Creating a brand that differentiates your company, organization or place from others is equally an art form and a science. In order to succeed, you need a brand idea and a clear vision to work towards, you need to be bold in order to execute the brand in amazing ways and – just as importantly – you need to stick with it for the long haul. The people who hears and thinks the most about a brand are the ones who develop it. Before everyone else knows about it, you are trying to define and develop it. Then you may be talking and thinking about it day after day, and when your audience may only see and hear some of it, you see it all. When you feel it’s been going on for too long, you may actually only be at the very beginning of building brand awareness. That’s when you need patience – and the ability to hold on to the same essence and vision for your brand while developing new creative ways of unfolding and implementing the brand visually, in your communications and that everyday practice which can prove and deliver your brand promise through customer service, products and experiences.
As a city or place, it can be challenging to stand out in the crowd. That is why many Danish municipalities seek to create strong brands and clear visions. But only few succeed. Despite the difficulties defining and implementing a regional brand, the municipality of Kolding is a good example of a place whose vision is becoming reality. But are they about to throw it all away?
Developing a new vision for Kolding
In 2012 Kolding was facing challenges such as being ranked as the least attractive municipality in the region to live in, citizens moving away and building plots taking longer and longer to sell. To drive a positive image and the growth of the area, the local politicians called to ask me and the Stagis team to develop a new unique vision for the municipality, building on authentic local strengths and potentials. Our analysis of the culture and structural characteristics of Kolding guided the process and set the direction for scenarios for the future. As part of developing the new vision, 600 local residents, businesses and politicians joined the discussion and evaluated possible future visions for the municipality. The brand essence and short way of explaining the vision became: ”Kolding – we design life”, which builds on authentic strengths and has set a direction for developing the municipality and the area since it was introduced in 2013.
Implementing for positive effects
A central part of our strategic recommendations for Kolding at the end of 2012 was to focus on internal implementation at the local institutions such as schools, retirement homes and job centre. We wanted all 10.000 employees at the municipal work places to know and use the brand in an everyday practical manner. Our advice was to implement the new Kolding design brand externally a year later and focus on a number of very practical, collective and visible activities.
- Become a World Design Capital (even though Kolding is not a capital city)
- Create a leading international design festival (both for professionals and for everyone)
- Award the best Danish design solutions (alone or in partnership with design organizations)
In May, Kolding was hosting the last part of the Danish Design Awards and the event is a good example of how the strategy plan is becoming reality. Recently news came about, that Kolding joins the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. Kolding is the first city in Scandinavia to become part of the network. These examples show that part of the vision and strategy plan is becoming reality which is a wonderful step for the city of Kolding, the companies and institutions in the region and for the citizens of the area.
Getting bored with your vision
During the summer 2017, about four months before the local elections for city council, it was debated in the Kolding mayor’s office whether or not the vision “Kolding – We design life” should be revitalized. Or moreover, wether the city should find another vision all together. A series of articles in the regional Danish newspaper Jydske Vestkysten told the story of Jørn Pedersen, the mayor of Kolding, and his wish to revitalize the vision because it now had become reality. According to Jørn Pedersen, Kolding needed a clean slate, to set new goals for the future and not rest on their laurels. Otherwise they are just standing still, he claimed.
The wish to revitalize the vision and thereby the goal for the brand after a while is natural. We live in changing times and everyone has to follow up with the competition and stay relevant. Who wouldn’t consider finding a new focus and a new arena to keep the energy flowing and to create a distinct image? Besides, after hearing and talking about the same vision and brand strategy for five years, you may not feel all that energized any more – actually, you might get quite bored with it.
The idea of changing your vision and the essence of the brand contrasts professor Gregory Ashworth and his point that it requires persistency over many years to create a new brand. At the Stagis Municipality Branding conference in 2014 Gregory Ashworth gave the example of the British town Salford. A small city outside of Manchester, which in the words of the professor used to be “miserable, grim and with an appalling reputation”. It took Salford about 30 years to change that and it could not have been accomplished in just five years. According to Gregory Ashworth turning a city around is a very challenging thing to do and it requires a political continuity which few places are fortunate to possess.
Professor Gregory Ashworth talks about the time and patience it takes to develop a place brand at Stagis’ Municipality Branding Conference in 2014.
Give it another 20 years
As it turned out after extensive debate in the local media during the summer of 2017, a large part of the Kolding city council wasn’t behind a revitalization or complete change of the 2012 design vision and the suggestion from the mayor got postponed. At this point that is probably for the best, and if you take Gregory Ashworth’s good advice, a revitalization of the vision should be postponed at least 20 years. Where mayor Jørn Pedersen is right, patient or inpatient as he may be, is the need to think big and the need to continuously tell new stories and create new ambitious activities that use the brand essence as their source. The concept and practice of developing better lives for the citizens and all of mankind by using design thinking and design methods should give enough possibilities for the next decades. And if the local government wants it, seas of positive effects await them.
Thinking bigger than your body
Obviously, the time it takes to create a brand that has the power to gather the people involved in it and create a distinct external image of the brand and thereby position the brand in the market or arena that it is working within, is defined not only by the strength of the brand idea but also by the investment and execution of the brand. In order to have any impact on the perception of your audience, you have to ‘punch above your weight’. Creating new types of projects, solving common problems in creative ways or hosting events that deliver experiences that would normally be out of your league are all ways of proving the strength of your brand. That means a brand idea and a brand strategy (including the vision for the company or place) may very well be good, but if you do not implement with sufficient conviction and adequate force, you will not be proving anything – and your brand is not going to be relevant.
In the case of Kolding that means you have to believe you could become the first Design Capital, no matter your place is not a capital city. Or that you can create an international design event for design professionals, which delivers speakers from the most ambitious design companies and agencies in the world. Let’s just say Google, Apple, Ideo, Tesla, Pentagram or who ever the international design community would think are right to get on stage. The options are many – but it has to be ambitious.
Five steps towards a clear brand positioning
Developing a brand strategy and execution that can make your business or place stand out is not easy. Here are five simple pieces of advice if you are building your corporate or place brand:
- Define a brand that extends your authentic identity
Brands that build on the strengths of the organization or the place, are likely to succeed with their implementation and live the brand. The authentic brands come across as integrated, consistent and deeply rooted – and people appreciate the experience of depth with these businesses, organizations and places.
- Know the market to differentiate – not to imitate
If you want to stand out in the crowd you have to know what your peers are doing. How do they act, look and communicate? And how will you do all those things differently based on your strengths and inherent talents? Be brave and stand out by chosing other activities than your competition.
- Implement the brand from the inside out
Start with implementing the brand in your everyday practice. How can you live your brand in terms of services, products, ways of doing what you do? If you want to create a brand experience, the brand has to come from the people in the organization.
- Think bigger than your body
All brands have smaller budgets to do things, than they could wish for. But the brands that stand out are the ones that think big and do the things no one thought possible. Do what is authentic and makes you stand out with full conviction and in scale.
- Patience is a virtue – also in brand positioning
When you are getting bored with your brand, you may only be building the initial brand awareness. Maybe you need to revitalize the stories or find new ways to implement your brand, but if the vision and brand essence was good at the start, you may not need to change horses and start over.