Surrey's use of branding has transformed this sprawling suburb into a thriving city

It's surprising how seldom this approach is used in business and shocking how infrequently it is used in municipal politics

Surrey mayor Dianne Watts understands the power of branding. No, not just a new logo, tagline or marketing campaign most think of when they hear that word, but the deeper meaning of authentic branding.

For decades Surrey has suffered from the unfavourable reputation as a sprawling suburb haunted by gangs, drugs and crime. For many, it was an undesirable place to invest, do business or raise a family. Various politicians tried a variety of tactics over the years, with limited success. When Watts took office, things immediately began to change, but what did she and her team do differently?

Among other things, I suggest it was the strategic use of authentic branding that led to the dramatic transformation of Surrey in recent years.

A brand is essentially comprised of the ideas and characteristics behind what makes an organization, product or service unique, valuable and authentic, both in the minds of those in charge of the organization, as well as in the minds of its audience – in this case Surrey's residents. So if cities are like a business – and they most certainly are – then what is it about a city – what it stands for, what it represents and perhaps most importantly, what it means as part of the personal identity of its citizens – that defines its brand?

The most effective brand relaunches happen when business leaders empower brand experts to uncover the true essence of a brand, creating guiding principles that act as filters guiding all tactical initiatives, often involving new identity platforms containing graphic symbols, icons, language, collateral and marketing systems – but only once a real strategy is well-defined to guide behaviour. It's surprising how seldom this approach is used in business and shocking how infrequently it is used in municipal politics. Surrey seems to be an exception.

When Watts was elected in 2005, she immediately began acting like a visionary business leader, not a typical partisan politician. Not only did she engage in a comprehensive research and visioning exercise that explored Surrey's potential but she reached out to the citizens themselves, asking what they wanted their "City of Cities" to aspire to.

Watts so broke with the conventional method of municipal governing that she even created a new political slate she called "Surrey First," encouraging city leaders to vote their consciences on important issues instead of toeing a party line.

In 2008, Surrey launched a new identity that replaced its aging traditional coat of arms with a friendly and contemporary logo that more accurately represents the energy, diversity and urban vitality of Surrey, while invoking the natural harmony of the rural landscape.

Of course, that was just a logo. But along with the new tagline "The Future Lives Here," the message became clear: Surrey was making a break from its past and moving forward. And it now had a brand platform that could act as a guide to ensure all actions and initiatives were consistent.

Move forward it did. In the past seven years of Watts' leadership, Surrey has transformed from an unfocused cluster of suburbs into the fastest-growing city in B.C. through brave new civic investment projects such as the massive Central City initiative, with significant projects like the beautiful Bing Thom–designed Surrey City Centre Library.

Large arts and cultural programs like the Fusion Festival were launched, showcasing the ethnic diversity of the area; new housing and recreational developments to increase densification were part of a new community plan; a new economic strategy led to increased investment and new business startups; a new sustainability charter repositioned Surrey as a green city; and a progressive crime reduction strategy contributed to a decline in gang and drug activity.

Past mayors stumbled over apologizing for or defending against its reputation, whereas Watts and her team focused on the new plan, the new vision, the new brand, allowing those perceptions to die in the past instead of constantly fighting with it in the present. As with any rebrand, it takes time and focus, but in the past few years, what used to be a sprawling suburb has transformed into the next great downtown, due in part to a clearly defined vision, brand identity and strategic plan rarely found in municipal governments.

"Rather than just talking and asking people to alter their opinion, Watts has set in motion a vision of Surrey as its own city," said Surrey resident and brand strategist Stephen Abbott, while City of Surrey marketing manager Darryl McCarron said, "Public reaction has been really positive. What worked within the community is the recognition that our brand is very compatible to authentic Surrey."

It can be a challenge at times to quantify the bottom line ROI associated with branding efforts, but the value of branding happens when an authentic idea is captured, expressed and used to guide business actions.

The way the message of a thriving, progressive and modern city with vision, purpose and pride has been expressed publicly has captured the attention of many, evidenced by throngs of young professionals and their families moving to Surrey. I'm a Vancouverite to the core and even I'm warming up to the idea of living there. Now THAT is the power of branding. •

Mark Busse is a founding partner of Industrial Brand. Follow him on Twitter @MarkBusse or email mark@industrialbrand.com

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