Civic sloganeering

'Hello Denver, City by the Bay!" Thus comedian Will Farrell mocks civic slogans (and professional figure skater IQs) in Blades of Glory. Slogans are easy to mock.

‘Hello Denver, City by the Bay!” Thus comedian Will Farrell mocks civic slogans (and professional figure skater IQs) in Blades of Glory.

Slogans are easy to mock.

In cult-favourite Flight of the Conchords, band meetings are held in the New Zealand consulate and in each episode there is a different mock slogan on the New Zealand tourism promotion poster in the background. Fortunately the series ended before “New Zealand: Larger than Life” showed up.

Whitehorse has now entered this tricky territory, hiring an Outside consultant to help develop a new brand for the city. About $60,000 from various layers of government was spent surveying Yukoners and other research to come up with some ideas.

According to media coverage of the public consultations last week, our choices have been boiled down to “Above All Expectations,”“Life’s Better with Latitude,” and “Comfortably Northern.”

Apparently, Whitehorse already had some slogans: “Our People, Our Strength.” Yukonomist has to admit that, despite being born here, he didn’t know the city had a slogan.

Matters are further confused by the “Wilderness City” signs around town, as well as the “Striving for Excellence” exhortation painted on the side of city pickups. Is the whole city striving, or just municipal employees? Last week, I saw two city workers with a “Striving for Excellence” pickup parked by the Robert Campbell Bridge as they chipped packed snow and ice off the sidewalk in a howling minus 25 Celsius wind.

I’m sure if they had filled in the branding consultant’s survey on their iPhones at that minute, assuming they could operate an iPhone with their giant astronaut mitts, their input would have been something like “Avoiding Frostbite” or “Thankless Tasks No One Else Wants to Do.”

Marketing experts will tell you that companies need to have a crisp, well-understood brand. The train of thought is that cities, territories and even entire countries need strong branding to succeed. After all, how do you attract visitors, investment and even residents when every other city in the world is competing for them?

Tony Blair talked of rebranding the United Kingdom when he was elected, and eventually a stream of “Cool Britannia” and similar images began floating around the mediascape. Places as diverse as Wales and New Brunswick have promoted business-friendly brands to attract investment. And of course nearly every jurisdiction spends money on tourism branding.

The Yukon has had at various times “Land of the Midnight Sun”, “Home of the Klondike”, “Magic and Mystery”, “Larger than Life” and others. The French version of our territorial slogan on the sign at the airport at one point translated as “The North with a Big ‘N’.” Alaska has “The Last Frontier,” which makes you wonder if the Yukon should try “The Second-to-Last Frontier” for awhile.

In any case, marketing experts will also stress the importance of consistency in branding. You can’t position your brand as the value choice one minute, then the premium brand the next. But on the other hand, if things get sufficiently bad you may need to radically rebrand yourself to break free of old misperceptions.

Unfortunately, branding exercises can also fall into the trap of, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, putting lipstick on a pig. If your product is lousy, you should probably spend your time fixing it rather than hiring brand consultants. This is why corporate rebranding exercises are often undertaken by struggling companies, and have a low success rate.

At their worst, branding exercises can distract management from the fundamentals. It’s unclear how the controversial rebranding exercises carried out by Gap and Starbucks in the last few months will help those companies deal with the headwinds they are facing. International Harvester rebranding itself as Navistar didn’t really help, and the British Post Office rebranding itself as Consignia attracted widespread ridicule.

Of course it is a lot more fun for management to do branding focus groups than to deal with thorny day-to-day problems, even though it is these problems that are causing the falling profits or declining customer satisfaction that they are trying to address with a new brand.

Branding exercises also cost money, which is especially important for governments since they are spending our money. The cost for Whitehorse goes beyond just hiring the branding consultant, and includes the new signage and so on. It also has consumed a bunch of senior attention.

Perhaps we need a new slogan. Maybe a catchy catchphrase will attract more visitors, more investment and more people to move here. It could even boost morale for those of us already here. You can show the new slogan to your spouse every time he or she suggests moving to somewhere warm.

But I would rather see our government work on tangible things we can see to make our city even greater. Instead of branding consultants, perhaps they could have hired a bus route expert to solve the apparently unsolvable challenge of organizing a bus schedule that gets you from Riverdale to the Canada Games Centre in less time than it takes to walk there. Or to work on curbside recycling pickup. Or to enforce the bylaws on motor vehicles in greenbelts. Or to work on renewable energy options for the city.

Great cities don’t need to advertise themselves. They just do great things, and let word of mouth do the rest.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.