In search of a stronger brand, cities often begin with a slogan. Vancouver, for instance, is “Spectacular by Nature.” Calgary invites you to “Be Part of the Energy.” Regina has “Infinite Horizons.” The labels are typically developed as part of a glitzy publicity campaign, one meant to evoke something iconic about the city and its people – and, officials hope, produce a windfall in tourism, staff recruitment and civic pride.
But to what end? Edmonton author and entrepreneur Todd Babiak argues the slogans are overwhelmingly a waste of money – they come, only to be switched a few years later as part of a new grand strategy. So he’s trying a different approach in the image-challenged Alberta capital. With $800,000 in city funding, Mr. Babiak is spearheading a grassroots branding campaign aimed more at current residents than prospective ones. “Make Something Edmonton” has since drawn volunteers from the business and arts communities alike, and held its formal launch Thursday.
It amounts to something of a call to action. In search of a brand that sticks, Mr. Babiak – acknowledging it’s a “weird” project – wants Edmonton residents to make, find or remember something to brag about.
Q: How did this come about?
I did all this research on branding, and what especially interested me was city branding and how, almost every single time, it fails. It mostly goes to, these days, a tag line, a pretty design and maybe a website. The one success I’ve found was in Austin [Texas]. And in Austin it was more or less a fluke, where a librarian said: ‘We have to keep Austin weird.’ And people responded to that statement a little bit. And they started selling T-shirts – Keep Austin Weird. Then the independent business association took it, and made it their slogan. So, there’s a nice inspiration there, where the community built the thing. It wasn’t someone from afar, with really fancy glasses, coming to town and saying, ‘You know what? We’re smarter than you people, and here’s who you are.’
You say Edmonton’s a city with an image problem. What led to that?
Well, I think we have trouble as Edmontonians being ambassadors for our city – talking about it. That’s one thing. We have fun, we have a self-deprecating quality, and that’s a good thing, I think. We’re not comfortable with [phrases like] ‘world class.’ The farther you are from the U.S. border, the more scary you seem – ‘why would I want to go way up there?’ And I think we’ve internalized that in some fashion … Shirley Lowe is the historian laureate of Edmonton, and she’s one of the last people I spoke to, and I guess I’m kind of glad, because she summed it up so beautifully. She said, ‘Edmonton’s funny. It’s the way we respond to things. Here – and it’s always been like this – if we don’t grow it, we don’t own it.’
The Make Something Edmonton campaign itself – is it seed money? Collaboration? What’s the point?
We wanted to give people something to say about Edmonton, and a way to be proud of it. So that’s the communications function. We want to show Edmontonians who might not know: here are these amazing things that have grown out of this soil. This is how you can be proud, this is how you’re most comfortable talking about your city. And then, into the future, to allow people to do something. That’s the call to action part. This is the time to get beyond the beers around the table and go do that thing, go do that great thing. We are going to reward you with exposure, with a way to find volunteers, to find money.
Was it a tough sell to get city money?
Well, yes, it was in a sense. Because it’s weird. But the normal city branding campaign, for $1.5-million, you don’t get content out of it. And we already have over 1,000 volunteer hours at the end of February. So we’re actually doing stuff with the campaign.
What do you tell people in other cities about Edmonton?
It’s not for everyone, but it’s right for me. Because I like launching new things, I like taking ideas to reality. While every city has entrepreneurs, this city has no aristocracy. It’s flat. I can call up the mayor, I can call up the CEOs of any corporation, I can pitch an idea to anyone and get it going. It’s weirdly good at that. We have a great economy. So, trying something and failing – we don’t really need social safety nets for people like us, you’ll just get another great job. You’ll try something else. You’ll be fine here. That’s really weird. It’s an unpretentious, funny city. When I talk about Edmonton, I talk about how it’s good for me. And I like Edmonton people. But I feel icky when people talk about, ‘God, my city’s world-class.’ We just don’t do that here, and I find that pleasant.
This interview has been edited and condensed.