Jumping on the Brandwagon – How to Give Your City a Motto Makeover in 10 Easy Steps

So you’re thinking of creating a new slogan and brand identity for your city…

Join the club. The entire country is caught up in a frenzy of sloganeering. More than 80 percent of towns with populations greater than 25,000 either have a motto or are attempting to develop a new one.

The surge in branding can be attributed, in large part, to our friends in Las Vegas, whose daring motto, “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” hit the national airwaves in 2001 and shows no signs of abating. Of course, it helps if you’re blessed with a towering budget, an endless supply of neon lights, and hordes of tourists who are admitted adrenaline junkies.

Other big cities that have jumped on the brandwagon to polish their image include the likes of Cleveland (“Cleveland Rocks!”), Omaha (“O!”), Atlanta (“Every Day is an Opening Day”), San Diego (“City with Sol”), and Atlantic City (“Always Turned On”). They have launched city-wide campaigns to help sell their new brand message and make it stick. The results so far have been favorable and city fathers are relieved. Projects of this magnitude are usually accompanied by a fair amount of anguish and nagging doubts, especially when detractors start chomping at the bit. After all, a city’s pride and reputation are at stake.

City Branding Isn’t For Sissies

To put it bluntly, branding isn’t for sissies. Big cities can expect to spend nine months to a year in brand development and several more years promoting their brandiwork. They also have to contend with lots of stakeholders, such as city officials, neighborhood leaders, corporate sponsors, downtown redevelopers, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Chamber of Commerce. Oh, and let’s not forget the opinions of vocal city residents and members of the press who weigh in throughout the entire process.

So if branding is painful, protracted, and perilous, why do cities do it? Why don’t they keep their old motto? Why can’t they simply quote that cool Latin inscription on their official seal? What difference does a brand new slogan really make?

Well, I’m here to tell you…it makes a huge difference. A slogan is a valuable ambassador. When conceived correctly, it can reflect a city’s style and personality, leverage its assets, and communicate a compelling message. Think of it as urban renewal without having to pass a bond measure.

Every city is unique, possessing both positive and negative perceptions. It has a history, a culture, and a constituency. The key to effective branding is to embrace an appealing slogan that promises an experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. A good slogan is just the tip of the iceberg, an exclamation point at the end of a municipal pitch to the world at large.

Cities that succeed in incorporating their refurbished brand message into their campaigns and advertising creative provide the impetus for attracting visitors, retirees, home builders, and investors, which, in turn, helps generate greater tourism, tax revenue, unity, and goodwill.

Cleveland’s motto makeover is a case in point. After 30 years of living with the shameful moniker, “The Mistake on the Lake,” and the ever-so-brief, yawn-inducing slogan, “America’s Comeback City,” it has emerged with its self-esteem intact and is now enjoying renewed pride and optimism largely inspired by its new slogan, “Cleveland Rocks!” Cleveland has fast become a popular destination for the rockers and the DockersĀ® set, and its brand barometer has never looked brighter.

Preparing Your Motto Makeover

Your city’s motto is the focal point of your brand message. It tells a story, your story. It should be succinct, positive, original, and memorable. It should be believable (this is who we are), but it can also aspire to be something bigger and greater (this is how we’re evolving).

Mottos can be humorous (“Experience Our Sense of Yuma” – Yuma, AZ); alliterative (“Livable, Lovable Lodi”); quaint (“Where the Trout Leap on Main Street” – Saratoga, WY); clever (“There’s More Than Meets the Arch” – St. Louis, MO”); disarming (“It’s Not the End of the Earth, but You Can See It from Here” – Bushnell, SD),” or rhyme (“Where Nature Smiles for Seven Miles,” – Spring Lake, MI). Whatever motto you select, it reflects on you and vice-versa. Think of it as a robe you put on that fits well, feels good, looks great, and makes the right impression.

Since your motto competes with others in the municipal, regional, and national marketplace, it should also be strikingly unique so that it stands out in a crowd.

In the long run, you need a solid strategy for not only developing a motto, but also promoting it and communicating its value. A motto is just part of an overall brand awareness program that your town’s citizens and the rest of the world will judge by its clarity, consistency, and creativity.

The Ten Steps to Successful Sloganeering

As a public service, I have identified 10 easy steps that any city or town can follow, regardless of size, budget, or inclination, to ensure that its branding and sloganeering process is satisfying and successful. Here we go:

Step #1: Build Your Case

To kick off a city branding project, you need top-down and grass-roots buy-in. The officials who control the budget will want to know why re-branding is necessary. Be prepared to give them a good answer. Conduct a brand audit to benchmark your current thinking and build consensus. As you move forward, try to obtain pro-bono support from a leading ad agency and donations from a few local corporations. Assemble a plan, a timetable, and a set of expectations. Refer to the branding success of other cities and focus on bottom-line results. Start thinking like a brand manager…not a city manager.

Step #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Re-brand

Okay, so you have a tired, worn-out slogan that’s negative, unoriginal, boring, and trite – and it doesn’t do justice to your fair city. Well, then, do something about it! If companies can re-invent themselves with exciting new slogans, so can you. Perceptions change and you can find yourself in a rut very quickly. You don’t need to spend millions on urban redevelopment to have an excuse to re-brand – just a strong belief shared by others that your slogan is no longer channeling your city’s mojo.

Give your citizens something to rally around. Give them a new battle cry. Create a new platform for delivering an enduring message that expresses confidence and shows some attitude. Who remembers Las Vegas’s former motto, “Las Vegas Loves Visitors?” That’s ancient history. The city re-branded itself and never looked back.

Step #3: Test the Waters

Brainstorm as much as possible. Solicit opinions and ideas from newspaper readers and all of your key stakeholders. Organize their responses in a meaningful way and ask your agency to help you sort, craft, and polish them. Narrow down the best slogans to a manageable list. For a reality check, do a little focus group testing. Feedback is always invaluable. Be sure to determine in advance who will make the final selection of your motto – a branding committee or the results of a city-wide contest. In some instances, a branding committee will select three to five mottos and then ask city residents to vote on them.

Step #4: Focus on Brand Attributes

What are your town’s assets and attractions? What words best describe its past, present, and future? Focus on slogan attributes that illustrate your town’s brand character (traditional or innovative), style (colorful or understated), tone (informative or imaginative) affinity (Main Street or Wall Street), and personality (playful or serious). What core values are ingrained in your town’s culture? Be sure to survey the competition (e.g., other cities and other slogans) for added perspective.

Step #5: Make Your Slogan Specific

Me-too, cookie-cutter slogans are a dime a dozen. If you borrow another city’s brand style, personality, or message, you’re selling your town down the river. What are you proud of? What are you known for? Are you merely the gateway to someplace else or is there a there, there? Too many towns have generic mottos or monikers that sound notoriously alike (“America’s Hometown,” “A Great Place to Live,” A Place to Call Home,” etc.). Don’t go down that road. Instead, you can:

oHonor your hometown hero: “Birthplace of Johnny Cash” – Kingsland, AR

oConfer a title upon your town: “Goat Ropin’ Capital of the World” – Gotebo, OK

oEmphasize something unique: “Home of the Candy Dance” – Genova, NV

oPlay up a weird attraction: “The World’s Largest Chee-to” – Algona, IA

oMake an unusual claim: “The Poison Oak Capital of the World” – Forestville, CA

Step #6: Turn Your Brand Into an Ambassador

Your slogan is your brand ambassador. People experience your brand every time one of their five senses comes in contact with it. Your job is to package the most positive impressions that comprise their experience, and then brand it for them. “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” the motto of Hershey, PA, is a perfect example. Its brand image and message capture the joy and happiness that people feel when they experience chocolate.

As your brand ambassador, use your slogan to make your town more appealing. Is it a fun place to visit? What are the benefits of living there? Does your motto inspire us to learn more about your town? A good brand ambassador hits all the emotional touchpoints.

Step #7: Keep Your Brand Visible

More than 80 percent of the web sites of the 50 largest U.S. cities don’t even mention their official slogans, which just goes to show how little thought they give to their own branding. Too often, a city will spend months on brand development and then fail to make its new slogan and logo a visible part of its communications. Make sure your new brand identity is front and center on business cards, brochures, e-mail messages, and the home page of the Web sites that promote your city (e.g., city government, Chamber of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureau, etc.).