How do you develop and manage the place brand of a large city? David Ferreira, in charge of city marketing and planning at the City of Mississauga in Canada, in this interview shares his experience and reflects on successes and challenges of Mississauga’s city branding strategy. A practitioner’s view on how a city brand can be established, strengthened and maintained.
David, Mississauga – Canada’s sixth largest city – launched its new brand proposition five years ago. Do you remember your perception of the city’s attractiveness for visitors, talent or investors prior to the launch? And has it changed since?
When we first embarked on the development of our new brand, our first big challenge was shifting the brand focus from it being a corporate identifier to a true place brand for the City of Mississauga. We wanted to build a brand identity for Mississauga as a destination of choice for residents, workers, employers, visitors and students.
Mississauga’s visual identity was developed in 1986 and hadn’t been updated in almost 30 years. Since then the city has seen dramatic changes. Its population has more than tripled and become more culturally diverse – with over half of the city’s residents now born outside of Canada. During this time Mississauga became Canada’s sixth largest city and a key economic centre with over 54,000 businesses and 62 leading Fortune 500 companies. We came to the realization that the brand perception of Mississauga hadn’t kept pace with the current reality of city it is today.
Our new brand strategy and visuals have been a catalyst for creating stronger consistency in how we and our partners communicate and promote the City of Mississauga.
I believe that having a shared common understanding of Mississauga’s brand story has been the greatest benefit of our work so far. This has been fundamental in changing people’s perception of Mississauga as more than a city next to Toronto but as a distinct modern, vibrant and innovative metropolis.
What do you understand as the “brand” of places, and which aspect of city branding do you consider the most important?
A place brand must answer the question “why should someone choose your city to live, visit, study, or invest in?” To do that effectively, it needs to be authentic, memorable and easy to understand.
That can only be achieved when a place brand is built on a foundation of both qualitative and quantitative research and residents, businesses and other stakeholders are engaged in the process.
I think the most import aspect is that a place brand must be authentic but most importantly differentiate you from other places. This differentiation must also be built around a combination of attributes that are important to your audience.
As the Brand Manager for the City of Mississauga, how do you integrate the brand internally?
When we launched the brand, this was a concern often brought up by internal stakeholders. They wondered whether they needed to change how they promoted and communicated their particular business area, to align with the new brand. What we found was that the process ended up being quite seamless, with only minor changes and adjustments needed to integrate the brand across the city.
I think the reason for that was that each of these areas was deeply involved and engaged throughout the entire process. This ensured that the brand was developed with these aspects and perceptions built into the new brand identity.
For me the key lesson is that if you do the work upfront to engage and build buy-in with your stakeholders, implementation becomes a lot easier afterwards.
Below is an example of how we promoted our city branding work (the video is from 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th Birthday Celebrations entitled Brilliance together).
How do you ensure collaboration and consistency in promoting Mississauga?
We have a decentralized marketing structure at the City of Mississauga. To fully integrate the brand and ensure a high level of brand consistency, we work with our internal stakeholders to align their content with the new brand. We work with each group to help them understand how their content can be shared through our new brand voice.
We emphasize that the consistency that this produces will help the city as a whole to build and strengthen its brand identity – that this will, by extension, help them when promoting their own content as well.
A recent initiative to support wider brand integration and consistency was the creation of a City Marketing Committee. This group brings together all of the Marketing Managers and representatives across the City of Mississauga to discuss how to better collaborate and align our marketing and promotional efforts.
Bringing stakeholders together and engaging them is often referred to as among the biggest challenges in place branding practice. How do you approach this in your own work?
We were very lucky at the City of Mississauga. We had a large and engaged community of stakeholders who were passionate about building a strong brand for the city. We had over 100 internal and external stakeholders agree to attend four individual half day sessions over the summer to support the development of our new brand.
Having said that, it did take a significant time investment to ensure stakeholders were able to effectively participate in all of the sessions. We held webinars, supplementary sessions, conference calls and a host of other online and face-to-face tactics to work around individual schedules and conflicts.
I think this commitment to ensure all stakeholders had the opportunity to stay informed and provide feedback and input helped foster even greater engagement and support for the project.
In an ultra-competitive environment, being innovative is often the key to standing out from other cities. Which creative initiatives have you implemented to build and strengthen Mississauga’s brand reputation?
Mississauga’s brand reputation is rooted strongly in the fact that we are a modern, dynamic and innovative city. One of the most recent examples of how we are moving forward with this is the development of Mississauga’s first Smart City Master Plan. The plan focuses on how technology will continue to enhance the quality of life in Mississauga and help prepare for the future.
The plan focuses on creating vibrant, inclusive communities with a high quality of life. Some of the elements in the plan include:
- Living Labs: to test new technologies in a real-life context and provide an opportunity for the public to be involved in the process.
- Innovation Challenges: an opportunity to solve local problems with a callout to the public to submit their ideas.
- Centre for Civic Curiosity: a roaming engagement hub where the public can explore, learn, connect and contribute to the city’s future.
- Citizen-Centred Smart City Policy: to guide Smart City initiatives in areas such as data privacy and transparency, co-created with the public.
Which part of managing a city’s brand reputation is the most challenging?
The most challenging part of managing a city’s brand reputation is realizing that city branding is a continuous, never-ending process. Cities are always changing, growing and evolving. To remain authentic it’s important to review, update and adjust your brand accordingly.
These changes tend to happen slowly, but if you aren’t paying attention to them you can find yourself with a brand that is no longer relevant to the city or place it is promoting.
To that end, we’ve developed a cycle where we will do a minor validation of the brand every five years and a full review every ten years.
Earlier in your career you worked for financial services. How is Mississauga’s city branding strategy implementation financed? Which financing model would you consider the most suitable for city brand management organizations?
A key part of Mississauga’s brand reputation is strong fiscal management and ensuring that we allocate our resources effectively and efficiently. We think we’ve achieved a good balance in continuing to work on implementing the brand very methodically – leveraging existing budgets and planned opportunities.
The Mississauga brand acts as a catalyst for us to be much more proactive with integrated marketing and communications for the city. We have a multi-year horizon to work with and the brand helps people understand how to work with these kinds of opportunities.
How you implement and promote a brand is as important to a place brand as the content of those promotional efforts. As another Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, once said “the medium is the message”.
In other words, the choices we make in promoting our place brands say as much – or more – about our brand than the words we use to convey that message. Each city or region needs to assess the pace and financing model that is appropriate for them and ensure that it is aligned with how they want to be perceived.
How do you measure the success and effectiveness of your city branding initiatives?
I think this is the most difficult thing to do for any brand. At its heart a place brand is essentially how you feel and what you think about a place.
It’s difficult to measure the direct impact of a brand on resident behaviour or changes to volume of business investment and tourist visits. We do know, however, that a place brand is a key component of the long-term success of any city.
The best approach we have followed is to conduct brand awareness and perception surveys, interviews and focus groups with key audiences – and measure changes over time. Now that five years have passed since the brand launched, we can begin to look at these changes in perception and overlay them with other data sets. If we are successful, we will begin to see positive causal relationships between the city’s brand and other key indicators.
With urban population constantly growing, which would you say is the biggest challenge that city marketers and brand managers are going to encounter in the next years?
Understanding and fully appreciating that a place brand is an extremely complex system is a big challenge.
There are so many variables that influence a person’s perception of a city or place – and most of them are out of your direct control. In this type of environment I think all place brands need to focus on building greater resilience to strengthen their ability to respond to any unforeseen situations that could impact your brand.
Five tips for city brand managers eager to ‘do it right’?
Start with a clean slate. When starting off there is often a great deal of ‘conventional wisdom’ about what a city’s brand should be. It’s important not to let these preconceptions become part of your place brand without validating them through research and stakeholder feedback.
Evidence and research are critical. The only way to build a strong and sustainable place brand is to build it on a solid foundation of research and stakeholder input. This can take many forms, including: workshops, interviews, focus groups, surveys, literature reviews, competitor analysis and so much more.
Place brands need to be inspirational. A place brand needs to be relevant today but it also needs to inspire and excite people to want to learn more about your city and ultimately move to, visit, study or invest there.
Don’t try to do it alone. There are countless ways how people get information about a city and there are many organizations that directly or indirectly help shape a city’s brand. It’s important that you identify the most important companies, organizations and sources of information about your city and find ways to work with them to ensure that they promote the same clear, compelling and consistent brand message that you are communicating.
Be patient. The brand of a city is always a lagging indicator and it takes time to change what people think of a place. It won’t happen overnight but if you stay true to your brand story, over time perceptions will start to change and you will begin to see the positive outcomes of your hard work.
Thank you, David.
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