Many Canadian cities are turning to the power of public-facing communications to influence reputation and drive diverse economic, environmental, and cultural objectives.
In other words, Canadian cities – like individuals – are recognizing the value of branding.
Case in point: Regina recently adopted infinite horizons as its city slogan, alluding to the city’s expanding investment opportunities and high quality of life; Charlottetown references both its historic past and its vibrant arts culture with Great things happen here; Whitehorse leaves no room for confusion with The Wilderness City; and, just last year, Vancouver announced its ‘Greenest City 2020’ theme, aimed at claiming the title of the world’s most environmentally progressive city in under a decade.
Despite such examples of creative brand work, I would be remiss to not mention the concerns of many that urban branding simply rings hollow; that the process too often overlooks the idiosyncrasies that people come to love (or hate) about their city. Emily Richardson, in spacingATLANTIC, puts it succinctly: “Efforts to brand a city seem superficial and contrived insofar that they are unlikely to capture the silent pulse that makes every city unique. Obvious points of attraction like arts scenes, public spaces, summer festivals, and thriving financial sectors can be showcased in slick and glossy campaigns, but they rarely speak to what it means to live, as opposed to visit or invest, in a city.”
Agreed, but should urban branding be altogether abandoned?
Richardson goes on to acknowledge the impact that a city’s branding can have on public perception. If, at the end of the day, there is any real value to be had from a flattering reputation, or any significant drawbacks to be endured from a less than flattering one, then the question of branding must shift from why to how: “Through what meaningful, reliable process can an urban brand be developed?” poses Richardson.
Obviously this question has no easy answer, but perhaps by turning to the branding revamp currently underway in Windsor, ON, we can glean some insights into the process. Despite my personal connection to Essex County – I was born in Windsor and raised in nearby Amherstburg – I’ve lived outside of the region long enough (the past 10+ years) to approach its evolution with a fresh pair of eyes.
As the Canadian half of the once-thriving automotive capital of the world, Windsor has been met with crippling economic setbacks over the past decade, evidenced in an unemployment rate that skyrocketed from 4.5% in 2001 to a nation-worst 10.9% in 2012. And while there is reason to be hopeful – the rate dropped to 9.2% in Feb 2013 – finding quality employment in the Essex region remains a challenge for many.
Windsor, the southernmost city in Canada, has long been known as ‘The City of Roses’ – a reference to the numerous parks and fragrant rose gardens that dot the city. As enchanting as this moniker is, it fails to capture the exciting changes that are underway in the region (and, apparently, it’s not so accurate anymore). So, faced with an economy in need of diversification, and a reputation in need of an update, Windsor has branched out in a number of new directions. Here’s a glimpse at some of the most promising changes and how they’re contributing to the region’s new image:
Building off of its rich history with the arts, Windsor remains invested in positioning itself as a vibrant cultural hub. Examples of promising arts-based events and initiatives that have been gaining steam include the always popular Art in the Park festival, the expanding Riverfront Sculpture Garden, the world-class Windsor Symphony Orchestra, the 30,000+ people strong Windsor International Bluesfest, the diverse 2 week-long Windsor Summer Fest (which includes the much-loved ‘Buskerfest’ and awe-inspiring Annual Target Fireworks Display), the buzzworthy all-Canadian music festival Great Canadian Beaverfest, the recently established 5000-seat Colosseum Theatre, the relocation of University of Windsor’s School of Music & Visual Arts to the historic downtown Armouries building, and the downtown establishment of St. Clair College’s cutting edge Centre for the Arts and Mediaplex buildings. These are only a few examples of how arts and culture are playing a central role in the redefinition of Windsor and in the rejuvenation of the downtown core. In fact, cultural festivals are playing such a big role in the region that a network has been created to give a voice to the buzz: Allow me to introduce you to Canada South.
Next on the list is the ever-expanding wine industry. First popularized by the Pelee Island Winery, which began producing in 1865, the industry has expanded to include some 20 wineries. Last year the burgeoning industry rebranded itself as EPIC Wine Country, with EPIC standing for Essex Pelee Island Coast. The EPIC brand is complete with bright visuals and a bold new slogan: ‘Uncork Our Passion.’ This growing industry, which generates just shy of $50,000,000 annually, culminates each September in Amherstburg’s hugely popular Shores of Erie International Wine Festival. Clearly, people in Essex County take their wine seriously, and with effective messaging like that seen in the EPIC brand, the industry seems well positioned to remain a driving force behind the new Windsor-Essex identity.
Related to the wine industry is the expanding cycling culture that is gaining traction throughout the county. As a cyclist myself, I can assure you that Windsor has never been mistaken for a cycle-friendly city – it’s cursed with few bike lanes and a driving population unaccustomed to sharing the road. What it does have, however, is perfect cycling topography – Essex County is FLAT. Combine that with safe riding conditions and you’ve got another impressive point of differentiation for the region. Recently, a handful of small companies have started to pop up, offering bike rentals, repairs, and tours of the wineries. Healthy, cross-promotional, and environmentally friendly, these initiatives seem like an obvious win-win for the area. The only thing missing is a serious public investment in safe riding conditions and an educational push encouraging drivers to respect those on two wheels (and vice versa). Enter Councillor John Scott, who is trailblazing at city hall, and Bike Friendly Windsor Essex, a newly established non-profit organization advocating for safe riding conditions across the county. It appears the wheels truly are in motion: Just last week it was confirmed that a separate bike path is planned for the new Windsor-Detroit bridge crossing. Ride on.
And speaking of active lifestyle, Windsor has been home to a number of impressive sporting initiatives as of late. In 2008, Windsor’s 2009 & 2010 Memorial Cup winning Spitfires graduated from their aging arena (dubbed ‘The Barn”) to the multi-purpose, 7000-seat WFCU Centre. Four years later, Windsor welcomed it’s first professional basketball team to the city – The Windsor Express – who also call the WFCU Centre home. And in yet another effort to energize the downtown, construction is underway on the Downtown Windsor Family Aquatic Centre, which will feature a 71m, 10-lane pool that will accommodate race and dive competitions, along with a therapy pool and a number of family friendly features. The centre, which is scheduled to open December 2013, will also be home to the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame.
Windsor’s embrace of renewable energy is probably the most obvious sign that the times they are a-changin’. Jumping out of the gate with Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act, Windsor is now home to approximately 12 renewable energy companies, and windmills can be seen throughout fields across the county. This investment in sustainable power is projected to spawn a number of new careers and benefit an array of industries. Forward thinking never felt so good.
Thinking Big, Acting Small
Last but certainly not least, more and more Windsorites – including many Gen Y’ers – are making their own way in Windsor’s rebounding economy. Blab Media is bringing a social buzz to the city, Ashley Novak is networking her way to a career in mobile tech, and Windsor’s once-defunct Walkerville Brewery has bounced back with a total rebrand, impressive social media smarts, and a strong community focus. This is to say nothing of the local Farmers‘ Markets that are popping up across the county. Awesome.
So here’s what we know:
- Branding a city is important because it influences public perception.
- The driving force behind Windsor’s economy is changing, and these changes need to be reflected in its public image.
- The area is diversifying to include a range of opportunities, including athletics, the arts, renewable energy, and the wine industry.
So, how best to articulate these diverse new sectors? How best to capture the air of excitement in a region going through a massive economic evolution and reputational shift? And how best to describe the newfound optimism that appears to be taking hold in Windsor-Essex?
The Tourism office of Windsor-Essex-Pelee Island decided to simply call it as it is: One Region. Countless Stories. The slogan is simple, the visuals are effective, and the messaging highlights the emerging opportunities and diverse potential in the region.
I admit I was a little unsure of the branding at first, but it’s growing on me … like a fine wine.
Photo courtesy of the University of Windsor. Ouellette Ave looking north to Detroit. Circa 1960.