Greenwich Village in New York. Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The French Quarter in New Orleans.
No, we’re not creating our vacation wish list, but if we were, these would certainly be at the top of our itinerary. Instead what we’re demonstrating is that just by saying their names, we are able to evoke an emotion and leave an unmistakable impression about these places. You can almost see the brownstones, hear the hubbub of the shops and smell the beignets and coffee wafting in the air. All of these locations are examples of iconic destinations that simultaneously exist in the world and linger in our imaginations. In short, these are places that call out for us to come and experience them.
To be human is to gather in places we love. From when we first migrated out of agrarian societies all the way to today, we have created places – gathering spots, watering holes, trading posts, walking paths, city centers – that have come to mean more than their initial purpose. Many of these places have grown up spontaneously, without a guiding hand or a strategic plan behind them. As such, what they have become known for – this unspoken brand – is an outgrowth of our human experiences with them and in them. Unfolding authentically, the place becomes infused with meaning, taking on the cultural values and the spirit of the people around them.
New Orleans, for example, has a brand that’s all about indulging the senses. Exploding with music, art and food, this free-spirited, open-minded place welcomes you in and whisks you away. We all have this understanding of the uniqueness of New Orleans, yet this shared idea of place really happened without anybody telling us that it was the case. The celebrated culture evolved organically where the citizenry and culture come together at the intersection of place to create something uniquely New Orleans. We collectively understand the essence of this place. To thrive, place branding has to take that same authentic approach.
There are particular types of places we consider viable candidates for meaningful place branding. The first type is a place that already exists. For instance, a neighborhood that can trace its roots back to a city’s birth. South Downtown Atlanta represents the largest collection of historic buildings in the city –it’s where the city began. But the story of its rich history and cultural significance is not currently being told – it’s been a place that exists, but not a place to be.
Now for the first time, a developer is creating something very intentional around South Downtown – an expansive, adaptive reuse and new development project that captures its original beauty and transforms it as a thriving center for arts, residences, commerce and culture. South Downtown’s brand, in this case, is less about a logo, a look, a marketing campaign or digital experience and more a vibe – a specific feel that infuses every part of the environment, the physical space(s) and all their touchpoints.
Another candidate for place branding is a space where a developer has a strategic vision and creates a destination from the ground up. In this instance, the space never existed before and now it does. Here, place branding takes a more expected path with decision-makers who have an overarching vision directing experiential touchpoints deployed in the space. Branding includes defining a place brand’s name, its story, its values and how those all come together and translate into an experience.
New York’s Hudson Yards is a prime example of such a place – a ground up (and dazzling) development that’s changing the way people live, work, shop and hang out in a once-neglected pocket of Manhattan. Or consider the Epic, a new mixed use development in Dallas where Uber plans to locate a regional presence, another example of how these places become engines of opportunity throughout an entire region. Live Work Play communities like these tap into (or create) a neighborhood’s character and create all new spaces within them.
Part of the reason place branding is such an exciting prospect for experience design companies is that there are so many opportunities to maximize all of the touchpoints within the environment. Place branding goes far beyond just the name or the identity and focuses on what the entire experience is like for the user. It’s everything including what materials are used and how wide the streetscapes are. It’s the kind of retail tenants that are located there and how high you dial up sustainable design.
It’s also engagement brought to life through the digital signage designed and deployed because digital experiences are populated throughout space. Really, it’s a focus on making the entire experience from top-to-bottom intentional and thoughtful – a purposeful approach that can drive significant value, increasing dwell times, prices per square foot, and can drive fully leased spaces long before grand opening.
Another richly rewarding element of place branding is the ability to be involved in developing a space that hits just the right notes. It’s similar to big brands that transform their entire categories, like what Google and Apple did for technology and design. A great place brand does more than change a neighborhood; it can completely transform an entire region, sparking new development and new relationships. A great place has the power to influence behavior – as people start hanging out or taking public transportation there – which can then shift the entire trajectory of a region.
We’re witnessing exactly that kind of transformation with successful developments across suburbs and exurbs of thriving urban areas. Whether it’s adaptive reuse developments or ground-up builds, great places and transformed spaces have the potential for longevity and lasting cultural impact. When done right, meaningful spaces and place branding help ensure that these developments become part of the fabric of the region for years to come. In our next place branding perspective article, we will take a look at some of these great places and what makes them magnetic destinations and compels us to linger a little longer.
To speak with one of our place branding experts or get more information about our strategic experience design services, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.