Place Branding (thoughts from Sex, Drugs + Helvetica BNE)

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Sex, Drugs + Helvetica had been on my design conference list for a few years and finally got to one.
Each speaker talked about one project, and shared insight on teams, approach, process and all gave a refreshing honest take on the design journey (the good + the bad).

My highlights of the day was Ben Miles of Interbrand talking about Sky NZ and Zoe Polliet of Eskimo talking about Eastland, probably because both of these had physical urban place-making outcomes.  With Sky it was giving personality to their industrial warehouse campus and Eastland was a shopping centre redevelopment.

I’m about to commence some graphic design study, but I think it actually the brand strategy side of communication design is what I am really interested it.   The urban design side of me is also most interested in how branding strategy intersects with physical/spatial places and experiences.

I really enjoyed hearing the great staff and client engagement tools that branding agencies use.  It seems like great tools for placemakers, including –

  1. “Chemistry meetings” before pitches.  In the branding context it was meetings with client, but in place-making I would say it’s why site visits are important too.
  2. Personalised pitches adding surprise, delight and a bit of prototype (eg Interbrand prototype for airbnb, POIs sake ritual for a japanese restaurant)
  3. Immersive research and user interviews to give early insight for ideas and strategy.  Actually this step is not a new one in place-making, but always a good one to reinforce and continue to be creative about.
  4. Branding videos and motion graphics.    The use of visual and motions were all powerful mood/intent/emotional setters that felt super effective. It is also probably my URBNE Films side, that also makes me wonder why this isn’t used more in community and place projects? Films I have seen at project ends often feel a bit too “cheesy”/ shameless property selling, but how about more ones upfront in the design, branding and community process?
  5. Tools to empowering clients, staff and brand managers.  (brand as culture) There were many examples of a wider branding toolkit which could include presentations, video, design books, handbooks, guidelines, training, digital platforms all to help successful ongoing implementation.  The examples given to Sky NZ and Airbnb staff were great user and staff strategies.  It helps inspire people of the change, to understand it and thus also champion its roll-out.  It made me seriously wonder where is this “back-end” in placemaking/urban design? I feel I have mostly seen contracts/scope that let consultants present strategy/action plans without real consideration of the governance, culture and systems actually needed for clients to implement.

During my time at QM, I only caught the very end of the”rebranding” process.  I’m not sure what was driving it originally, though I could see/feel a difference in the brand identity internally vs externally, which felt the same in the Airbnb example.  Reflecting on that and seeing no/poor branding generally in government, policy and urban space area, I mostly put it down to organisational culture.  There also seems “little”/different commercial push for brand thinking in public sectors and spaces. …. which feels a shame or a missed opportunity, since actually it would do a world of good for any organisation to be more entrepreneurial and brand savvy, surely?

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