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Branding a City: <br>Where Do You Begin?
Branding a City:
Where Do You Begin?

What does a marketing agency and a landscape architecture firm have in common? For starters, we’ve got a lot of ideas about branding.

MKSK and Green3 are Indianapolis-based environmental design firms whose branding clients are not just companies, but entire cities. And while their branding is more likely to take the form of parks rather than pixels, their work is key to defining the public identity of a place. This week, we spoke with Eric Lucas, Principal at MKSK, and Phyllis Boyd, Landscape Architect at Green3, to get their take on how they even begin to tackle a citywide branding process.

Define the brand as a set of beliefs.

Capturing an “authentic” understanding of the city—the genuine, real feeling that encompasses everything it stands for—is key for setting the foundation of the pride that people stake in a place. “People these days are attracted to cites that have a sense of identity,” says Eric. “It’s about attracting new people to what makes it special. Authenticity is really key in doing that. You hope that where you end up [with the brand] is really reflective of what people who live there really believe in.”

Break down the larger brand into smaller pieces.

Huge brands, like Ford, have identities for each of their products, and ideally, they all work together to support the larger brand. Cities, with their many smaller districts and neighborhoods and streets, are a perfect illustration of breaking down a multifaceted identity. “If you build on a lot of clusters of authenticity, you get something that feels good for a city,” says Phyllis. “You’ve got to break it down into sections you can handle.” Take Indianapolis for example. Fountain Square has an entirely different feel to it than the North Meridian neighborhood. It would be wrong to say the same voice represents those very different areas.

Break it down again.

So how do you go about finding the voice of each neighborhood that makes up a city? Zoom in even closer, and take a look at what makes up that area: the people. They’re the most important resources you have. “The people are the heartbeat of the city,” says Eric. “So you need to engage people and help others understand what it is about that place that makes it special.”

According to Phyllis, that means engage everyone. “The table needs to be wide open with everyone invited,” says Phyllis. “The more people giving their input, the better. You want people to love what’s being built. So you want them to be very involved in the entire process.”

And why stop at just the people who live in the immediate area? During one of their projects, MKSK “asked everyone in the city of West Lafayette what their opinions were of each district in the city and how they would describe them,” says Eric. “It was extremely helpful. They were all pretty unified in their opinions.”

Pound the pavement.

Eric and Phyllis say it’s important to get up close and personal. Go out and explore. Dig a little, and discover those things that may not be so obvious at first, like overlooked architecture or traditions so old people have forgotten why they celebrate them in the first place. Chances are, a neighborhood didn’t just pop up yesterday out of nowhere. It has a lot of history that has shaped the neighborhood into what it is today. No person, product, or neighborhood is the same, but if you find those smaller stories and collect them, you can start creating an overarching, unifying brand that everyone can be proud of.