Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: How to brand a community without public consensus

Michelle Madden / October 20, 2014

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The Higher ED Blog: How to brand a community without public consensus

Consensus is for cowards.

That’s a bold statement; let’s unpack it before moving on. We refer to ‘the public’ as a single entity but everyone knows that this entity is made up of many groups with many opinions. We can’t even expect the majority of the public to have the same opinion—unless there are only two choices.  Public engagement and transparency in government processes are undoubtedly important but anyone who has gone through a consultation process knows that getting people to agree is difficult business. In most cases, reaching consensus means diluting the thing being considered until most people are not angry.

In a paper submitted to the Economic Development Program Michelle Levasseur from Devon, AB argues that community branding is one municipal activity that doesn’t need public consensus. Branding is a way to differentiate one community from another; therefore, the brand needs to be bold, creative, and meaningful to an outside audience. Since developing such a brand is time- and resource-intensive, the best group for the task is not one large, unqualified entity but rather a small, balanced, specialized one. The latter will be able to rise above the fog of opinions and local relevant and instead see a clear message that will motivate a target market.

Purple cows

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin uses the concept of a purple cow to illustrate that sometimes a good idea is boring, and you need something remarkable to stand out. In an article promoting his book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, he tells a story about how at the beginning of a trip to France, his family was enchanted by the hundreds of cows along the road. Shortly after, they were no longer impressed by the cows:

Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be well-bred cows, Six Sigma cows, cows lit by a beautiful light, but they are still boring. A Purple Cow, though: Now, that would really stand out. The essence of the Purple Cow — the reason it would shine among a crowd of perfectly competent, even undeniably excellent cows — is that it would be remarkable . Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying attention to. Boring stuff quickly becomes invisible.

The Town of Devon Alberta was once a regular cow. Devon is a small community of 6,500 people just outside of Edmonton. Typical to the area it has a deep rooted history in oil, but it also has strong outdoor recreation amenities based on its location in the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Three previous branding attempts—that involved extensive public engagement—yielded tired products based on industrial heritage, botany, and a combination of oil and the valley. All were locally meaningful but none were particularly interesting.

How to brand a community without public consensus

Tired of lacklustre success, the Town became determined to find their niche. This is how they did it.

Step 1: Build a Brand Development Team

The first step in any initiative is to build a team. The Brand Development Team (BDT) was a small group of six stakeholders with extensive knowledge about the community and municipal government. They were a balanced group of individuals and representatives from a range of groups, businesses, and organizations, including two members from the municipality tasked with attracting people to Devon.

Step 2: Brainstorm

The Team members, and all their knowledge, were given an ambitious timeline of two-and-a-half days to develop a brand. They participated in an intensive workshop, facilitated by a branding professional, where they systematically assessed Devon’s assets honestly, compared the community to places with tourism success, brainstormed brand ideas (there are no bad ideas in brainstorming), and identified a target market. On the third day, they had rejected all 30 of their brand ideas because they were not experiential, relevant or emotional enough—but they still had a deadline. In the last 15 minutes, they came up with Bike Town Alberta.

Step 3: Gain support for the brand

Now that they had a highly defined brand, the challenge was to find support. The first gatekeepers were senior administration and council…who loved it. The team received a green light to create a Brand Leadership Team (BLT), which would test the concept and start implementing it. The BDT invited 25 ideal candidates who were in the target market, lived in the community and who would champion the brand.

Once formed, the BLT identified physical amenities that supported the brand, wrote a brand promise (a short paragraph describing the brand), and asked the community for support and feedback to further develop the brand. Shortly after, they sought support and feedback from outsiders in the target market.

Step 4: Promote the brand; expect and accept criticism

The Town embraced the fact that their new tourism brand was meant to attract a specific target market, not make the whole community happy. Some locals loved it, but others hated it. It’s possible that they hated it because they were not consulted, because it was too niche, or because they were attached to the old ineffective brand. Regardless, the Bike Town Alberta brand is considered a success because the cycling community accepts it. They appreciate that the municipality has a passion for cycling and is willing to cater to them.

Guts and gold

In 18 months, the development and leadership teams bucked the normal practices for branding and made bold moves. As Michelle put it: this story is about “a small group taking an idea developed through a bullet proof process, lead by an iron clad facilitator, and championed by a political entity with guts to brand a town without consulting with the public”. Devon had some negative local reaction to Bike Town Alberta but that was ok because a brand worth talking about, is a brand that will BE talked about.

Are you brave enough to bypass consensus and be a purple cow?


About the paper’s author

Michelle Levasseur is the Economic Development Officer for the Town of Devon.  She has worked for the Municipality for eight years, three of which were focused on developing Bike Town Alberta.  Michelle’s focus has been to develop and promote Bike Town AB as a destination for investment, tourism and development.  This experience has been a highlight in Michelle’s career and branding continues to be her passion. She encourages other communities to undertake a similar process when they are ready to unleash their inner uniqueness.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only masters program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

4 responses to “The Higher ED Blog: How to brand a community without public consensus”

  1. […] “Consensus is for cowards. That’s a bold statement; let’s unpack it before moving on. We refer to ‘the public’ as a single entity but everyone knows that this entity is made up of many groups with many opinions.”  […]

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this post. I agree. I’ve been through branding projects and it’s tough to get consensus. I like the idea of assigning “task groups”, or whatever they may be called, and focus on the branding and then return to the community or group at large and say “here’s what we’ve come up with.” I also find that locals get caught up in focusing on what they think the community or organization should be branded as instead of thinking in terms of the “end in mind”. The end in mind is either to make money or to attract more people etc. What I as a “local resident” may want may not necessarily sell the community.

    • Michelle Madden says:

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew! It’s so true that residents often forget to think about branding from the audience’s point of view.

  3. Timbo says:

    This is good stuff. what they did was highly controversial, which if you understand branding, is a good indicator that you’ve got something.

    Only, time will tel if the new council has the understanding of branding, or the balls, to stay the course.