• Claude Sharma
  • , Nov 2018
  • - tvo

Rebranding the north: Why Ontario cities are overhauling their image

SUDBURY — A fresh logo, a catchy new slogan, a full rebrand — can any of these things turn around a city’s fortunes? Confronted by declining populations and economic uncertainty, leaders in northeastern Ontario are betting on it. Timmins started telling a new “brand story” about itself in 2013, Greater Sudbury spent $75,000 to recast itself as “Canada’s resourceful city” in 2014, and Sault Ste. Marie is in the process of “unifying its brand.” In North Bay, city councillor Mike Anthony was recently re-elected after calling for a municipal image overhaul (“For close to two decades now, ‘Just North Enough to be Perfect’ has failed to help clarify just how close we are to Toronto/Ottawa and that we are NOT Thunder Bay”).

But can an image makeover actually change a city’s reputation? talked to Bruce Mau, the Sudbury-born co-founder and CEO of global design firm Massive Change Network and one of Canada’s best-known designers, about northern Ontario’s rebranding mania — and its chances for success.

Why do cities rebrand?

Cities are changing; the demographics are changing. So, understandably, cities from time to time need to refresh the story that they’re telling and tell a story that is more relevant to their current conditions, ambition, and vision for themselves.

How important is brand image?

The idea that the image counts is really a thing of the past. It’s a 20th-century idea. Nike had the best branding, the best visual branding in the world, but in the back of house, they were using child labour. This is what they say, this is what they do, and these [values] are not in sync. That stripped billions of dollars in Nike’s brand in a few weeks. We are now living in a transparent world where people can see into things — they can see through the image to see whether or not it’s true, and if it’s not true, they will punish you. The brand is not how you look; it is how you behave.

What advice would you give to these northern Ontario cities on their rebranding efforts?

I just joined the board of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University. It is specifically thinking about urbanism and architecture in the north. I think all cities of the north should be in touch with them to think about: What does a city of the north look like in the future? And we should not simply replicate what happens in the south. If you look at a bus shelter in Sudbury, it’s the same as a bus shelter in Los Angeles. I think the weather is different in Los Angeles. But we basically take a system that is developed in the south and just transplant it to the north, and we aren’t really thinking about what our experience is here.

So what should northern cities be doing differently?

I think northern Ontario is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but when you look at the outskirts of Sudbury, the development is just awful. We just pick up these formulas from somewhere else, and we plow them into our environment, and we have no consideration of how beautiful the environment is to begin with. We end up with this stuff that is utterly generic. It has no character, no relevance to the place that we are, and we’re not really using design to create value. The relationship of beauty to value is something that somehow we feel is not real, when, in fact, people pay more for beauty everywhere in the world. People will go further, do more, and sacrifice more for beauty. And, yet, it’s practically not a discussion in our way of thinking about our cities.

Wouldn’t it be extremely expensive to make our homes, buildings, and roads more aesthetically pleasing?

The dirty little secret about design is that good design doesn’t cost more than bad design. You don’t pay a good architect more than you pay a bad one, because the crazy reality is that the percentage is the same. In Sudbury, every day of the year, we’re building stuff. We already have the budget assigned; we are going to invest that money; we are going to build it. The question is, are we going to build it in a way that is really beautiful and people say, “Wow, this is so nice”? Or are we going to build it in a way that we just don’t even notice it, and it’s ugly and offensive? You can create beauty, and it will create money forever.

Canada isn’t generally thought of as having the same kind of rich, marketable history as countries in Europe and Asia. Is that a hindrance when it comes to rebranding?

We have something else — unfortunately, we don’t really take advantage of it. They have the past. The past is on their side. History is their brand. We have the future. We should be all about how we’re going to live in the future, because that’s our brand, as we certainly don’t have history. So let’s use the future and make the most of it.

How do you sell the future?

Design. I mean, how does Apple sell it?