Clayton Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley says the county’s branding effort will have a beneficial impact on all of the south metro Atlanta’s community’s entities. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Metro Atlanta southside communities to ‘tell our story’ with branding

It’s home to the world’s busiest airport, Spivey Hall at Clayton State University and the Road to Tara Museum.

Yet, Clayton County officials say many metro Atlanta residents probably have a bad impression of the southside community - and they’re working to change that.

The county hopes to launch soon a branding campaign that will spotlight the good things happening on the southside, including affordable housing, improving schools and job opportunities that range from distribution center clerk to college professor to aerospace engineer.

“There are a lot of negative perceptions and connotations about what Clayton County is,” including descriptions among some that the area is poor or is a renegade from the rest of metro Atlanta, Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said. “What we are is a good, strong county that provides a great quality of life for our citizens.”

Clayton is not alone in its branding effort. It’s being mirrored across communities south of downtown Atlanta, including Stockbridge, East Point and the city of South Fulton.

Tired of having what they offer overlooked or undervalued, southside municipalities are refreshing city logos, enhancing public art to draw visitors and, in the case of South Fulton, looking for a new name that sends a different message about their community.

“Anything negative that’s associated with the Fulton County region has been associated with our city,” South Fulton Councilwoman Helen Willis told Channel 2 Action News in September about why her city is seeking a rebranding through a name change.

There’s a lot at stake, the leaders said. Long sought dreams of luring more white-collar employers, independent retail and increased tourism to the southside depend on disassociating the communities with crime or poverty, especially among decision-makers in the economic development world.

“We have not done a very good job of telling our story,” said Khalfani Stephens, executive director of the Clayton County Development Authority. “We need to get the facts out there.”

That’s not to say that problems don’t exist. About one-fifth of Clayton County residents live below the poverty line, according to Census figures, and traffic congestion in Henry County has choked roads and threatens to slow the area’s economic growth.

And Clayton’s 2008 loss of school accreditation because of infighting among the board of education still weighs heavily on the county, despite successes such as Jonesboro High School winning the 2019 Georgia Mock Trial Championship.

But the district said outsiders should also know that Clayton Schools saw its largest graduating class in the 2018-2019 school year with more than 3,000 students getting their high school diplomas. Those graduates received more than $90 million in scholarships for the first time.

Clayton won back its accreditation in 2009, though it was put on probation for two years. In 2013, it was accredited on advisement before getting full accreditation in 2016.

“As a school district, we believe that by establishing creative ways to showcase Clayton County as the gem that we know it is will only amplify the desire of others to be a part of the special community we are building for future generations,” Clayton Superintendent Morcease Beasley said.

Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said branding campaigns aren’t an easy fix. For them to work, communities have repeat the message again and again for it to seep into the consciousness of its intended audience. It also has to be genuine and match what is being sold or it will fail for lack of authenticity.

And lastly, the community will have to exercise patience.

“The key is you can’t expect dramatic results in the short run,” he said. “Branding is a slow process and it’s about changing perceptions over time.”

Stockbridge launched its “Where Community Connects” branding campaign earlier this year in Jaunary in part to heal the community after a two-year fight over cityhood. Eagle’s Landing, a well-heeled community in Stockbridge’s southern end, attempted to become Henry’s fifth city before being rebuffed by voters in November 2018.

To bring people together, the city created a new logo and tagline with colorful swooshes to connote movement for a “city on the go,” Stockbridge City Manager Randy Knighton said.

“I think it epitomizes what Stockbridge is,” Knighton said of the logo and tagline. “I think there is a very strong connectedness here in this city and among the people. We repeat that phrase at virtually all our activities and events.”

Clayton’s campaign is still in its infancy. The County Commission, trying to get community feedback on how the community should be branded, posted a survey to its website asking residents about Clayton’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities that are ahead and what can threaten its ability to prosper. The deadline for responses is Jan. 12.

Clayton Chairman Turner said whatever the outcome, it’s a discussion worth having.

“We need to let people know that as a county we are open for business,” Turner said. “We are strategically located on the south side of Atlanta with the world’s busiest airport in our backyard. We are ideal for a Fortune 500 location and we are rich in resources.”

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