Brand Plan: Get Out Of The Way

October 17, 2005
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There is good news from the Downtown Development Authority: it has elected to initiate a "branding" campaign for West Michigan's "front porch" (as former Mayor John Logie so called it), and is enlisting the partnership of the Downtown Alliance and Downtown Leadership Council to do so. There is more good news in that it selected Grand Rapids-based Hanon McKendry from 30 applicants for the job. Hanon McKendry promotes West Michigan as a part of its company branding in soliciting national clients, so the choice makes sense.

But will they let Hanon McKendry do its job?

The advertising company has been an active participant in downtown for more than 15 years, and has been candid in its public outcry as major companies in West Michigan beat the streets of New York, Chicago or L.A. for ad agencies to represent them. Hanon McKendry has consistently been cited with national Addy Awards in consecutive years for its nonprofit and for-profit company work. While the agency has hard-earned national honors, and is a national-caliber player with national accounts, it's often ignored by its fellow business citizens.

So the agency should know from what cloth it might brand downtown Grand Rapids, a community establishing national milestones but largely ignored, even by the rest of the state.

Such a predicament was actually policy at one not-so-distant time in city history. The "don't brag, just do it" philosophy does not catch on with the larger population and makes no impression or perception. Readers might rhetorically ask how many national experts have concurred over the past decade of city growth that GR is "a well-kept secret." Indeed, the "do nothing" policy does not assist in recruitment of entrepreneurs, new business or work force. The children of Grand Rapids perceive that they must leave to make their mark in the same corridors to which the business community turns for representation. It does not assist the convention and visitor's bureau. Until area legislators began exerting their constituent numbers into leadership positions, it did nothing to bring tax dollars back to this region, either.

What is most worrisome in this group of partner participants is that they will not get out of Hanon McKendry's way. The leadership of each group is strong, and opinionated. Sessions in which they might offer strong ideas is appropriate, but if they begin micro-managing this project the branding will certainly be askew. To ask that the agency build on way-finding signs is certainly limiting, especially when one looks at those signs. Further, it is short-term thinking to target a 30-mile radius. The branding campaign will certainly have even greater value for use far and wide as Grand Rapids becomes a presence in the national conscience.

Hanon McKendry has proven it knows how to brand almost anything (including the Knights of Columbus); that is its expertise, the basis for its national recognition, its skill set.

Just let them do it.        

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