Brand Canberra: Not short of attitude, but lacking in execution

Canberra's new territorial brand ticks some positive boxes and is a bold statement of intent. But what it offers in attitude, it lacks in execution. Tim Riches explains.

"Fashionable, ephemeral and lacking in soul"

It’s certainly true to say that destinations at all levels – neighborhoods, suburbs, cities, states (and territories) and nations – compete for attention and tourism dollars, talent and capital investment. That’s why it’s a good thing to see Canberra being proactive in managing its brand.

However, the particular challenge with destination branding is that there’s no existing brand management model, infrastructure, principles or assets until an initiative like this comes along. The brand of a city is shaped by the combined effect of a wide range of unrelated entities across the public and private sectors, in a variety of industries. It’s not like a bank or another corporate entity where a single organization can be engaged in the challenge, the setting of goals and measurement of progress.

Canberra’s challenge is to get the tourism, planning and business development government agencies ‘playing nice’ in pursuit of a shared outcome. As independent entities, they all need to choose to adopt some common principles in support of a common vision of what it is about Canberra that will attract attention and influence behavior on the part of the target audiences.

Brand Canberra is at the very start of this journey – the first step of inspiring and engaging the players in the brand’s eco-system that need to work together to build the brand. What they do next is more important that what is being said right now.

That’s because the positioning as articulated so far fails to leverage the intrinsic defining characteristic of the city in an engaging way – the fact that it’s the national capital. What’s lacking from the expressions seen so far is a sense of leadership, gravitas and inspiration that comes from being the home of so many significant institutions.

As a business and leisure visitor myself, the experience of places like the galleries, the War Memorial and Parliament House as definitive Canberra destinations have a sense of integrity and significance. These are surely important assets to take advantage of. Similarly, the sense that influence and ideas are the local currency in Canberra is not (yet) expressed in a powerful way.

I’m sure values of Ideas, Free Spirit, Challenge, Discovery and Quality of Life are exactly the sort of things Canberrans would like others to associate with themselves, but I challenge any place or community to stake a proprietary claim on such concepts. To even claim them as distinctive of a particular place and its inhabitants, and by implication not present in this combination in others, stretches credulity and creates a barrier to acceptance in the minds of domestic Australian audiences. And if one considers them standing alone, I doubt that set of words conjures up Canberra any more than any number of places – New Zealand? Queensland? Melbourne? Canada? Australia as a whole?

In addition, the overt expression of strategy on the public facing site creates an institutionalized first impression of the initiative, and the explanation around the need to have a brand, and what it stands for, is heavy-handed. Worst of all is the comment on the site that “You can take a cynical view, and distance yourself from this process and from the new approach” – which embeds the presumption that the Brand Canberra team has ‘got it right’ in this initial expression at launch. That if you choose not to participate it’s because you’re jaded.

The better approach, I think, is to be less definitive at this early stage - to allow the story to evolve and to be more of a conversation that loops between Canberrrans and other stakeholders and audiences in a more organic way, rather than simply telling people. The pronouncements defining Brand Canberra seem to leave less space for the kind of original participations that will make the Canberra story lively and engaging.

I do like the adoption of the CBR as the symbol for the brand - the fact that it’s the airport code is probably a reasonable mnemonic if the target market is people in business and government. Executionally though, despite the alleged resemblance to Burley Griffin drawings, the brandmark and accompanying look and feel seem fashionable, ephemeral and lacking in soul.

So, for what it’s worth, my advice is don’t try too hard, don’t wave your strategy around so publicly, focus more on ‘why and how’ people and businesses can get involved, and showcase the actual involvement rather than the requests to do so. Allow the institutions to create a more serious flavor, and talk more about leadership and the mission of a capital city.

Tim Riches is the Managing Director of Designworks in Australia.

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