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Being a Brand Apart 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

At a planning retreat a few years back, as members of the Morrisville Town Council floated goals and visions, the idea of boosting the town’s profile became a recurring theme. The Wake County community of about 23,000 was on a great growth track, sure, but that wasn’t so unique for the region. It would take a little strategy to poke through the clouds.

The town’s leaders hoped to make Morrisville "more of a destination, kind of putting us on the map and really showcasing what we have to offer," recalled Stephanie Smith, the town’s public information officer. "The more council discussed that, internally, as staff, we realized what they were talking about was developing a real, true brand."

Now in the works, the branding of Morrisville – heading toward a popping new logo and tagline – is only the latest local-level effort to craft alluring statements of identity. Towns and cities across the state are angling for magnetic slogans and appealing visuals that tell outsiders, in essence, "You should be here."

In no way is branding or re-branding a novel concept, but North Carolina’s growth rate over the past couple decades, and its impact on character, has communities rethinking their images – with more at stake than local pride.

"We wanted our economic development director to be able to go out and market and promote our community," said Adam Mitchell, town manager of Fuquay-Varina, the fast-growing municipality that debuted its new brand – "A Dash More" – in December 2015 after a yearlong creation process. The town, which has posted annual growth rates double those of Wake County, hired a private firm for the deliverables.

Local pride was certainly a goal, Mitchell assured, but it had to be relatable to the rest of the world. It had to spark interest. The town is using the new slogan and accompanying logo in an array of marketing materials to attract talent and diversify commerce in Fuquay-Varina (about 16 miles south of Morrisville, as the crow flies).

"We really do believe as a community that we offer a dash more," Mitchell said, contending his town has uncommon competitive spirit, the dash playing off Fuquay-Varina’s hyphenation. "A dash more fun, a dash more business-friendly; we’re a dash more of this, a dash more of that."

To the uninitiated, creating a sharp brand might seem as simple as an in-house brainstorm or polling the populace for bright ideas. Surely, every community has a witty, artistic contingent. And locals know the character better than anyone, the thinking goes.

The Town of Holly Springs, for one, hired an outside firm to gather input from residents and to draft logo options, but none of the proposals thrilled the town’s leaders. Ultimately, a design from the inside – conceived by Town Clerk Joni Powell and later paired with a resident’s font suggestion for the town’s name – won hearts. An artful swirl of spring water and holly leaves, the logo is now viewable on the government’s website, sometimes with an accompanying slogan – "Discover the Source," also developed in-house – which all at once speaks to the town’s history and place as a source of growth.

But the best documenter of identity isn’t always within, said Valerie Hoffman, brand manager to the Town of Lake Lure. She emphasized the importance of outside eyes.

"It would have been far too myopic if we had just tried to figure this out on our own," Hoffman said of a branding project that wrapped in 2013. Venturing jointly with neighboring Chimney Rock Village, the western North Carolina resort town hired a creative firm that led to a new logo and tagline: "Lofty & Deep." It’s a conveyance of the mountain environs and namesake lake that lures tourists for boating and fishing.

They might be obvious adjectives to the locals, but the stakeholders were varied and many, said Hoffman. Conflicting narratives were inevitable.

"It actually took the outside, objective party who could come in and say to us and show us things about ourselves – for better or worse – that we had to look at and were willing to look at," she said.

That held true in Holly Springs, too. Even though local leaders chose in-house concepts, the outside firm "played a vital role in gathering input from residents in order to help us understand who we are," said Powell.

Regardless, the citizenry often remains central in branding efforts. The City of Mebane, which rebranded itself in early 2014, had set up several focus and interest groups – longtime residents, new arrivals, business people, religious leaders – to create something fair and representative.

"We tried to tap into every part of the population," said Esther Bennett, the town’s human resources director.

The out-of-town firm that Mebane contracted with for the process asked residents and interest groups what sprung to mind when they thought of the city. An online survey helped glean common denominators.

"We got a lot of good feedback, and when you take that feedback, you would see a lot of words that were reoccurring," said Bennett.

The tagline ended up being "Positively Charming." Bennett said that "represented sort of an optimistic point of view here. People would say, ‘You know, Mebane’s just a charming town. They’ve been growing but they’ve managed to keep that hometown feel.’"

The takeaway: "Positively Charming" ends up being the pro’s version of what could’ve been a bit generic.

"I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, ‘Small town charm and big city amenities.’ That may be relevant to a given community, but it’s not the least bit distinct," said Don McEachern, who runs a branding firm in Tennessee that has worked with several North Carolina communities.

Finding the right message takes homing in on the best local conversation piece, often with copious market research, said McEachern. He recalled a project roughly five years ago for the City of Hickory, where a heritage in furniture manufacturing seemed foundational. "That got to the idea of craftsmanship, and beyond that to advanced manufacturing and service," McEachern said. Connecting to those themes: proud work and responsibility, extending to fiscal responsibility. "It expressed that idea of life well-crafted."

The slogan he delivered Hickory? "Life. Well Crafted."

The city has applied it in myriad ways, notably adapting it for bond-supported revitalizations under the name "Crafting Hickory," said Dana Kaminske, the city’s communication and marketing manager.

And that’s the idea, said McEachern.

The elements of a brand "can connect to development, policy, the way you structure things," he said. "Sometimes it is just a graphic identity, a logo, and there’s some merit in that. But it can be more than that. We really see it becoming an asset for a place."

In Morrisville, home to major tech names like Lenovo and Oracle, the proposed motto "Live Connected" surfaced in mid-2015 from a firm the town hired. Promoters saw it as a modern flourish for the growing town whose tagline long has been "The Heart of the Triangle." But the accompanying design and color scheme presented at the time didn’t win over the town’s council. Work continues.

At the time of this writing, the council was working with a new set of concepts from the firm and hoped to choose a favorite in the months to follow, according to Smith, the town’s public information officer.

And because image is sometimes everything, they’re proceeding carefully.

Said Smith, "We realized that we’d rather take our time and do it right than rush into a decision and be unhappy with the results."