The Identity Project? (Michael St.Amant, @MichaelStAmant)

Like many of you, I recently received an email asking me to complete a survey from the Brantford Identity Project, which has been mandated to develop an updated corporate brand for the City of Brantford. There are several committees working on the project, one of which is focused on interviewing business interests to determine what makes Brantford an attractive community to live in, and how we can attract economic growth. My concern, however, is that the survey portion of the endeavor will be the one opportunity the general public has to present their views.

The purpose of the survey is to answer one simple question, “Brantford, who are you?”

The Brantford Identity Project is co-chaired by Charlene Nicholson and Jack Jackowetz, two people whom I respect enormously. Many other members of the group are my friends as well. All are a hardworking group of well-intentioned volunteers who believe that the project will provide a more focused presentation of who we are as a city. Rather than have multiple brands such as The Telephone City, A River Runs Through It, Tournament Capital, or some twenty other themes, the hope of the project is to identify a brand that, “accurately captures our community’s image, values, assets and potential.” A noble objective!

At the risk of being branded a heretic, I don’t believe the survey lends itself to answering this question. Yes, I shop, eat and work here. Most of us do. Who do I think of when I think of Brantford: Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Brant, Pauline Johnson, Thomas B. Costain. Where do I take people when they visit us in Brantford: Myrtleville, Paris, Glenhyrst, the Country Club, Sanderson Centre, the Laurier Campus. Were these your choices? What do I think when asked to answer the question, “Brantford is what?”

I suspect that people answer this question based on their income, age, social status, and educational backgrounds. If you are unemployed and have little prospect of finding a job locally, your answer will be a lot different than someone who is in a high paying job. If your interests are in the historical heritage of Brantford, your view will be different than a newcomer who uses Brantford as a bedroom community. While the survey asks about our longevity in the community, our postal codes, and our age, it fails to ask about other determinants that have an impact on how we answer this important question. For example, income distribution and ethnicity may impact how one views our city. As a result, I think the consensus they are seeking is not to be found. So, what we may end up with is a watered down version of what we are, but we will be asked to take solace in the fact that all of the city’s printed and published materials, its letterhead and business cards, its logo on the water tower and on its website, and all of the corporate vehicles and park benches, will have a consistent branding.

Will this help sell our community to potential investors? Will it make it easier to find a park bench when you want to sit down? Will it improve the service and efficiency of our local government?

Perhaps I’m missing the point. Maybe the objective is not necessarily to get a definitive consensus, but rather, through the process of consultation, to get people thinking about what we are. Maybe it is not simply a press conference announcing a new corporate brand, but rather the beginning of a process to openly discuss the social and economic issues that impact the city, and how we can collectively make Brantford a better place to live.

If we’re really interested in defining what Brantford is, I suggest we agree that there is not likely to be any consensus, except perhaps that its citizens are exceptionally community minded. All one has to do is read The Brant Advocate, follow the chatter on Facebook, or sit in one of our many coffee shops to recognize that there is a diversity of opinion on who we are, and what Brantford is. It is not something that is easily answered in a survey, however well-intentioned that endeavor is. If the exercise is about consistency of brand, then let’s not couch it in an effort to define who we are. Instead, let’s define how we want others to see us: a thriving economic community, a tourist destination, the blooming capital, a city with a heart, the telephone city.

If, at the end of the day, what is sought is an approval of a brand for Brantford, then offer the community a variety of choices and ask them to vote on it. While the Brantford Identity Project will no doubt provide the municipality with useful information, the ultimate way in which we are defined will be left in the hands of marketing professionals who will develop corporate logos, taglines and a uniformed visual presentation. This approach is much more clearly defined and is more likely to yield absolute results. It is also more likely to take away the protracted debate that will inevitably occur at Council over the interpretation of a survey.

While I am developing my wish list, maybe The Brantford Identity Project could provide an estimate of what all of this is ultimately going to cost the taxpayers? We know that the last exercise in rebranding the Wayne Gretzky Centre cost several hundred thousand dollars.

It’s not that I am not in favour of consultation, boosterism, consistency, and self-examination. All of these have value in the appropriate time and place. But, I am also of the view that they should be meaningfully implemented. Unfortunately, having completed the survey, I don’t see it accomplishing the goal it was set up to do, at least from the perspective of the general public. At the end of the day, though we may have a consistent brand for the city, we will not really know who we are and what Brantford is.

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