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This past year, VCU Brandcenter students and faculty got involved with an interesting project. We were asked to work with Venture Richmond and The Martin Agency to help drive and effort to bring attention to the creativity and innovation that fuels Richmond.

The effort started when Martin Agency Partner, Matt Williams, worked with leaders from the Richmond area to begin defining those things that set the city apart. The effort identified characteristics that were seen as essential to the city’s future. Participants saw an opportunity to define a reputation that is “forward-looking, eclectic, dynamic and timeless” fueled by “a history of non-conformity”.

The process identified a growing momentum in Downtown Richmond and beyond. Anyone who’s paying attention has observed the dramatic rise in downtown living spaces, arts venues, dining, entertainment and innovative businesses, schools and organizations. The data is impressive and led the group to define the potential for helping Richmond become recognized as a center of creativity. That’s where the Brandcenter came in.

The folks at Venture Richmond and Martin wanted to go beyond the business and civic leaders involved in the first phase, to take a broader sampling from the street level up. We recruited Brandcenter professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet to help guide teams of over 40 graduate students, and we charged the team with conducting research and coming back with a fresh approach to a civic identity.

Guided by Cantrell and Avnet, the students explored Richmond from every angle. From first thing in the morning at a local coffee shop, to last call at the clubs, the students interviewed residents, business owners, civic leaders, architects, urban planners, musicians, magazine publishers, retailers, venture capitalists, philanthropists, tattoo artists, historians, museum directors and computer programmers. They collected stories that reflected both passion and pride.

It’s important to note that the students were not asked to invent a new identity for the city – they know better than to attempt to make up something that doesn’t fit the brand – instead they uncovered a movement that was already well established, one that many residents and leaders have been talking about for some time. The student’s mission was to synthesize the information from all sources and to develop an approach for telling the stories in a way that would accomplish two primary objectives:

1. To help Richmond take credit for the creativity that has been part of both the city’s past and present.

2. To inspire even more innovation in the future, by encouraging community members to practice more creativity in their work and lives.

When the student teams presented their work, we were all moved by their efforts. They saw an opportunity to avoid the overused slogans and jingles of typical municipal branding efforts and instead to leverage the existing shorthand for Richmond’s creative community: RVA.

The students felt that any top down slogan would be more likely to inhibit creativity, rather than promote it, so they suggested that “RVA” could be customized to say whatever the participant wanted it to say. They also designed the logo to allow the visuals to be ever changing. Again, based on the creativity of the user. This user-generated approach to branding allows the minimalist “RVA” to be endlessly reinterpreted.

Of course brands are much more complex than logos or even advertising, so the real power of the brand is driven by the action, not the words, of those involved. While the effort is still in its infancy, there are already promising signs on the horizon. Business leaders and university heads have committed their support, arts organizations and creative individuals are fueling new projects, training programs and events are being planned and the Mayor has supported the effort and announced a plan to establish Richmond’s first Arts District, with tangible incentives and promotion for participating organizations.

These tangible acts are being combined with increased marketing driven by a team of six organizations, including outstanding Richmond businesses, like Elevation, Hodges Partnership, JHI and West Cary Group. The team’s work already includes a website, online video, rolling billboards, printed materials and social networking. Soon these efforts will be joined by mobile applications and even a fleet of eco-friendly garbage trucks, carrying the RVA logo.

To paraphrase Mike Hughes, “Branding is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The success of this program will depend on continued efforts to engage the community. But, given the promising start, I look forward to the day when our Brandcenter alumni return to find a more dynamic city where originality is celebrated – or better yet, I hope they never leave.

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