Friday, March 4, 2011

Branding Ottawa:
Canada’s Technology Capital that Fun Forgot

Economic development around the world is changing.  As globalization increases so does the sense of competition between cities as well as countries.  It’s for this reason that Andrew Stevens of says that city branding and identity of place are becoming so important in economic development and urban leadership.

The City of Portland aims to be the Green Capital of the World in five years, creating 10,000 jobs.  Vancouver aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020.  Barbados aims to be the #1 entrepreneurial hub in the world by 2020 by being the first country in the world to be completely covered in Wi-Fi as of November 11, 2011.  These are very bold, almost lofty ambitions, but they attract people and investment, and inspire growth.

These three locations have already made significant strides in these respective areas.  Portland is already an international centre for sustainable transportation.  Vancouver is already known as the most liveable city in the world.  Barbados already has the most internet users per capita in the world.  For some reason they aren’t satisfied with just being A player, they want to be THE player or at least a MAJOR player.  These three jurisdictions are taking their strengths to the next level by setting clear goals and objectives which will make them competitive and will help to strengthen their brand.

Where is Ottawa?

Ottawa has a fairly poor brand, mostly because the vision and identity are not clear.  Its logo is great, but branding isn’t just about logos.  According to Andrew Stevens there are three types of brands:

  • The fully architectured brand: The brand is a logo and slogan with a precise meaning that creates an image and is highly memorable. 
  • The propositional brand: The brand is a statement of, and proof of, the positioning of the city. 
  •  The naked brand: The brand is the city itself, and the marketer has to change people’s perceptions of the city.

The branding that Portland, Vancouver and Barbados are going for is propositional, creating identity of place in the market.  In war terms they would be taking a beachhead and setting up camp, with all out victory being the objective.  These jurisdictions are on their way to realizing their propositional statements.  They don’t simply have point form ideas, but economic goals and objectives to take them to an end result that will give them the marketability to attract talent and investment.

When it comes to Ottawa’s brand, our issues are both propositional and naked. 

Ottawa’s propositional brand

Ottawa is sometimes referred to as “Canada’s Technology Capital”, but this propositional statement can’t be seen anywhere.  We have no online economic development portals communicating this statement; it hasn’t be been boldly communicated to residents, businesses, Canada, or the international community; and there is no strategic plan that exists with the sole purpose of making that statement a reality.  Cities like Waterloo and Markham have made a run at the title of Canada’s Technology Capital and we can no longer rely on past success, like the tech boom and Nortel, to back up that statement.  

Ottawa’s naked brand

What threatens Ottawa the most is its naked brand.  To repeat what Andrew Stevens says, “The naked the city itself, and the marketer has to change people’s perceptions of the city.”

Many Canadians and Ottawans don’t have a good perception of Ottawa.  Although we have good dining, boutiques and villages, and music festivals, people perceive Ottawa to be a dull place and in many ways it is.
The fact that many retail brands are not available in Ottawa feeds the naked brand.  Not having a subway system feeds the naked brand.  Having to go to other cities to experience some basic attractions and amenities feeds the naked brand.  The NCC expressing discomfort over the OCC putting up an LED screen showing arts programming feeds the naked brand.  I'm not saying these things are good or bad, but anything that creates a perception in people’s minds feeds the naked brand and it’s this type of branding that will boost or hurt a city.  You can have a great logo, slogan and website, but if public perception of your city is poor, good luck.

What now?

At first I questioned why cities and countries in today’s economy felt the need to boldly announce their economic objectives or place in the market to the whole world.  But in a globalized world there is competition for investment, talent, and tourism.  People are no longer loyal to their homeland; people and investment will flow where there’s opportunity.  It also provides local residents and entrepreneurs with a sense of vision and direction.  A biblical proverb says, “Without a vision the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).  This isn’t a physical death, but a lack of hope leading to mental, emotional and creative death.  

I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that Ottawa is not positioned to truly compete economically.  Economics relies heavily on entrepreneurship which relies heavily on creativity.  In Ottawa there’s a lot of fear of change that creates a stifling environment.  Cities can lose good talent if it appears to be boring, stagnant, or opposed to creativity.

What do I expect?  Like Portland, Vancouver, and Barbados, I expect a clear statement of who we are as a city and a strategic plan for getting there.  I expect our city to communicate to the world our place in the Canadian and global economy.  I expect Ottawa to puff out its chest sometimes, letting the world know we are here to compete for their talent, tourists, and investment.  I expect Ottawa to take its place next to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver as an economic centre in Canada.  I expect elected officials to commit to changing public perception of the capital.  Until our vision and identity are made known we are limited in our economic growth as a city.

Kevin Bourne

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