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The Ultimate Guide to Branding a City, Smart City, or Town (Plus 6 Examples)

Take a look at how cities implement branding strategies, marketing techniques, and more to increase tourism and stay memorable.

Almost by accident, cities have had ‘brands’ for centuries. The immediate thought that comes to mind when you think of a city is that city’s brand, whether negative or positive, intentional or accidental. Since the late 1900s, cities began to recognize the importance of developing a brand identity to attract potential residents, bolster businesses, and boost tourism. When a city takes on the task of branding intentionally, they are participating in Place Branding, which is the branding of a specific geographical location. Within the last few decades, cities have begun investing in branding to overhaul their otherwise unconsidered brand to help stimulate investment, growth, and excitement from residents.

Just like projects taken on by medium- to large-scale companies, branding or rebranding a city requires considerable investment, thought, and consideration. To the dismay of many design agencies, too many cities attempt rebrands internally which comes with a lack of research, expertise, and brand strategy that ultimately leads the projects to failure. According to City Monitor, an alarming 86% of city branding campaigns fail (though, we like to use better measures of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ that’s more than social media jerk responses). That said, there are many notable successes as well—just check out the rest of the article!

A successful branding campaign can turn any city into an attractive destination for businesses, residents, and tourists. When appropriately launched, branding campaigns can revive a city, attracting people to visit, live, work, and ultimately build pride for the people there. A strong brand identity is vital to a rebranding campaign—especially when other destinations are competing for the same talent and businesses. 

Branding or Rebranding a City

Branding or Rebranding a City

When rebranding a city, there are many factors to keep in mind. Unlike a business that’s run by a few people at the top of the hierarchy, cities have to work with government officials, differing departments and initiatives, and of course the residents of the town. Here are some factors to keep in mind when rebranding a city:

Always Maintain Your Branding Objectives

When any organization, not just cities, sets out on a rebranding process, it’s imperative to keep the objectives in mind. What are you trying to achieve? What are the goals and outcomes you want? How does the rebrand fit into the vision and strategy of the city? Many quality rebrand processes will help answer these questions, but these are a great place to start. Your aims and objectives should be consistently clear and accessible to key stakeholders in and around the city. 

The goal of city branding strategies can be diverse. One objective may be to attract major investments in the city while another might be to grow the retail sector. A wise idea is to consider what other cities, states, or districts have done to successfully achieve similar goals. Branding and rebranding your city may just give you the advantage you need, but only if it’s aligned with your goals and objectives.

Know Your Brand Audience

Knowing your target audience in a rebrand is always important. While it might be ideal to think of the entire city as the target audience, it’s impossible to design in a way that satisfies that many people (that’s why so many cities are plagued with crests that have everything under the sun). That said, city brand strategies can be built around certain groups, can target new ventures, can include everyone, and can prioritize the growth of the city as a whole. 

This is where design research and brand strategy play a big role. By strategically interviewing your audience, you can learn how they perceive the city and where they’d like to see it improve. What’s important to them in the city? What does it mean to them to live there? What would bring their business to your city? Will your city be able to cater to their specific needs and preferences? By learning from your current residents you’ll be better equipped to devise a more efficient and effective city brand. 

When Branding a City, Make Sure You’re Familiar with the Place

It’s always important when starting a branding project to first take stock of the current brand state—for city branding, that means becoming familiar with the city as it exists today. This process includes identifying not only the positive aspects of a city but the negative ones as well. Similarly, it's important to understand how these perceptions, ideas, or structures have evolved throughout the history of your city. You should be able to answer questions like:

  • What are landmarks that come to mind when you hear the name of the city?
  • What are the colors, smells, and sounds that come to mind when you hear the name of the city?
  • What major events have shaped the city? 
  • What kinds of things is the city proud of? And what is it not so proud of?
  • What are some key advantages your city can offer your target market?

By accumulating and utilizing this information, you’ll be able to understand how people currently view your city. With the current idea of the city in mind, it’s much easier to move in a brand direction and make the best decisions moving forward.

Benchmarking Metrics for City Branding

The success or value of any branding project can be measured in many ways—check out our post on How to Determine the Value of a Rebrand to learn about a few. But the success of a city branding project can be gauged by using a few specific measures. It’s important to measure these benchmarks before and after the branding campaign.

Some examples of things for cities to measure during a rebrand process:

  • Total Monthly web traffic (when you include a new website, too)
  • Social media growth rates
  • Business permits rate
  • Growth in home sales
  • Resident surveys
  • Resident retention metrics
  • Public school growth

For cities, too, many times the runway for results is much longer. Unlike an e-commerce brand that might see more sales in one month, changing the minds of homeowners, business ventures, and overall social sentiment is a much longer process. However, a city branding project can still be measured, surveyed, and add up to immense value when done properly.

It is also critical to ensure all stakeholders agree on the definition of success. Some may want an influx of residents, others an influx of businesses, while others still might just want to see potholes filled. Whatever the case, make sure that everyone working on the project has the same vision for success so that the city branding effort can target that area and be measured accordingly. Of course, a rising tide will lift all ships, but aiming for one goal is much more manageable for expectations. 

A New City Website and Social Strategy to Match the New City Branding

Addressing all aspects of a city brand is the most effective way to create a well-rounded experience. A city’s website and social media are two assets it can change, update, and adapt more readily than the architecture of the place. As such, it’s a prime example of allocating a budget for immediate impact. 

Without an updated website, any user interest generated by the city branding campaign will be lost. The city website and social media channels will be the first place people turn to learn more about the project and the new direction for the city. As such, it’s important to invest in at least a landing page dedicated to the new brand. 

With branded social media and a website in place, you can capture more of the city brand launch excitement, earn free media coverage, and start to convert on your efforts. 

Successful City Branding Checklist

Successful City Branding Checklist

1. Bring out the Identity of the City

When you ask residents or leadership of a city to define it with a single image, you’ll get hundreds of answers—no city can be defined by a single image or logo. That’s what makes branding a city so difficult. Generally, there are many more aspects to a city that help contribute to the definition of the city. These factors include:

  • Historic Moments
  • Residents
  • Geography
  • Parks and Landmarks
  • Architecture
  • Quality of Living
  • Culture
  • Schools 
  • Tourism and Travel
  • Main Streets and Popular Areas

Frankly speaking, each community is tough to define and beautifully complex. Creating a brand identity for a city or place involves understanding all of the attributes that make up the city and community. Successful brand initiatives are then able to communicate those elements to the outside world.

2. Strong Imagery and Visuals

There’s something quite powerful about beautiful cities with modern typography and an engaging logo system. By simply combining these three elements, a city brand identity can tell the story to someone unfamiliar with the place. 

Courting residents, businesses, and tourists is a long-term game and no logo will convince anyone to relocate in an instant. Instead, with strong imagery and brand visuals, a city brand can slowly build a positive image in the minds of its audience. By initially sparking interest and then continue putting your best foot forward, your city can engage individuals in learning more about the city, and what it has to offer, and eventually become lifelong fans. 

3. Enticing and Consistent Messaging

It’s impossible to control what people say about a place—there’s no way to put words in people’s mouths. However, we can influence them to speak positively about a city if we model what that looks like in a compelling way. 

Through brand taglines, tone of writing, and audio, cities can influence how people speak about the city. Writing and language are one of the most important aspects of a rebranding campaign for a city because it is the easiest to equip people with. We can’t give everyone the logo, have them get tattoos in the new brand colors, or expect every business to adhere to city brand guidelines. However, by using strong taglines and consistent verbiage, cities can teach residents, businesses, and tourists how to speak about the place. That, in turn, can grow and expand for years until people have a new understanding of the city in line with your original brand objectives.

Launching a City Brand Successfully

Launching a City Brand Successfully

With the right objectives in mind, a website ready to go, metrics pre-measured, and your branding checklist complete, it’s time to launch your new city brand. This crucial step is where many cities fall flat and lose their way. 

Follow these tips to avoid the major pitfalls of launching a new city brand identity.

Get Ahead of Press and Media Updates

Local new stations and outlets will want to be the first to know when it comes to a new city brand identity. Fortunately, if you’ve done the process correctly by talking to stakeholders, researching your history, and envisioning your city’s future, you have already spoken about the hard-hitting subjects. That means you’re prepared to talk about the branding, the vision, and where you hope to see the city go. As a city official, speak more about the vision than the graphics, speak more about the people you serve than the typeface you used. Everyone will have an opinion of the visuals that will differ—it’s easier to get everyone on board with a positive, forward-thinking message.

It’s beneficial to reach out to media outlets ahead of time to schedule interviews, press kits, or live and recorded announcements. It’s best to get in front of residents, businesses, and local groups to hand them the new brand. People receive news best from other people, so be sure to act ahead of time so you don’t have to be reactive if criticism comes in (and it will).

Turn Physical Marketing into Digital Marketing

The goal of many campaign execution strategies is to make sure the message is shareable. Of course, the main goal is what your city decided at the beginning of the branding project, but creating shareable content that residents can engage with helps propel the campaign forward. Creating specific sub-goals to get users to share the campaign with their friends, family, and followers can amplify a city branding campaign.

For example, inviting businesses to add signage or stickers to their storefronts in your city can be great for awareness among individuals who visit those stores. This helps boost local morale and pride, but isn’t quite a digital effect nor will it convert people to sharing online.

Instead, city brands launch best with large, shareable campaigns. People need to be able to take a picture of something, to participate, and to engage digitally in order to create digital marketing on your behalf. Things like sculptures and installations, social media stickers and assets that can be accessed by anyone are more likely to engage a digital audience. 

Leverage Art, Architecture, and Culture of the City

There are undoubtedly cities that leverage their art and architecture as part of their brand: Paris and the Eiffel Tower, Rome and its Colosseum, China and its Great Wall, etc. If your city has something unique that is able to draw people in, be sure to leverage that as part of your launch. You don’t have to include it in your branding (like most cities do, unfortunately), but you can host the event in and around that particular area.

For smaller cities, it’s not always relevant to think about a huge art piece like The Bean, or an impressive architectural feat. In that case, think more about the geography or town square or whatever brings people together. Host the launch event in the canyon or throw a party at the lake, whatever it is, celebrate that identifier. This is also a great way to get local business vendors involved and celebrate the new city brand.

Invest in Place Making and Marketing Initiatives

People engage with and assimilate more to things they participate in, even if they don’t affect the final outcome. Think about college sports fans who can be incredibly proud of their sports programs even if they had nothing to do with the success of the team. Place Making can work similarly to boost your new city brand engagement and acceptance.

What is Place-Making?

Most cities that go through a successful city rebranding campaign find that their residents, as well as onlookers, have an elevated sense of pride in their community. It can be useful to include a new sculpture, artwork, or building facade as part of the brand launch. By making the new brand a physical part of the city, residents feel as though it already has permanence and will stick with them. Something as simple as replacing manhole covers on a main street can be symbolic of place-making.

Place Marketing Tips

Ceremony is critical to humans—in American culture, things like removing the US flag, the national anthem before sporting events, and counting down to a new year are each ceremony. A pro tip is to include a ceremony in your brand launch. You can take down the old flag and replace it, or you can unveil a new city sculpture. You might even have a local band sing a new song about your city. Whatever it is, ceremonies help galvanize people.

Bringing in other events is also a great way to market a city brand launch. Whether it’s a BBQ competition, a 5k around the city, or a music festival, work with local businesses, planners, and organizers to throw an event. Creating an immersive experience can excite prospective tourists and visitors. 

Tips for Rebranding a City

When Rebranding a City, Remember These Tips

No matter what the process is: branding a city for the first time, rebranding a city, or developing a city brand campaign, these strategies should remain vital to your city/town/government entity’s brand marketing and launch strategy. Proper planning, diversifying your strategy, and using a multi-channel approach will help your brand efforts achieve new heights. 

With all that, it can seem overwhelming to tackle a city branding project. If this article has been useful to you, or you’re part of a committee tasked with improving your own community’s brand and would like to chat, please feel free to reach out. I love speaking with people who are working to improve the lives of others and am glad to help as best I can!

Kaleb Dean
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6 Beautiful Examples of City Branding

All credit in this section to the respective designers, agencies, and organizations—I my self am inspired by all of this work, and I hope you are too. Here's a list of 6 incredible city branding examples from around the world.

1. A Unifying Identity for Oslo

Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric

Oslo is a thousand years old, yet thoroughly modern with world class municipal services. Over the past 20 years, clutter had built up in the city’s identity, and about 250 logos were in use. As a result, Oslo’s residents didn’t recognize much of the good work that their government actually did. In addition, it was estimated that this fragmented approach cost the municipality over $5 million each year to maintain all the different logos and identities.

Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric

The solution to this challenge is a new visual identity in which the City of Oslo communicates more holistically and with one logo. The result meets universal design requirements, so that it can be used by everyone. The solution also aims for simplification, flexibility, and greater efficiency.

A simplified and modernized logo

With the solution, all businesses in the Oslo municipality have been gathered under a common identity with a single logo. This makes it easier for citizens to understand everything the municipality does and contributes to. The new City of Oslo logo shows Saint Hallvard in symbolic format. This new logo is based on Oslo's current city seal designed in 1924, which itself is the latest iteration of a long series of Oslo city seals since the middle ages. The representative drawing of St. Hallvard is simplified and modernized, but still carries the same iconic story. The line weight and details were designed to work in all sizes – from smart phones to big signs. Oslo's city seal will continue to be used in traditional and historic contexts.

Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric
City branded print collateral with the new design system.
Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric
City of Oslo branding on city services.
Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric
New government website that was developed to align with the new city brand.
Place Branding norway Destination Branding branding system grid city identity nordic City of Oslo Scandinavian geometric
New Brand Identity installed in government buildings as place-making graphics.

Give the team some credit for this beauty and learn more about the work here:

Team at Creuna Norway (now Knowit Experience)

• Marc Ligeti - Lead Brand Designer
• Thor Erik Ramleth
- Lead Brand Designer
• Ole Marius Rygh
- Digital Designer
• Balder Dysthe
- Motion & Graphic Designer
• Heidi Bakken
- Lead Digital Designer
• Stein Sørlie
- Creative Director
• John Aurtande
- Account Manager
• Nina O'Gorman
- Strategic Advisor
• Beate Haugane
- Project Manager
• Jonas Stava
- Motion and 3D Renders
• Marius Watz
- Front End Developer
• Janecke Løyning
- Artwork
• Bjørn Endre Langeland
- 3D Renders

In collaboration with:

• Stefan Ellmer - Font Designer
• Thomas Ekström - Photographer, Hest Agentur

2. City of Shoreview

branding  logo Logo Design Place Branding City branding
City of Shoreview Flag

There are too many small American towns who have fallen victim to poor attention to design. Fortunately, the City of Shoreview has found a way out. Designed by Alan Peters, this Shoreview brand identity is a beautiful example of simple design that's unique and can amplify the messaging of a city.

branding  logo Logo Design Place Branding City branding

Yes, the original logo looks so much like other American city brands: an entire picture complete with gradients and a landscape paired with a font that is overused and surely not evocative of the city. The new logo, as shown above and below, invites viewers in and shares what the city is about all while being simple in construction. As with every great brand, the logo is adaptive and expanded into varying city departments to unify services across the city.

branding  logo Logo Design Place Branding City branding
Shoreview Department logos
branding  logo Logo Design Place Branding City branding
Various Shoreview Logo Lockups

3. São José Municipality Brand Identity

São José, a municipality located in the greater Florianópolis area, is the fourth oldest in Santa Catarina state and currently has the fourth largest economy. The city was colonized by Azorean couples and celebrates its 272nd anniversary with the launch of a new brand.

Developed by the Habitat 4.0 project with support from the design team of Venture Builder, the brand is the result of a partnership signed in July 2021, between the Entrepreneurial City Program of Sebrae/SC and the City Hall of São José.The new identity of São José transits between entrepreneurship in the municipality, which has registered advances in job generation in recent years, and the city's culture and history. The development process aimed to create a connection between people's creativity, driven by the entrepreneurs, and also the cultural roots of the region, represented  proemently by potters.Through knowing the past and present of the city of São José, it was possible to create a brand prepared for the years to come, with innovation, modernity, humanity and full of energy.

São José Color Palette Storyboard
São José Logo Lockup Instructions

4. Ville de Blaye

Along a crossing point for travelers crossing France, either to get to Bordeaux or further south on the Iberian Peninsula, Blaye benefits from a privileged location on the Gironde estuary. Vauban endowed the city with the most beautiful citadels he created. The citadel of Blaye and the Lock of the estuary are today registered on the list of the world heritage by UNESCO.

Cradling a vineyard of 6,000 hectares with 3 main appellations, its wines are recognized throughout the world. The walled city is proud of its heritage and the brand identity design brings these points of pride to the forefront.

Ville de Blaye logo on brand colors and photo overlay.

The logotype is based on the concept of emblems (coats of arms, blazons) in order to highlight the wealth of the city and its characteristics. The design team created the citadel symbolized by the tower, the vineyards with a stylized grape, the estuary and the key (lock, currency, etc.). These four signs form a strong new symbol for the new city brand.

Geographic qualities of the city become elements of the logo.

The simple logo that includes strong elements of place then get turned into collateral locals can use as well as larger, place-making installations.

City branded pins and mugs.
City Branded wayfinding and place markers.

5. Helsinki

The City of Helsinki had no uniform brand identity and city departments and projects have had their own varying identities and logos. The only consistent identity element was the Helsinki coat of arms but it had its own restrictions and challenges in terms of usability.

The reform of the City organization offered an opportunity to unify the City’s brand into one cohesive visual identity.

city of helsinki City branding brand identity helsinki custom typeface photo concept logo identity
City of Helsinki Color palette inspiration

The rebranding of Helsinki sought a fresh new brand identity that respects the past and is both modern and timeless. The identity needed to be adaptive, responsive and versatile.

The target audience was basically “everyone”, starting from 40,000 City employees to Helsinki residents, other Finns, foreigners, tourists, immigrants and special groups. This amplified the need for a flexible and memorable identity that is also easy to use.

city of helsinki City branding brand identity helsinki custom typeface photo concept logo identity
City notification board with the new brand identity.
Printed and publication materials for the hew Helsinki Brand, 2017.

Design & Branding Agency: Werklig
Type Design: Wolfgang Schwärzler, Camelot Typefaces
Digital Agency: Idean
Film material by: Sherpa

Photographers: Eetu Ahanen, Carl Bergman, Jussi Hellsten, Juhana Hurtig, Kuvio, Julius Konttinen, Risto Musta, Robert Lindström, Aleksi Poutanen, Riku Pihlanto et. al.

See also: My Helsinki website

6. Norwich: City of Stories

City of Norwich new logo and brand on a public billboard.

The last city brand example in this list and guide is the City of Norwich. When VisitNorwich and Norwich BID commissioned research into city break destinations, they discovered only an older demographic would recommend coming to Norwich – and just 32% of respondents could place it on a map.

To help them right this wrong, Norwich BID brought UK agency Ark on board. Partnering with local copywriting agency Grafik Language, they were instructed to smash stereotypes, with a new visual identity and brand narrative fit for the city it is – a place of rich culture, rebellious history, and maverick spirit. A city with a story to tell.

City of Norwich logo.

Norwich is a city on the move, literally as well as figuratively. One of the most-walked in the UK, it’s regularly voted as one of the Top 10 best places to live, and has ambitious plans to become a top UK destination where people will want to come to, and return, time and time again.

City of Norwich brand board.

Inspired by the striped roofs of Norwich’s modernised outdoor market, (a 900 year old landmark and talisman of the city), we created an abstract ‘N’ logo with its own story to tell. Converging arrows create movement whilst helping to contrast the city’s historic past and vibrant future.

A palette of eight colors (one for each district of the city) helped to create a flexible and dynamic visual language which could be scaled for both tourist and business communications.

City of Norwich logo and color palette.

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