” If you are considering developing a brand for your community, or thinking about changing the one you have, I strongly recommend Bill’s book. You can purchase it through Amazon Books (

For cities and tourist destinations, branding has become an effective tool used to attract visitors. It’s the process a community undergoes to develop an identity supported by a strategic campaign to deliver an intended message to a targeted audience for a desired response.

Thousands of cities, towns and small communities throughout the world compete for the same slice of pie, specifically visitor dollars. In challenging economic times that slice begins to shrink. People travel less and spend less. Vacationers who regularly travel abroad continue to plan their vacations; it’s just that in order to save money, they choose to visit areas in their back yard.

The question city tourism directors ask is how can we entice visitors to spend their dollars in our area? The answer lies in understanding why people go to other countries in the first place. The majority of travelers desire to go to where they can experience something unique. They want to see places that are different than their own hometowns.

Despite the most aggressive branding attempts, the reality is that the resulting “brand” is ultimately defined by public perception alone. Many communities spend thousands of dollars on a brand that fails to deliver the desired results. A badly conceived or poorly communicated brand will only burn up marketing budgets and discourage stakeholders.

When seeking the services of a branding expert, it’s unwise to bargain-shop for the cheapest consultant. Instead, look at the performance of their work. Talk to their former clients and judge them on the results, not the quantity or high profile of their projects. Your brand is one of the most important investments you will make to propel your marketing efforts. A well conceived brand by an experienced brand developer, delivered through effective modes of communication, would bring prosperity to your community. I used to tell my clients “If you brand it, they will come”. I’ve since changed that to “If you brand it right, they will come in greater numbers”.

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