Suburban cities investing in branding, slogan campaigns

Everybody knows “I Love New York” — a slogan of such simplicity and power, it’s entered the American lexicon.

But when you hear “Capture the Spirit of Good Living,” do you think about Duluth? Did you know Norcross considers itself “A Place to Imagine”?

Branding isn’t just for big cities. Several small municipalities in the Atlanta suburbs have paid companies tens of thousands of dollars to come up with slogans, logos and marketing plans. Duluth shelled out $60,000, Norcross $50,000. One-year-old Dunwoody will spend $105,000 this year and 99-year-old Lilburn $30,000.

While some might see branding campaigns as window dressing during difficult economic times, the cities consider them a crucial part of their economic development efforts.

“We need an identity,” said Lilburn City Manager Bill Johnsa. “Cities are competing, whether people realize it or not. We compete with cities throughout the region.”

But “A Past to Remember, a Future to Mold” doesn’t really sell or reflect modern Lilburn, with its 11,000 people, including a sizable Asian community. The town’s most recognizable landmark is a huge Hindu temple.

So the city hired RBMM, a Texas firm that helped Greyhound and Wake Forest University re-brand. Lilburn will roll out its new slogan and logo next month.

Private companies have long embraced branding, said Lisa Mac, owner of the GoGo Creative agency in Austin, Texas. “Now [cities] are moving to this brand identity because cities are marketing themselves like corporations, like Nike,” she said.

Attracting business is the major part of the branding campaigns, which should also pull in shoppers and give residents a sense of identity, something that’s hard to accomplish in a sprawling suburban area.

Mac said many municipalities use the city seal as a logo for promotional purposes. In Georgia, at least, that often means a train image dominates. For a city trying to project a modern feel, that doesn’t work.

Though it incorporated only about a year ago, Dunwoody embraced branding and just received 18 bids for branding services. The city and its convention and visitors bureau will pay $50,000 each and the Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce will chip in $5,000.

The city has major commercial interests, with Perimeter Mall and big hotels. Though money is tight, this is a good time to invest in branding, when firms are hungry for business, Dunwoody Mayor Ken Wright said.

“We need to establish a healthy brand to attract businesses and folks to come to the hotels,” he said.

The cities will encounter follow-up costs, depending on how deeply they embed the new brand into the city. Web site makeovers are often part of the package. Signage and city stationery might need to be changed. Johnsa said changing Lilburn’s stationery would cost $1,200 to $1,500.

Duluth revealed its new logo and slogan — also called a tag line or branding statement — last October after the city worked with GoGo Creative. The company conducted focus groups and talked with leaders.

The previous logo was the city seal, which shows a steam engine on a track, and the slogan “Pride in the Old and New.” That didn’t tell the story of Duluth, population 27,000, which has invested heavily in a modern city hall and landscaped town green, said Alisa Williams, Duluth’s director of marketing and public information.

“People were looking at us as a not very progressive city,” she said. “We needed something to liven us up.”

The company produced a logo of three stylized buildings embraced by a red, elastic figure called the Spirit Man. The buildings were inspired by Decatur’s classic town logo, said Chris McGahee, Duluth economic development director. The man represents the spirit of the people of Duluth that holds the town together.

The slogan, “Capture the Spirit of Good Living,” can be tweaked to fit different events, so people can capture the spirit of music or art, Williams said. Actors dressed as the Spirit Man — kind of like a Blue Man Group member, but covered in red — may be trotted out for city events, she said.

Duluth resident Bob Sawyer, a Web designer working in a coffee shop across from city hall, said the new city brand will help Duluth foster an independent identity. “Everybody thinks of this part of Gwinnett as part of Atlanta,” he said.

Norcross, with a population of about 10,000, also wanted to modernize its image as the city made over its downtown. Mayor Bucky Johnson said the slogan “A Place to Imagine” was picked to appeal to a mobile “creative class.”

“The idea [is] that they could move to anywhere they want to work and anywhere they want to dine and anywhere they want to live,” he said.

Sometimes the process backfires.

“Coming up with a perfect branding statement is an inexact science,” said Joe Burnett, president of Downtown Management Services, the company that manages Lawrenceville’s tourism and trade association. “Some cities have come up with things that hit the ground like a rock.”

As example No. 1, all the small-town leaders point to Atlanta’s recent efforts at sloganeering — “Every Day Is an Opening Day,” followed by “City Lights, Southern Nights.”

If a slogan is judged by how well it’s remembered, then Snellville’s is a big — and cheap — success.

Emmett Clower, the mayor from 1973 to 1999, said that in the 1970s he visited Luckenbach, the tiny Texas town made famous in the Waylon Jennings song, and purchased a promotional bumper sticker. He brought the idea back to Georgia, removed the word “Luckenbach,” and subbed in his town’s name.

Thus was born “Everybody’s Somebody in Snellville,” a slogan used for T-shirts, bumper stickers and punch lines ever since.

“It’s still around and it still sticks,” Clower said. “Cost me a buck.”

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