Community branding shows us how to celebrate heritage

Community branding is all around. We see tourism commercials on TV and online. Algorithms send us ads on social media and in our email of places they think we’d like. We can think of iconic images of our hometowns, symbolizing what we’re known for. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the list goes something like this: the stone arch bridge over the Mississippi River or the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture at the Walker Art Institute. And for all kids born here, it’s Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji. We think of Mall of America as the place we’re asked about. And like many residents, we may not think of them much outside of when visitors come to town. But the same things that we may be blind to as locals, we often celebrate when visiting new places.

Community branding is all around us

For those of you wanting some brand inspiration, consider looking right outside of your door. Many places have embraced their heritage (however difficult or quirky). Some choose to show off a symbol simply, while others tell more elaborate stories. But however simple or elaborate, the key is to do so in a way that creates the desired impression and experience for the public first. Think back to a road trip you’ve taken. Maybe you passed a giant sculpture or point of interest. Here are a few of those from our travels.

Things that make you go, hmmm

A Danish canal tour host told her audience of Americans tourist that she noticed their fondness for having something they brag about when visiting a town. As part of her audience, I immediately thought of the “biggest ball of twine” in Darwin, Minnesota. Admittedly, I’ve never been to Darwin, but the ball of twine precedes it. I wondered if the city was home to a textile factory. Nope. The story goes that the twine ball builder, Frances, created it from scraps. “Mom told us not to waste anything.” And that right there is a VERY midwestern sensibility. Who knew – the ball of twine represents an important aspect of the culture.

Our Danish tour host followed up with a remark suggesting Danish people “humble brag” because they’re a small country with few people. So, she pointed out that they have the world’s smallest hotel in Copenhagen. It has one bedroom and no amenities. I took a photo. And that little (pun intended) snip-it of a story has stuck with me and the image of that tiny hotel is burned in my memory along with the Little Mermaid statue, Tivoli Gardens, the King’s Garden, biking around the lakes, and the colorful Nyhavn. It said, “we’re small but proud” and “we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The more you know

After leaving Denmark, I visited Siglufjörður, Iceland. Siglufjörður used to be this HUGE herring fishing port. (Okay, huge is relative. The town is just over 100 years old and had about 3000 residents compared to the ~1300 now.) But from a herring fishing standpoint, it was huge. So huge, the area waters are all herring’d out in a span of less than 20 years.

But guess what? They have a fantastic museum about it with artifacts from the time set in immersive displays to bring you back there. The image of people being knee-deep in herring for city blocks was something. While shocking, it didn’t feel shameful. In fact, it felt like a compelling story about sustainability and responsibility to the land in a way that is completely on point now. The village is still thriving in a healthy way for those in and out of the water, still fishing, but with a diversified economy that now includes tourism.

Go big or go home

Speaking of community economic impact, I’d like to introduce you to the world’s largest Holstein cow, “Salem Sue”, a monument, in Salem, North Dakota. The giant sculpture is on a (rare) hilltop adjacent to Interstate 94. Sue is an homage to the area’s dairy farming and a source of pride for locals and rural living. Sue can be seen from five miles away and is one of several North Dakota’s large animal sculptures. Communities around the state also have large buffalo, catfish, cranes, and turtles to name a few. Once again, this illustrates something important about the culture of the people – their connection to and reverence for nature.

What’s your story to tell?

Telling stories is a part of our human condition. We all have them. And just like these communities, companies have stories, too. They may be of great moments or the impact of tough times. Or maybe they’re not dramatic at all. But if there’s a “so what” behind it, that’s what we want to hear. Help people understand “why” behind the ball of twine and the world’s tiniest hotel. Explain why there’s a giant Holstein sculpture on the hill. When you know the story, you don’t forget it. You see something, you hear something, you experience it with others. Then, you retell the story repeatedly to keep it alive and evolving.

So, find your organization’s story that expresses your reason for being and build an experience or symbol to display it. That story is the narrative thread connecting your past to your present and future through the hearts of your community.

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