Let’s Talk Brand & Reputation

What are the first images that come to mind when people think of the word Edmonton? Are they images of festivals and events? Images of young entrepreneurs? Images of blue skies and river valleys? Images of Rogers Place and PCL cranes in the sky? Or are they images of a cold, isolated city? Images of an industrial town? Images of Gretzky crying while being traded? Images of big shopping malls?

Whatever images come to mind shape the Brand of our city.

What are the words that people use to describe Edmonton when you are not in the room? Are they words like young and energetic? Progressive and compassionate? Open and tolerant? A city of opportunity? Or are they words like tough and unsafe? Boring and uneventful? Dirty and slow? Unwalkable and unapproachable?

Whatever words are spoken form the Reputation of our city.

Many words and images have been used in the past to describe our city – words and images often left to others to contrive. And many have had negative associations because we never managed our brand, our reputation, our story with intention.

And we know now that if we don’t tell our story, someone else will … their own way.

So, we set out to change that. To take control of our brand and reputation. It started four years ago, under Mayor Stephen Mandel and has since been championed by Mayor Don Iveson. We needed to change the brand and reputation of Edmonton, and we needed to do it by telling our story … which is the summation of all our individual stories, past and present.

In fact, the Master Story goes back thousands of years, well before European settlers arrived. As the ice receded, this particular bend on this particular river is where various indigenous peoples gathered to trap, to trade, to learn, to heal and to celebrate. An isolated community, open to the elements, where people had to support one another in order to survive, to grow, to be entertained and to get ahead. It was a community with characteristics of being open, inventive, courageous and cooperative – the very brand characteristics that describe our city today.

Todd Babiak of Story Engine began doing the research into the Master Story. He was inundated with examples of how people came to our city, were welcomed here, took a risk and tried something new, only to find that they had the support of the entire community and that their journeys were filled with an unusual level of success. The Master Story was filled with anecdotes from Edmonton building the first Mosque in North America, to starting the first Food Bank when times were tough, to starting the first Fringe Festival in North America where theatre groups could test their productions before launching them across the globe. Stories of my alma matter, Procter & Gamble, using Edmonton as their test market for new products, to the PCL story, the Running Room story, the Booster Juice story, the Henry Marshall Tory story, the Cal Nichols story, the Karl Clark story and the Sandy MacTaggart story. Everyone he interviewed was filled with anecdotes that reinforced our Master Story and our brand promise that “If you have the courage to take an idea to reality, to make something, Edmonton is your city.”

And it’s a beautiful story. One that is unique to Edmonton. And one that we can sell around the world.

And we are all in the selling business. We need to constantly be communicating and positioning our city to attract the seven (7) drivers of economic wealth –investment, business, visitors, conferences & conventions, major events, talent/students and direct flights. These are the things that generate wealth, expand prosperity, provide jobs for our kids and improve our standard of living.

Each of the seven drivers has a different kind of target customer, each with different reasons for taking an interest in Edmonton.  From our same Master Story, we shape images and stories and value propositions into targeted campaigns to: (1) Create awareness about our city; (2) Allow them to experience our city; (3) Help them see the opportunity in our city; and hopefully (4) Encourage them to make a decision to invest in our city.

That’s the goal … whether it be an investor, an entrepreneur, a tourist, a meeting planner, a student, a professor, a family or an airline.

To shape those campaigns, we create a series of digital assets, stories, value propositions, presentations, wordmarks, brochures, trade show booths, promotions, advertisements, meeting agendas, introductions, blogs, tweets, Instagram photos, WeChats and Snapchats that are unique to each target audience and can also be used across different campaigns, and can be used by organizations, institutions and businesses in the region. That’s why you see the Edmonton Original campaign when you arrive at the Edmonton International Airport or the FIFA Women’s World Cup images in our international investor presentations or high-resolution photos of the ITU World Triathlon in the Stantec Annual Report. Unlike consumer product companies, we don’t have $100 million to build a brand, so we need to work as one and get more leverage for each marketing dollar spent.

And externally, the Finnish wood home manufacturer that we are trying to attract to set up North American operations in Edmonton becomes interested in our brand through various mediums. She gets familiar with our embracement of winter through our Explore Edmonton winter tourism campaign. She is interested in exploring Jasper because we’ve linked Beaver Hills Dark Skies with Jasper’s Dark Skies. She has an employee that graduated from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering, and loves Connor McDavid because she remembers Jari Kurri was once with the Oilers. Our images and stories all come together, self reinforcing, to build our brand and our reputation – consistently and with intention.

At EEDC, we have responsibility for telling the Edmonton story, globally. We do so with key partners like the City of Edmonton, our Regional counterparts, our Post-Secondary Institutions, Edmonton International Airport, Northlands, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Oilers Entertainment Group and others to attract those seven economic drivers. That’s why we spend $1.5 million per year of taxpayer dollars on brand and reputation assets, stories and campaigns, leveraged 1:1 with industry funds, and work to generate between a 7x and 10x return on every dollar spent.

Sometimes we use wordmarks with a little Maple Leaf (see image at top of page) to help foreign customers make the connection between Edmonton and Canada. As Canada is currently the #1 Nation Brand in the world and our Prime Minister is out aggressively marketing our country for foreign investment, we would be crazy not to connect ourselves closely with it.

I’m not a fan of city logos and taglines. They are typically uninspiring, overpriced and look like they are done by committee.  And, at the end of the day 1/3rd of the people will love it, 1/3rd will hate it and 1/3rd don’t care, so I question the undertaking.

The wordmark used in my presentation this week is the one I use when overseas, typically in Europe, where target businesses have a growing interest in investing in Canada. I realized the power of the city/nation connection a couple of years ago, and had our internal graphic designer do up something I could put on my slides. The cost was nothing, and if it looks like the MacLean’s Magazine logo – oops, I didn’t realize they had a trademark on our country’s Maple Leaf.

Top-tier cities in the world are all one-word brands – Tokyo, Sydney, Paris, Berlin, New York, London, etc. – while second-tier cities need the nation name beside it – Melbourne, Australia or Manchester, England or Helsinki, Finland. If you introduce a third word, you have lost your customer. So, instead of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada as we have talked about ourselves for years, I use one-word which is Edmonton and simply connect it with the Maple Leaf. It works well for our foreign investment customers.

Our job is to get Edmonton on people’s radar as Canada’s 5th largest city, Canada’s youngest, fastest growing city, and Canada’s best city for their investment opportunity. That’s what we are, and will continue to be, focused on. While I appreciate all the range of comments on the Maple Leaf wordmark, we know it works for our target customers, so we will continue to use it as part of our overall story.

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Brand & Reputation

  1. @Brad, I think it’s important to find out first of all what the Google search engine thinks about Edmonton. When you Google ‘Edmonton’ the first word or two that comes up is ‘Edmonton Oilers’. It’s probably because of the influence that Wayne Gretzky had not only in Edmonton but around the World.
    It’s fair enough to say, reference the Edmonton Journal that “this re-branding builds on the work of Make Something Edmonton, an online forum where 2,000 local residents posted their own stories about what they are building and making.” Yes, our fundamental economic structure is changing from a resource based economy to one based on innovation. I agree with this statement. However; there is something that is very important that is missing. The City of Edmonton should not only be represented by only the under 40 demographic. Why are we leaving out and not presently considering the steady increasing over 40 potential entrepreneurs including myself that live in this City?

    It’s going to take many years before there is an influx of highly educated 18-35-year-olds to the local entrepreneurial eco-system. It’s the 50+ Boomers that are missing from our strategic re-branding exercise. Boomers are highly educated, experienced, knowledgeable,skilled, resourceful and have much wisdom and boundless energy. We’re also missing out on the collaboration opportunities that are possible when younger & older entrepreneurs get together.

    The City of Edmonton cannot afford the luxury of any ‘ageism polices’ to settle in. Let’s start by making Edmonton inclusive of ALL ages and open up our organizations such as Startup Edmonton to older entrepreneurs making them feel more comfortable to contribute to our local community and the rest of society. Let’s be the first City in Canada that promotes ‘entrepreneurship is for everyone’ regardless of age, race, sex or culture. That’s what Edmonton* (small maple leaf) means to me and my City. Personally speaking, I was born, raised and educated in the City of Edmonton and I am also a member of Make Something Edmonton.

    • Very good point, there shouldn’t be any age discrimination. Not to much focus on the younger generations at the expense of the older, not to much focus on making life easier for young families because there are an array of families that can use support. An idea is an idea, is an idea no matter how old the person speaking is.


    • I like going to Google as well.

      It’s actually the City of Edmonton site.

      Which makes a lot of sense to mesh these 5 different domains and subdomains into both a value-added “engagement” hub and the information that finally closes the deal. Tough but possible!

      I really like what I am seeing from afar on social but I think we could work on a more cohesive web strategy to compliment them.

      Great writing Brad. I love your anecdotal piece on the Finnish Business and connections back to Edmonton. UofA is usually in the chain. Important that remains a beacon.

  2. I understand the dilemma our city faces. One of the core beliefs we aspire to is inclusion, and good brands by definition are exclusionary on some level because if you’re something for everybody you aren’t a real brand. On the surface it would seem to be an impossibility because of the internal conflict this always generates (especially in civic debates) due to the lack of understanding of what a brand can do by people who don’t have any real experience in the field. You’ll never reach consensus so the only palatable solution seems to be a “non-brand brand”, which is kind of what we’ve seen. The core pillars are solid but there’s no roof so to speak. And you are absolutely correct in that brands are held in the minds of the people who interact with it. Brand managers can only shepherd the direction those thoughts take.

    On the other hand I truly believe the “Make something Edmonton” direction is extremely close to something everybody could get on board with. The only issue I ever had is that its somewhat fuzzy. By that I mean my mind says “what?”. Really great brand articulations are easy to understand – you get it immediately. They open the door to a story and are based on a truism contained within the branded entity, which don’t get me wrong “Make something” does if you think about it. Maybe it’s still a bit narrow and isn’t always (directly) applicable to the greater community as much as it is to the entrepreneurial sector from which it was derived.

    Here’s the cool thing. If we could widen the “Make something” mantra just a bit you’d arrive at the central truism of Edmonton. That being, everybody who comes here does so for a simple reason. That reason being to start a family, a business, a career, a life, and in the process enrich a community. This is a northern city you come to for opportunity. You end up creating a wonderful lifestyle in the process. Making is building. My belief is that Edmonton is a city for people who want to BUILD something.

    I think the solution is to approach “brand” like the lede of a news article. One that’s inclusive enough to satisfy civic aspirations but still paints the picture of Edmonton as a unique place for business development, tourism, community, immigration and migration. A clear idea from which people could immediately infer our brand on their own terms under the direction provided by the lede and the storylines that might arise from it.

    Here’s my tweak:

    (Lede) Build something here.

    At the end of the day true brands aren’t the end of the story. They are the beginning.

  3. As a Brand professional working specifically with turning a challenging reputation around I believe that simple is better. As an Edmonton girl living abroad, I can confirm that the maple leaf is universally known as Canadian and instantly gets the city recognition on that front without a long winded explanation (which you don’t have time to do in Brand). I am excited for the future of Edmonton and the focus on bringing young creatives, tech and entrepreneurs to the city. The city needs them to support existing businesses and innovation and to strike out anew as well. Well done.

  4. Brad,
    Simple, practical explanation for how you have learned through great experience which Edmonton (word mark) works best for your clients when speaking about Edmonton on our behalf. Thank you

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