Saturday, April 3, 2010

Brandon- the city formerly known as the Wheat City.

Make no mistake about it, cities are brands. The strongest branded cities are usually the most successful at what they do too. Think fashion- think Milan or Paris. Sin City- Vegas. Finance- London or New York. Media- LA. You get the idea.

Now how do these cities get such a strong brand? Well, for one thing, there is a heritage that gets built upon. In the case of Milan, that's where the designers are. It's the place where apprentices study under their favorite designers. It's the home of design schools. It's the city where fashion shows are. It's the town where media covers the spring fashions. And, it is also the place where textiles support the design industry. The point is this: Milan's brand as fashion capital is not by chance. It is built from all the design-related support in the city. And, it doesn't hurt that Milan is in Italy too- the homeland of the Renaissance.

This takes me to my home town, Brandon, Manitoba - a city of 45,000 friendly, salt-of-the-earth people. It's a farm based city known for two things: farming and hockey. When I was growing up, Brandon branded itself as "the Wheat City." This was a suitable name. After all, the golden wheat crops grace the endless fields every summer and the city's agricultural base was supported by wheat-related businesses like grain transporters, farm implement dealers, and grain fertilizer manufacturers. These businesses all reinforced the city brand as the Wheat City. Heck, even the hockey team supported the city branding: The Brandon Wheat Kings.

During the late 1990s, the city's government decided to subsidize business to fuel city growth. They courted Maple Leaf for a hog slaughtering plant and got it. This is a classic example of city branding gone wrong. If the city administrators were committed to city growth by subsidizing business, the city would have been far better served by selecting firms that are true to the heritage and "wheat city" branding of the city. A flour-maker like 5 Roses, cereal maker like Kellogg's, bread-maker like Wonder, farm-implement manufacturer like John Deere, or anything related to wheat would have enhanced the city's expertise and strengthened its brand. This would inevitably spawn other related interests (e.g. the university and community college could offer business and botany courses related to the core) and attract specialized industry-related suppliers. Instead, the decision diluted the Wheat City brand. The sad thing is, what Milan is to fashion, Vegas is to sin, and New York is to finance, Brandon could have been to wheat.


  1. just finished writing a paper arguing how Greece could have reduced some of the negative media and speculation if they had a strong brand to leverage! ...just one problem though. In my paper I said the exact same thing as you: reinforce what they are good at or what they are known for (Brandon=wheat; Greece=Tourism)...but doesn't this make Brandon or Greece extremely volatile to that specific industry?...wouldn't it be better to brand Brandon or Greece as a lifestyle or something intangible ...

  2. Ohhh- so many juicy comments in there. I can't resist commenting on a couple...

    First off, I totally agree with the importance of the intangible associations. Indeed they have to be "created" and managed. The reality is that these intangibles need to spawn from the reality of the city/geography. Brandon, for example, can not credibley be "the party" city unless it hosts parties like Rio or Ibiza. And while different cities are branded as "the party city", the intangible imagery may vary wildly.(e.g. the party city Rio with its colors and sensual Latin vibe has a very different imagery than the roof-top party central Beirut). So in the case of Brandon, the Wheat City intangibles ought conjure up images very different than other "wheat cities"...

    Second, I get the diversity as an insurance against downturns. The thing about Brandon in this example is that grains are staples. Translation: People will eat wheat in good times and bad. I'm not sure how adding pork into the mix is a hedge against downturns. Add into the mix that grain farming has been around for about 10,000 years. It's among the most natural and renewable resources out there. A sustainable, downturn resistant specialization - not a bad place to be.

  3. Brilliant post Bob. If more city mayors where thinking like you, then city identities would be stronger. Are you preparing your application for to take Clotaire Rapaille empty spot for Quebec City? Nice job.

  4. To the guy (or girl) up there about Greece... Greece is loaded with the "intangible associations" as Bob calls them in class- or emotions as we call them at work. Lingo either way, heading to Greece for the experience of touching history and kissing democracy's birthplace - is a big chunk of its tourism- AND SHOULD BE.

  5. Josh KoopferstockApril 5, 2010 at 11:07 PM

    Bob, what you're saying makes a lot of rational sense, from a brand auditing perspective. If the mayor in Brandon had done a brand audit, he/she may have realized that the town had a strong brand equity in "wheat" and a strategy could have been planned to monetize that.

    HOWEVER, planning is only a fraction of a brand manager's job. Brand management requires vision and the ability to EXECUTE that vision, i.e. political capital (corporate or municipal). Being truly visionary often means stepping on toes and pushing forward through the naysayers, something much more easily done in an autocratic corporate political structure than a democratic municipal one.

    All this to say that brand building at a municipal level, while theoretically having similar potential to corporate branding, has very different challenges. I believe that these differing challenges mean that the opportunities from municipal branding differ significantly as well.

  6. It's always great to hear from former students- especially on a disagreement.

    First, to some extent, the process of branding may be done differently in a government vs a corporation (majority voting at council vs. mandate from the CEO) but the underlying drivers of the brand and the tools used to build the brand remain the same. The democratic process of voting should also be a safeguard against making bad decisions- but think how many laws are passed that are not in the public interest. Perhaps this is one of the key reasons: politics rarely attracts strong talent due to its low pay, public scrutiny of candidates etc. As a result visionary talent builds strong business brands (Herb Kelleher, Jack Welch, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs)- while vision coming out of a government is exceedingly rare (Teddy Roosevelt, Kennedy). In any case, Brandon (sadly) is an example of a city that screwed up its brand.

  7. Right on this one Bob. I live in Brandon and you nailed the problem with the city.

  8. Run for mayor Bob. These ideas are exactly what the city needs.