City Branding Case Study: The Story of Edmonton, Canada

Today we’d like to take you to Canada for an intriguing case study and example of city branding at its best. Todd Babiak of Story Engine introduces us to the ‘Make Something in Edmonton‘ brand strategy for this entrepreneurial Canadian city.

This exemplary initiative was awarded for ‘Best Expression of Place Brand Identity’ at the 2016 City Nation Place Forum in London, UK.

Learn about:

  • The problem that led to the award-winning place brand strategy;
  • The traditional solution to city branding, and why it often fails;
  • Which cities inspired Edmonton’s branding approach;
  • How research helped distill the essence of Edmonton’s city brand;
  • Impact: How an unconventional approach to city branding has influenced urban development and citizen behavior.

The problem

In 2012, leaders of Edmonton’s business, public service, academic, and arts communities came together to help build the city’s economic development plan for 2040. It was a traditional affair, run by a management consultancy. The liveliest part of the day came when the facilitators asked participants to identify and rank the problems facing the city now and into the future.

The number one problem was image and reputation. One of the leaders put it simply: “We need a story to tell.”

Edmonton has a metro population of 1.2 million. It is the most northerly major city in Canada and, in 2012, it probably had the poorest reputation. A firm called Longwoods International had studied Edmonton’s internal and external image, and found citizens loved the city. They simply lacked a powerful way to express it. Outside Edmonton the results weren’t encouraging. Respondents assumed it was cold, boring, and remote if they considered it at all.

“I’ve never seen gaps so enormous between the reality of a place and what outsiders know about it,” said Bill Siegel, the CEO of Longwoods International.

The traditional solution

Calgary, a city of similar size to the south of Edmonton, dominated by oil and gas head offices, had recently gone through an agency re-brand. The multi-million dollar effort resulted in “Calgary: Innovative Energy” and a lovely logo. A new mayor changed it to “Be Part of the Energy.”

Mid-sized cities across North America wrote RFPs [requests for proposals] to arrive at similar branding exercises by massive agencies: short on research and heavy on taglines, logos, colour schemes, and media buys.

This seemed the route Edmonton would go, even though the city was already a graveyard of failed taglines:

  • River City (because few other cities were built near water)
  • Festival City (surely no one else has those)
  • Gateway to the North (don’t you walk through gateways?)
  • Capital City (over 60 of those in North America alone)
  • City of Champions (along with Pittsburgh, Detroit, Montreal, Brockton…)

There was one hesitation: a few years earlier the city had engaged an advertising agency to rebrand the city and the agency had come up with Edmonton: it’s cooler here. It accurately reflected the city’s self-deprecating humour but captured nothing else. It played so poorly in the media the mayor and city council abandoned it before the official launch. This was the backdrop and the context to the work we wanted to do for Edmontonians. We were terrified.

Former Edmonton city branding
Slogan previously used for Edmonton city branding

A story to tell

At the economic development workshop, leaders actually used the phrase, “A story to tell.”

It’s a misunderstood word, despite its clarity. A nine year-old knows what a story is, though we tend to use it as a synonym for “facts and statistics.” The Mayor of Edmonton at the time had felt so burned by the It’s Cooler Here debacle that he was keen to take a different approach.

Cities can be blessed with natural beauty or architectural splendour. They can have thrilling local economies. But if they don’t invest in a strategy that brings their image and reputation in line with the way they make decisions, they cannot reinforce who they are at their best.

In recent years, only a few cities in North America have brought their image and reputation strategy in line with economic development, urban planning, and tourism.

Austin is a near-perfect example of a city that transformed itself not with an advertising agency rebrand but with a bottom-up expression of what makes Austin a different sort of city. “Keep Austin Weird” is not a traditional slogan but a boiled-down story of the residents of a land-locked island city fighting a battle against globalization and sameness.

It worked for tourism. It worked for head office recruitment. It transformed South by Southwest from a music festival into one of the most important gatherings for new ideas on the planet. Marc Ott, City Manager of Austin as the brand developed, often said that when he had to make a difficult decision, “I just had to ask myself, ‘Will this keep Austin weird or not?’”

That is a city brand.

Yet the accepted way to engage with citizens, to run a public consultation, is to put one hundred or more of them in a room, or many rooms, and to ask a facilitator to pull the strategy from them. In city brand exercises, the public consultation can be creative. It might be more fun than gathering to discuss a transportation master plan. But the essential problem is the same.

When you ask people to gather to build a city brand, from a blank sheet of paper, you will get “the usual suspects.” They have read Richard Florida, they love to impress one another, and they ache to say all the right things.

Every city brand in the world that begins with a facilitated consultation will be a variation of: innovative, liveable, diverse, creative, collaborative, resilient, dynamic, and sustainable. If you read contemporary city planning documents, you can play a grim variation of bingo with these and other universal synonyms of civic awesomeness.

The research

In Edmonton, we wanted to try something different. Frustrated journalists and marketers founded Story Engine. We’ve participated in too many facilitated sessions and dot-mocracies that result in either weak strategies or the cynical checked-box of “engagement.”

We began with individual interviews: with CEOs, students, new immigrants, long-time Edmontonians, white collar workers, blue collar workers, indigenous Edmontonians, politicians, and stay-at-home parents.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of these conversations would harken back to old taglines, or the natural splendour of the river valley, or the universal synonyms of civic awesomeness. After this, we began to push our interviewees to give us examples of what they were most proud of in Edmonton. What shamed and embarrassed them? What made them happy? What was “so Edmonton” it almost had a smell? Why did they move here? If they grew up here, why did they stay? When they answered with abstractions and superlatives we demanded more examples, more anecdotes.

We interviewed almost 150 people. After about 30 interviews, we realized we were hearing the same story over and over again. Iconic, global companies that had launched in Edmonton had the same narrative arc as arts events and festivals, as theatres, as social ventures, as public service successes, as small businesses with big reputations.

Bioware, the video game company, has the same origin story as the first fringe theatre festival on the continent, the first mosque in Canada, and the first food bank.  They all began in Edmonton with a few people, an idea, local support and encouragement and investment, and a risk. In other places it would seem audacious but here in Edmonton there was something natural about it. Of course people will help you build it. This is Edmonton.

Edmonton city of pioneers
Edmonton – a city of pioneers

The more we dug into the stories the more we realized it’s the foundation of the city’s culture. For thousands of years, indigenous people had gathered on this bend of a river to trade, to prosper, to celebrate, to worship. The fur trade launched here because it was already a place to come together. Next came agriculture and oil, engineering and construction, and the more contemporary draws of machine learning and video games.

Until affordable air travel and the Internet, Edmonton felt far from the great cultural and business centres of America. The sorts of people who chose Edmonton had an entrepreneurial streak and a love for cooperation. No aristocracies had ever really developed in the city, despite a lot of wealthy people and one of the largest and finest universities in Canada.

In a short paragraph, this was the “master story” we heard:

Years ago, when this was an isolated place, we invented our own fun. We created our own solutions. That spirit remains today: Risk-takers, people with ideas, thrive in a bizarrely cooperative city. Edmonton is a place without hierarchy. Five minutes here and youre one of us.

Fundamentally, this is a rags-to-riches or a Cinderella plot. From Edmontonians we had heard hundreds of examples of this in every sector: business, arts and entertainment, and in social and public sectors. And it was statistically true. Edmonton is an unusually good place to launch something.

What can you do with a story?

Phase one of the research was finished. In every elegant strategy, form meets content. We wanted to be sure, as we entered a more active phase, that our citizen engagement plan brought the story to life. One of the finest quotations we heard, from the city’s historian laureate, was, “In Edmonton, if you don’t grow it, you don’t own it.”

Imported glamour from other places tended to wither here. Edmontonians did not feel honoured when someone tried to bring something “world class” to enliven the provincials. They laughed. The plan had to reflect the story.

We put together a citizen board, co-chaired by two young yet respected leaders of the city’s business and arts communities. It should have been a committee instead of a board, as “governance” expectations sometimes overwhelmed the discussions and activities, but the crucial aspect was its volunteer nature, its seriousness, and its workshop quality.

Then we turned the research into a series of blog posts on a simple WordPress site and called it “Magpietown.” Magpies are hardy four-season birds, black and white and purple, with shiny eyes. Edmontonians don’t notice them, or they dislike them, but they’re smart and (from an outsider’s point of view) beautiful. We liked the metaphor.

Edmontonians were most proud of what they made. They loved it when someone did it in an Edmonton way — with an unusual degree of help and encouragement. So we told the story with a community building activity called Make Something Edmonton.” The engagement was hands-on, a call to action instead of a typical campaign.

Make Something Edmonton
Screenshot of the ‘Make Something Edmonton’ website

We asked citizens to go out and make something beautiful, make something strange, make something profitable, make something small, big, green, bright. The simple WordPress blog transformed into a website that told the Edmonton Story and highlighted Make Something Edmonton projects. We made simple videos, to tell the story as it progressed.

We thought, over two years of community-based brand-building, we might encourage 200 projects. In two years, there were over 1,500.

Citizens put lights on the city’s iconic High Level Bridge. They made community gardens, launched mural campaigns, plopped pianos in public places, painted alleys, started new businesses, new festivals, new bands. We fed these stories to the media, and some of them went global.

At the same time, we taught Edmontonians the stories we had heard in our research. We discovered and amplified what was already there, in Edmonton, to give citizens easy and fun ways to be evangelists.

We built an ambassador guide for the people with megaphones: politicians, business leaders, senior artists, community organizers.

Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) began making strategic changes to bring the story to life. They used the city master story to build a tourism brand and campaign called “Edmonton Original.”

For much of its life, EEDC had tried to lure head offices to Edmonton. Using the master story, the CEO and president, Brad Ferguson, turned the organization’s focus toward entrepreneurship and growth.

Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton, early-stage and mid-stage business incubators and accelerators, are the best of their kind in Canada. Make Something Edmonton launched an “Edmonton Made” campaign for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Make Something Edmonton is now a permanent office at EEDC, with staff who bring the community into the city’s image and reputation work. They’re instigators, strategists, and — when a story is on-brand — cheerleaders.

City branding impact

Citizens used Make Something Edmonton as a rationale for changing city bylaws that contradicted the master story. Officials changed parking regulations that stopped or slowed down new cafés and restaurants in the core. City-owned recreation and attraction facilities, from the nature conservatory to golf courses and the zoo, began serving Edmonton food.

A bylaw that had restricted food trucks from moving from one location to another changed and the city went from 6 food trucks to 96, with many of them quickly graduating into brick-and-mortar restaurants after testing their concepts on the road.  A French film crew arrived in the summer of 2016 to shoot a pilot for a food series about “Canada’s best food truck culture.”

When something is off-brand, Edmontonians fight to change it. Rather than use a single tagline, Make Something Edmonton developed a number of “statements of encouragement.” A local business put one of them up, in massive white letters, on the otherwise blank wall of an office tower facing City Hall: “Take a risk,” it says, “It’s the most Edmonton thing you can do.”

It is, after four years, a small-c city brand. The City of Edmonton itself is now developing its own implementation plan, to make it a key part of the way its 13,000 employees do their jobs. One of the statements of encouragement is showing up on some municipal politicians’ business cards: “What are you making? How can we help?”

The external phase of the city brand work begins in 2017. The strategy will mirror what had worked internally, and it will rely on ambassadors, the “Edmonton diaspora” around the world, and an invitation for artists, entrepreneurs, and adventurers to launch something in this Cinderella city in Northern Canada. It’s easier than ever to find northern and isolated cities and city-regions in Europe and North America with similar cultures, and to prepare a small team of them ready to step out.

Explore further by visiting the website of Make Something Edmonton.

Edmonton was winner in the category ‘Best Expression of Place Brand Identity ‘ at the 2016 City Nation Place Forum in London, UK.

Todd BabiakAbout Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak is a principal at Story Engine, a company that uses narrative as the basis of strategy to bring focus, discipline, and humanity to places and organizations. They have worked in North America, Europe, and Africa.

Connect with Todd Babiak on LinkedIn.

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