Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Branding a Seaport

On a recent trip to Portsmouth, I was stumped. I couldn't think of a fitting slogan for the city. It's a New England harbortown, favored by tourists and rather rich in history, art and culture.

Cities are branded by professionals with the help of logos and taglines which are then plastered on buses and brochures. Logos are a different ball game altogether, they need to be much more than visually attractive. They have to tell a story. Like the hidden arrow in Fed Ex. If you look closely, you’ll see an arrow that’s formed by the letters E and x. This arrow symbolizes speed and precision, two major selling points of the company.

What about cities then? On the heels of the FIFA World Cup 2010, Johannesburg in South Africa is being touted as the "golden city" and trying to rope in some serious business for its tourism industry.

New York City or "The Big Apple" is "The City that Never Sleeps", Las Vegas is "Sin City", Chicago is the "Windy City", Hershey is "The Sweetest Place on Earth" while "Cleveland Rocks!"

On a recent drive to Philadelphia, "The City of Brotherly Love", we saw this cute sign-off logo (shown on the right) on billboards and web portals.

Well, branding a city is not cheap on the pocket. According to a 2007 issue of Next American City, "Last year Baltimore paid San Francisco-based Landor Associates $500,000 to come up with “Get In On It”."

Plus it may take months to finalize. Everybody from politicians to tourism boards will have a say in it. You also have to consider the fact that people are usually very sensitive when it comes to their hometown. Get the brand message wrong and you ruffle a lot of feathers.

Here's the  history of city-branding as mentioned in the Next American City,
"Railroad companies may have been the earliest city marketers. As author Geoffrey Ward points out in his book Selling Places, Nebraska was sold to the public in 1881 as “a new brass key” that would “unlock vaults of wealth for the farmer and the stock raiser,” according to a railroad advertisement. The settling of the West by rail also led to cities competing to be the major hub of the heartland, a battle Chicago eventually won. These early efforts contained elements of the trend to follow: sell a place and its potential with a slick marketing image."

People are drawn to brands, as is evident by the record number of visitors in Las Vegas following their "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" campaign.

Some city slogans are official while some just caught on. Few of the unofficial ones have a negative spin on them but more often than not, the tone is upbeat and it's a device to improve tourism.

Coming back to the task at hand, Portsmouth needs a brand identity. Voted as one of America's prettiest towns by, there's a sketch of a ship on the harbor trail markers in Market Square. Well, that just says "seaport" to me. What about the rest of it? What defines the city? Dennis Robinson, history writer and editor of seacoastNH is trying to get the branding perfected and he was the one who set me thinking on cities and their brands.

I don't think it's easy to define the city and everything it stands for in one line but this pretty much sums it up for me Portsmouth: Wish You Were Here

It may not be the best slogan ever but it captures the essence of the place and that to me is the first step of branding.