Why Are Cleveland Suburbs Branding, or Re-Branding, Themselves?

click to enlarge Why Are Cleveland Suburbs Branding, or Re-Branding, Themselves?
City of South Euclid

If you’ve recently traveled eastbound down Mayfield Road, you might have noticed that the city of South Euclid has added some signage to the area. While they haven’t increased density, improved the road way for pedestrians, or redesigned the architectural landscape of the area, the city has added signs and small displays that signal a jurisdictional change.

Why did South Euclid feel the need to sink time, effort and money into this project? In short, because they’ve been bitten by the city branding bug.

In the last few years, several Cleveland suburbs have engaged in city branding efforts. Among these are North Olmsted, University Heights, Bedford, South Euclid and Cleveland Heights. The process involves contracting with an outside company to lead the efforts. This company will likely engage with residents either directly or in-directly (via a city website or other platform) to gain a feel for how the residents might describe their city. Information gleaned from these interactions is then distilled by the private company and transformed into a city “identity.” A logo, slogan, signage, website and a variety of other products will then be produced, as per an agreement between the city and the company.

With the exception of Cleveland Heights, all of the cities listed above outsourced their branding efforts to Guide Studio, a branding firm in Shaker Square. The company, previously known as Studio Graphique, has worked with civic institutions as well as private businesses and specializes in branding spaces. Notable clients of the 20-year-old company include the Cleveland Indians, Tri-C, Heinens and University Circle. According to their online portfolio, Guide Studio began actively branding cities several years ago.

Of course, these branding efforts come with a cost. Bedford has spent $5,000 on a wayfinding analysis and is set to spend an additional $19,000 on a sign program design. University Heights spent $30,000 on their city brand development and another $10,000 on their wayfinding and signage analysis.
The total amount that South Euclid paid for their city branding efforts was $47,583.60, including professional services, design services and community engagement consulting. The Cleveland Heights branding initiative is still ongoing but was approved with a budget of up to $80,000. North Olmsted takes the cake: The city has spent a total of over $100,000 on their comprehensive rebranding efforts since 2010.

This trend is not unique to the Cleveland area. In fact, cities across the US are increasingly attempting to market themselves through efforts to create a local brand. And these brand changes can be an important way for cities to highlight their unique character and increase their visibility, according to Tom Horsman, an assistant planner in Sandusky, OH, and a local city signage aficionado.

In a conversation with Scene, Horsman noted that internally, a cohesive design, “can set a tone for what you do and how you interact with the public.” Externally, “an icon like a city flag can be a cool way for residents to have a sense of unifying identity that’s not trademarked by a business bureau or a sports team.”

Additionally, as cities compete to gain businesses and residents, Horsman suggested that a brand can ensure consistency and professionalism.

Nevertheless, unlike private businesses, it can be difficult to tie a clear outcome to these branding efforts. According to Dr. Staci Zavattaro, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida and a leading city branding researcher, while city revenues can be easily measured over time, other economic gains or losses can be more difficult to quantify. And while cities might be hoping for economic gains, Zavattaro told Scene that “a city or neighborhood can do all the planned branding it wants, but if people don't buy it, then it doesn't quite matter.”

Coincidentally, when North Olmsted began their efforts in 2010, the city had an estimated 17,484 employed residents. Seven years later, the American Community Survey estimates place that number at 16,477. Meaning that after almost ten years and over $100,000 in branding efforts, one thousand fewer people pay income taxes to the city.

Over in Cleveland Heights, Vice Mayor Melissa Yasinow is confident that their branding efforts will yield results. Yasinow told Scene that she believes the city branding efforts will enable the city’s messaging to, “reflect what matters to the community to make sure we are clearly and accurately representing Cleveland Heights.” Yasinow also said that she believes that the outcome of the branding effort will be a “better understanding of what Cleveland Heights is and why people should call Cleveland Heights home.”

Still, it is unclear whether a brand meaningfully impacts one’s decision to move to an area. Housing, transit accessibility and job proximity might be more significant determinants. And, many are giving attention to these issues as well. Indeed, South Euclid Councilman Marty Gelfand reported to Scene that he is proud of the work the city has done in maintaining their housing stock and providing comprehensive amenities. Gelfand noted that, “we have a story to tell… you’re not going to hear about us in the big magazines where they’ll put the Westlakes and the Strongsvilles.” But does a twisted leaf with the letter S and E and a generic sounding slogan of “Come Together and Thrive” really tell the story of an aging, diverse community?

Maybe not. Despite some degree of resident engagement, the “identity” that is artificially constructed by a company might not actually fit the city’s history or current state. Indeed, in his book on the Philadelphia barrio branding efforts, Frederick Wherry found that some areas of Philadelphia were branded in a way that erased the historical culture of the place while in others residents fought against cultural exploitation.

Why might this occur? It’s likely a mixture of weak community engagement strategies that don’t meet people where they are as well as the desire to present a generic, positive and bright face. In South Euclid, Bedford and Cleveland Heights — all cities that lack proportionate representation in their local government — one can’t help but wonder whether minority populations, renters and young people had an active role in shaping this new “identity.”

It appears that suburban municipalities continue to do what they instinctively feel to need to do — compete. This time, however, they’re not handing out a check with a expected return or a claw-back clause. Instead, they’re investing money in creating an image, whether accurate or not, with the hope these branding efforts will convince highly compensated individuals to purchase property, pay taxes and demand little additional assistance from the city. And this piece is key. Cities are branding for those they hope to attract. The new business. The new residents. But the customer attraction and retention model doesn’t easily translate to public service. Cities should be places of opportunity for all people, not only “those we’d like to attract.”

Cultivating an identity of a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable city might require more than a twisted leaf on the corner of Mayfield and Green. A slogan that decidedly states that the neighborhood is unified and growing might not be enough either. The good news is that stepping off the curb to ride the Route Nine bus would give any public official a great chance to speak with the people who traverse East Side neighborhoods. I wonder if they have some thoughts about the city’s brand.
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