Neighborhood Icons | Neighborhood Brands

[From a talk I presented in Garland, Texas on creating iconic neighborhood brands. Oct. 2010]


When I was a kid my parents chose what neighborhood we were going to live in because of it cache … in other words, how it was known outside of the neighborhood,it’s brand, if you will. The assumption being that this was the way it was also known within the neighborhood.

The problem with this assumption, of course is that, a neighborhood may have a different brand inside the neighborhood than it has outside. Let me give an example: You may feel that your neighborhood’s nitty-gritty character gives it charm, while those outside may feel that the same nitty-grittiness makes it unsafe.

For better or worse, brands articulate the qualitative essence of place.

What we want to discuss in this essay is our perceptions of neighborhoods, and how those perceptions brand a neighborhood. In this first part we’ll look at the how branding works. In the second part we’ll look at the mechanics involved in branding our neighborhoods.

Before we get into our discussion of branding neighborhoods, I want to emphasize that good branding – branding that creates sustainability – comes only from spending time in the neighborhood, wandering the neighborhood … listening to, the stories of the neighborhood, her people, buildings, infrastructure, environment, and history.

We need to understand our neighborhood, not from the perspective of the experts, but by feeling her story. Understanding a neighborhood is about more than simply eating in a restaurant or shopping in an eclectic store — it is about exploring the streets, experiencing the people and the sounds, feeling the internal rhythm of the everyday. When we do, we will discover her essence and be able to articulate it – brand it, if you will. When we can articulate our neighborhood’s essence we can “sell” her.

A couple things we need to note before we move on:

The brand is not the neighborhood’s essence; rather the brand proclaims her essence.
When done correctly an amazing phenomena will take place; residents will begin to demand all that the brand promises. The seeds of sustainability are sown.

If I had my way, I’d throw away master plans and spend the time and energy (and finances) in discovering, understanding, and elegantly articulating the essence of our neighborhoods.

Brands are not icons. We are going to be talking about neighborhood icons as we discuss branding our neighborhoods. It is important to understand the difference

Icons are those things within the neighborhood that have the ability to create emotional connections. When people have emotional connections with their icons – religious, cultural, neighborhood – they speak with excitement, and with open honesty.

Brands on the other hand, are about benefits, features, and values. For example, compare: “I look for a brand that is reliable and a good value,” to “She’s funny, and exciting. I’d like to be her.” In the last an iconic connection takes place.

Now, let’s put the two together. Iconic Brands are those that break through the benefit/feature, the value-driven barrier to create emotional connections. Think Starbuck’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Harley-Davidson … these are brands that have broken through the barrier, that have moved from the rational, objective, benefit-driven world to the subjective, emotion-driven world of icons.< In 2001 Harvest Communications conducted a survey about how people differentiate between brand and icon: Brands: Rational Associated with benefits and features Reliability, Value, Satisfaction, Service, Price, Aesthetic Icons: Emotional Associated with experience and feelings (people want experiences not things) Examples: Adventure, Independence, Originality, Comfort, Nostalgia Application Applying this to our neighborhoods, what becomes obvious is that to a large extent the future of the neighborhood is dependent upon how residents, and outsiders, connect to it emotionally. If a neighborhood is to remain sustainable, positive iconic neighborhood branding must be created. Of course, to do this, we must discover and understand the neighborhood icons. So, how do we go about doing it? An icon, we are told, is born from the fortuitous convergence of sociological, political, and psychological factors. However, most neighborhoods don’t have time to wait for a fortuitous convergence to take place. What then is the answer? Staying with the research of Harvest Communications: The research discovered three elements necessary to create an iconic brand, what they call: Brand Path Brand Belief Brand Memory Path is where we are presently positioned, and to getting somewhere. Path, in other words, is the story. Belief is both spiritual and psychological. Belief transcends the rational (we call this “faith”) and builds deep-felt emotional ties. Brief creates aspirations out of values and ideas. Memory, in the sense of an iconic brand, melds the good memories of the past with the present. As we move forward the past becomes our anchor, not to hold us back, but to provide stability in the future. [Think of Campbell’s Soup, how it draws upon our memories childhood, of our eating Campbell’s Tomato Soup, perhaps, to sell soup today.] Now let’s talk about path, belief and memory in connection with creating iconic neighborhood brands… Path is where the neighborhood is presently positions, and its path to getting there… it is the shared neighborhood story. At present does the neighborhood generate any passion – positively or negatively – or do residents merely see it as a place to live, perhaps because they can afford nothing else, or perhaps as a stepping-stone. In other words is the neighborhood connection rational or emotional?< Before a neighborhood can forge an iconic standing, it must know (understand intimately) who it is in the present moment – warts and all – and how it got there. There is another element inherent in path also. Different segments of the neighborhood connect emotionally to the neighborhood in different ways. Likewise, those who live, visit/pass through, and work in the neighborhood all emotionally connect in diverse ways. These present connections must be understood before we can even think about icons and brands Belief, as applied to neighborhoods, is about building upon core values that cut through neighborhood issues. Belief is about finding hope for the future in the present. Recent studies comparing depressed East Coast urban neighborhoods to those urban neighborhoods that were not, found that those living in the depressed neighborhoods exhibited more positive emotional connections than did those living in the non-depressed ones. Upon further examination it was discovered that residents in neighborhoods catering to the so-called Knowledge Economy were less apt to have any emotional connections than those living in the depressed neighborhoods. Here is the interesting finding: Knowledge Economy neighborhoods had few if any icons, while depressed neighborhoods were full of them—a storefront church, a corner store, or an individual. And that it was these icons that contributed to the emotional connectivity and strength of the neighborhood. The icons stood for the neighborhood values. From this study it is evident for a neighborhood to be sustainable it must believe in its shared core values. Discovering these values is the trick— path, the story, is where these values are found. Once articulated, the shared core values of the neighborhood become the stepping-stone upon which hope for the future is found in the present. We must recognize that “core values” do not equate with identity. Identity is rational, a brand: “I am Frank” = my identity/brand. “I love peace” = core value. On a different level: “I am peaceful” is different than saying “I love peace.” “Peaceful” is my identity; living for peace is driven. I am peaceful,” however, also conveys how I live. Saying “I am peaceful” carries the emotional connection of my belief in peace. Now, perhaps I wear a dove on a chain. Here, the dove is the icon of my belief, which in turns says something about me, when I say, “I am Frank.” You see the dove you think he must be a peaceful guy. The dove becomes my iconic brand. It gives me emotional identity by making the leap from a belief to a cognitive existence, while holding onto the positive emotional image (“me, Frank, peaceful”) that the icon generates. When a neighborhood exhibits a belief in itself there is little that can stop it. One of the striking thinks about neighborhood icons is how deeply they are embedded in the collective neighborhood memory. Neighborhood memory is embedded in the entire corpus of neighborhood: the people, the buildings, the landscape, the history – here we are, once again back to stories. Just as the core values are discovered in the stories, so are the neighborhood icons. Just as Campbell Soup builds upon our iconic memories of the past to sell soup in the present, neighborhoods can build upon the iconic memories of their past to remain stable in the present. Campbell Soup hasn’t ignored in its marketing its link to the past, nevertheless its marketing is geared completely to the present. Some marketing even drawn upon the iconic past in a way that reminds us that the use of their product today, will serve us well tomorrow. General Mills is exceptionally good at doing this with its iconic brands: Cheerios and Wheaties. Neighborhoods can build a future on its past, but first they must bring it into the present. Compare Williamsburg, VA to Annapolis, MD. When we think of Williamsburg, we think of Old Williamsburg, although a modern Williamsburg also exist. When we think of Annapolis, we think of a vibrant state capital and of the Naval Academy, although an Old Annapolis exists. The difference is that Williamsburg anchored its iconic brand in the past, whereas Annapolis has used the past to anchor the present, and thus the future. For Williamsburg, the future never comes to our mind. Bringing this back to our immediate context, somewhere embedded in the collective neighborhood memories are powerful icons to build a dynamic future upon. Summary Iconic branding is not about preservation or restoration. It is not about the past, rather it is about the present and future. I like the analogy of skipping rope: One end of the rope is help by the nostalgic past, the other end is held by futurism. Both nostalgia and futurism are turning the rope, while the present skips. Iconic branding must be built upon authenticity, upon authentic neighborhood memory. It is not wrapping a neighborhood in a retro-package or a certain ethnic look merely because the neighborhood has that as part of its history. It is about bringing the totality of the memory into the present, not just a portion of it. Iconic branding is an honest association with the past while living in the dynamism of the present. Iconic branding is about tapping into neighborhood memory and its icons, and bringing that memory and those icons into the present. To make iconic branding work, we must understand neighborhood as a dynamic, ever-evolving entity, not a spot on the map to manipulate at will. We must broaden our definition of neighborhood to include collective neighborhood memory. We must believe that every neighborhood has its icons. When we begin to think this way, neighborhoods become a Place, capital P, a place that stands for something, a place that is alive and evolving.>

&#169 Frank A. Mills 2010-13