Thursday, March 10, 2011

Branding Grand Haven an Interesting Challenge

(Cross posted from my other blog: Pier Points and also from the March 10, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)


So what is Grand Haven’s downtown brand? Or should I say, what is Brand Haven?

Last week the Grand Haven Tribune reported that Grand Haven is one of four cities chosen to be part of a new downtown branding program run by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). This is interesting because I would not associate MSHDA with downtown branding—a little branding irony there. I also couldn’t find anything about this pilot program on their web site, possibly because it’s still so new. Anyway, the other cities are Boyne City, Clare and Niles. In 16-20 weeks, downtown Grand Haven will have a brand new brand.

So, you’re asking, what does this mean? Well, often branding is little more than a logo. It started years ago when ranchers used hot “brands”—metal shaped into a unique design, such as a “circle T” or a “triple R”—to sear a mark into their cattle to indicate they belonged to their ranch. I don’t think we’ll see hot metal rods or smell the burning flesh of downtown merchants, but we’ll probably be exposed to some unique Grand Haven logo by the time the first summer tourist rolls into town.

Logos can’t be taken lightly. Think of McDonalds’ “golden arches” or the Nike “swoosh.” People see those iconic symbols and associate them immediately with the intoxicating aroma of French fries or athletic prowess. None of the branding literature I’ve read points out that you should not think of French fries while exerting yourself in sports. For that you need common sense.

Common sense helps in branding too. Because you need more than merely a logo to really be successful. This is especially true when branding a city, or a destination. You probably have never overheard anyone say something like this: “If you have to ask me why I’m going to Podunk, you obviously haven’t seen their logo!” This is why highly paid consultants usually recommend... a slogan!

Slogans are short phrases that capture the essence of a brand. Nike made a lot of hay with their “Just do it” campaign. I should know. I just did it. So Grand Haven needs more than a big GH inside a circle or something. It needs a slogan. Something like “Just come here!” Or maybe, “Grand Haven: Between Holland and Muskegon.” I could offer something really compelling, but I am not being highly paid for this column.

I will tell you what some of our neighbor cities did recently, to give you an idea. Zeeland garnered a lot of attention with its “Feel the Zeel” campaign. You can see how that’s going on their blog. Downtown Grand Rapids launched a campaign with a counter-intuitive, reverse psychology slogan of “Keep it a Secret.” If you never heard of it you can see how fabulously successful it has been!

But if brands are only a logo and a slogan, they can really backfire. If McDonalds’ food was overpriced or unsatisfying, if Nike’s products were cheaply made, their logos and slogans would be the source of laughter and not positive association. It’s what those of us who teach and practice ethical advertising and PR call “putting lipstick on the pig.”

So Grand Haven needs more than a logo and slogan. It needs to ensure that the experience people have when they come to downtown Grand Haven is unique, special and positive. It has to be so positive and unique that they tell others about it. This is why the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau recently renamed themselves “Experience Grand Rapids.”

Grand Haven does have some unique characteristics. There already are people who choose to come from Grand Rapids and places farther away to enjoy the area, including downtown. But while logos and slogans are fun and creative, the most important part of branding is often a combination of a unique offering and some very routine basics that will help meet and exceed visitors’ expectations. That means downtown merchants who offer things that people want and they can’t get anywhere else. It means a unique environment, such as the new streetscape and the proximity to the channel and Lake Michigan. But it also means adequate parking, stores that stay open past 6 p.m. and free coffee for college professors. I threw that last one in to see if you’re paying attention. But, it could be a unique part of the brand.

Even more important than all of the above is that everyone in downtown Grand Haven “lives” the brand. That means actually believing in and working to deliver the experience that the final brand proposes to offer. We’re between the windy city and the motor city. We can’t ask people to “feel the zeel” or experience Grand Rapids. But we are who we are.

I’m eager to see and hear what that is exactly.

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