Overcoming the Logo Tunnel Vision in Place Branding: Lessons from Failed Projects

Montreal and South Australia are two of the most notorious examples of place branding attempts that received immense backlash, primarily due to their new logos. Montreal’s endeavour, costing approximately $650,000, resulted in a colourful “M” logo accompanied by the slogan “Room to make it real.” The campaign received significant backlash from Montrealers, many of whom criticized the expense and the final product. 

Meanwhile, South Australia’s rebranding initiative -costing over 1.5 million AUD- led to a logo that critics likened to “a folded milk carton” and “a Monopoly hotel,” hardly the intended depiction of the vibrant, 21st-century entity it sought to project. 

What could Montreal and South Australia (Bulgaria and Toronto, among many others) have in common? To answer that question, let me briefly go off on a tangent. Trust me, it will be worth it!

Looking at the problem through a straw

Let’s say your kids have to clean their room. That said, they only focus on picking up the toys while ignoring their dirty clothes, books, and other mess. As a result, the room stays untidy. According to Dr. Jan Konietzko, a sustainability advisor, this is exactly the systemic problem with sustainability initiatives. 

Dr. Konietzko says that as a society, we look at the problem of climate change through a straw, only focusing on one small part of the problem: carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, while carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming, it’s not the whole story. Other environmental issues, like deforestation and loss of biodiversity, and other greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide, are just as important. 

The systemic problem described above is what Dr. Konietzko calls the Carbon Tunnel Vision!

Marketing communications cannot solve a place’s image problems

The prominent place brand expert Jose Filipe Torres once told me that his dream project was to find a client that is brave and sophisticated enough to build a place brand without the logo! Torres is onto something here.

Decision makers and leaders are often incentivized to focus on visible change due to immediate public perception and quicker measurable results rather than addressing root causes which require longer-term commitment and aren’t as immediately observable. However, no place’s image problems are caused by marketing communications. Therefore, no place’s image problems can be solved by marketing communications.

So, just like with Carbon Tunnel Vision, many cities and nations focus solely on creating a new logo or a brand, overlooking other important aspects such as investing in public diplomacy, introducing progressive policies, improving infrastructure, protecting cultural heritage, enhancing services, or improving the quality of life for residents.

The tendency of place leadership to focus on quick communication wins -such as creating a new brand- is what I call the Internal Logo Tunnel Vision. In Montreal and South Australia’s cases, it resulted in wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money. 

But there is another -and a significantly more painful- dynamic of this problem: the External Logo Tunnel Vision.

How does a logo become a lightning rod?

You might have heard the famous saying: “As within, so without, as above, so below, as the universe, so the soul.” Hermetics argue that what we think and feel inside can shape the world around us. If so, it’s not surprising that Internal Logo Tunnel Vision begets External Logo Tunnel Vision!

Let’s go back to Montreal and South Australia’s cases. Both those projects suffered from the following dynamic: 

Step 1. In an ambitious push towards recognition, the place’s leadership declares its intent to revitalize the place’s image – often without an explicit end goal.

Step 2. Following a flawed logic, the leadership concludes that increasing outsiders’ awareness of their place will enhance its likability. As a result, they opt for place branding.

Step 3. They make a grand announcement of the place branding project and vow to put their place “on the map!”

Step 4. An extensive and complex research, planning and strategy process ensues. 

Step 5: However, out of fear that an information leak could risk the project, those in charge restrict public engagement and limit the release of information to the media for several months.

Step 6. After a lengthy radio silence, the leadership introduces the new brand to the world with another high-profile announcement.

Step 7. Unaware of the painstaking efforts and strategic steps that led to this point, the public and media alike fixate on the only thing they can see: the logo. 

Step 8: This unbalanced attention makes it seem like the logo is the only deliverable, overlooking the project’s extensive scope and depth.

Step 9. The internet ridicules the logo brutally.

Step 10. Trolls join the party, and the new logo is shut down within a few months.

How to break away from this tunnel vision

The above dynamic -which effectively transforms a logo into a lightning rod- is universal. The misconceptions and missteps of the leadership (the Internal Logo Tunnel Vision) cause petty, ignorant and childish public reactions (the Internal Logo Tunnel Vision.) But this does not have to be the faith of your project!

As discussed above, the Logo Tunnel Vision starts within. So, you must ensure policymakers and leadership understand that improving a place’s image extends beyond just a branding initiative. Here are a few ideas that can help:

  1. Educating the leadership and policymakers: Education is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal to fight against the Logo Tunnel Vision. You can offer training sessions or workshops to the decision-makers on the complexities of place image, emphasizing that they must focus on changing the reality of the place, not just its image.
  2. Citizen Engagement: Manydecision-makers dread using this tactic because they fear opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box. But the citizens’ lived experiences are a major part of a place’s image. So, you can organize forums or town hall meetings where citizens can voice their perspectives and needs is paramount. After all, it’s their city or nation’s image that you want the change.
  3. Image Research: Perception is reality: Others’ perception of you becomes your place’s reputation. Launching a brand without knowing the perceptions of those whose minds you try to change can lead to wasted resources. I advise decision-makers to undertake annual image research to understand how their place is portrayed in the media and popular culture. By doing so, they can pinpoint the depth of their image problem.
  4. Progressive Policies: The brand of a place isn’t just about how it’s marketed or visually represented—it’s largely about the lived experiences of people in that place. In the last analysis, it is the quality of public services, safety, opportunities, and overall quality of life that really define a place’s image. Therefore, place leadership and policymakers must understand that before embarking on a place branding initiative, they should first improve their place in real, tangible ways.

If you have taken all the above steps and still want to go ahead with a place branding project, here’s what you can do to avoid the External Logo Tunnel Vision.

  1. Engage Stakeholders Early: I cannot emphasize this enough. You must involve stakeholders like local businesses, citizens, and other interest groups from the get-go. By having a participatory approach, you can encourage local ownership of the branding effort, thus preventing the “Not Made Here” syndrome. 
  2. Communicate Continuously: As soon as you announce the project, you must regularly update the public on the progress. If you are transparent with the steps taken, people will be less likely to feel blindsided by the final result. It’s also less likely that information leaks will jeopardize the project.
  3. Demystify the Process: This is another big one. Just as you trained the decision makers, you must educate the public that a place branding project is not just about the logo but involves strategy, research, and a deep understanding of the place’s identity, with a greater goal in mind.
  4. Reveal the Process Gradually: This one is optional but highly recommended. I am usually against unveiling the logo abruptly. Instead, gradually revealing different elements of the branding project -such as imagery or visual templates- could help people warm up to the idea.
  5. Manage Expectations: Finally, when it comes to communications, you must take control of the situation and be prepared for what might happen (The External Logo Tunnel Vision.) If you are not proactively shaping the narrative around the project, you will be waiting for disaster to happen. So, any chance you get, frame the unveiling of the new brand not as a surprise but as the result of an extensive collaborative process.

Revisiting failed projects

To cap off, let’s reflect on the lessons learned and look at how Montreal, South Australia, and indeed any city or nation, can avoid the pitfall of the Logo Tunnel Vision, both internal and external.

It starts with policymakers and leadership adopting an enlightened mindset that views place branding as more than a symbol or a tagline. That way, they can embark on self-discovery and self-improvement journeys, engaging their citizens, local businesses, and stakeholders early and often. They would listen, discuss, and adapt. No longer is branding a secret project, but rather a place-wide collaborative effort, eliminating that dreaded ‘Internal Logo Tunnel Vision.’

Once the project starts, they should provide regular updates, sharing their vision, strategy, and progress. Transparency must be their mantra. They must show their residents that they’re not just designing a logo but charting a course for a better place, which mitigates the shock of the ‘big reveal’ and makes the emergence of ‘External Logo Tunnel Vision’ less likely.

The leaders of these places would deemphasize the aesthetics of a logo while stressing the essence of their place. They could rally their citizens around shared values, unique cultural elements, promising opportunities, and collective ambitions. Doing so would give citizens ownership over the branding effort, making them champions, not critics, of the change.

By approaching place branding holistically, strategically, and inclusively, failed projects like Montreal and South Australia could have avoided the painful Logo Tunnel Vision. Granted, their journey would be more complex and demanding. But the result would surely be more effective and permanent.

Mother Theresa once said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” So, it’s not productive to delve into failed projects or contemplate what the future will hold. Decision-makers have the power to redefine the place’s narrative. Luckily, by following the steps above, they can get the job done.

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