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City Branding: Greater than the Sum of Its Parts
City Branding: Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

There’s a lot of literature about branding cities. The importance of it, the challenges that come with it, the successes, the less-than-successes. Pivot has even written about it before. All the lessons boil down to the fact that city brands, on the whole, should reflect their individual parts: the companies, organizations, institutions, and residents that call it home.

A city’s “family of brands” must work together to inform and elevate their place. The city brand portfolio is similar to that of parent companies like SC Johnson. While the overarching brand has its own identity, it is only successful if Ziplock, Glade, Windex, and the like are providing products that customers can rally behind.

With our fearless leader Jenn in New York this week (see the city through her lens), we thought we’d use her trip as an excuse to look eastward. We pulled together the logos or identity systems of several New York City brands from media, landmarks, transit, parks, cultural institutions, neighborhoods, education, and public safety. See if you can spot things that really jump out (this is not an exhaustive list, of course, and I’m not endorsing any particular design element):


While all of these logos stand on their own and represent their respective organizations, there are some commonalities. For the most part, they are living in the same context and speaking similar languages.

The government-run agencies (taxis and public schools), for instance, share the chiseled-yet-bulbous “NYC” lettering, albeit with their own unique takes. The World Trade Center looks like it may have studied at the New School. The New Yorker could be on display at the Whitney. You could pick up The New York Times at Grand Central and read it on the subway on the way to your favorite park. There are themes like color palettes and typography and appropriation of local landmarks (you’ve got to watch that last one—it can potentially be a slippery slope).

But underneath the design elements lies a larger common thread: All of these brands play a role in shaping their city. They are synonymous with the New York experience for many people. That’s because they aspire to greatness. Many of these organizations are at the forefront of their respective industries, or are working to get there. It starts with vision and focus: a clear understanding of where the organization is going and how to get there strategically. Their design language reflects that, and in turn, New York City’s brand is stronger.

Okay, okay. So New York is an extreme example. Few would feel fundamentally differently about the city if the Whitney moved to Chicago or NYU changed its name. New York City is massive; it would absorb the changes and move on.

But it does raise the question: What does your city’s “family of brands” say about the place you call home? If you think your city needs a stronger brand, make sure your own brand is a worthy contributor to the whole.