Does the city need a brand?

Mark Brownlee
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Economic development officials to focus on trade missions, media outreach and advertising

We’re debt-free. City of Trees. Even – gulp – Ottawa: Technically Beautiful.

Photo illustration by Tanya Connolly-Holmes.

Various government officials have attempted over the years to change how outsiders think and feel about the city. Those exercises were met with varied success, but now the city’s lead economic development agency is renewing efforts to brand Canada’s capital.

Invest Ottawa president and CEO Bruce Lazenby is hoping to scuttle any images of a gloomy government town and replace them with one that depicts the city as a hub of technological innovation.

The idea is to get more companies to relocate here with the promise of being able to take advantage of resources that have made companies successful in the past.

“If we don’t tell the world about (what’s happening in Ottawa), the world will never know,” said Mr. Lazenby. “It’s not their fault – it’s our fault.”

Ottawa has a shaky history when it comes to branding exercises.

City councillors and businesses so disliked the “Technically Beautiful” slogan developed in 2001 that the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, Invest Ottawa’s predecessor, quickly scrapped it. Its ensuing promotional campaign instead had no slogan at all.

Invest Ottawa isn’t planning anything like that for its current branding exercise. Instead, the organization will be focusing on the initiatives that are already happening and broadcasting them to the world.

As an example, Mr. Lazenby cited Invest Ottawa’s announcement of a collaboration with a Beijing organization that will be working with local companies to export their technology to China. The press conference held in late December was designed to show those around the world that Ottawa was a great place in which to invest, he said.

This is the sort of initiative observers are applauding, since it helps demonstrate some of the work already taking place in the city.

“Ottawa needs to take the bushel off its light,” said Francis Moran, head of local technology marketing firm Francis Moran & Associates. “It needs to do a much more aggressive and assertive job of communicating those attributes where they need to be communicated.”

Invest Ottawa can’t simply rely on a slogan or logo to try to change how outsiders perceive the city, he said. Branding should instead be a “matrix” that encompasses initiatives such as trade missions, outreach to media outlets and advertising.

“The brand comes from what you do, not what your logo looks like,” said Mr. Lazenby. “Nobody ever became famous because they have a cool-looking logo.”


Whose priority?

The city clearly sees a need to change how people elsewhere perceive what’s going on in Ottawa. What’s less apparent, though, is whether businesses feel the same way.

A municipal survey of Ottawa businesses last summer asked respondents to choose from a list of responses and say whether or not they were “very important” when considering Ottawa as a place for investment.

The results found 64 per cent of those who responded listed the “ability to promote Ottawa as a good place to do business” in that category.

That was enough for a majority but still placed it fifth behind other issues such as quality of life and affordability. Last on the list of eight priorities was “the image of Ottawa as a ‘government town,’” a key point of Invest Ottawa’s latest branding campaign.

The city also only received a small percentage of responses. It sent e-mail invitations to 2,304 business but only received 170 replies.

City officials have nevertheless treated the brand issue as a priority.

Saad Bashir, the city’s director of economic development and innovation, said in an October speech to business leaders that “64 per cent of respondents recognized Ottawa’s brand to be a critical factor and specifically the role of the City of Ottawa in this regard.”


Brand history

Ottawa has been through several branding exercises in the past, many of which involved a slogan. This is a selection of some of the sayings that have been attached to the city (and its old municipalities) in previous years.

“Canadian. Just Like You” (National Capital Commission, 2010)

“City of Trees” (suggestion from former city councillor Clive Doucet, 2007)

“Ottawa: Technically Beautiful” (City of Ottawa, 2001. The city eventually rejected this idea and instead went with no slogan at all.)

“Ottawa Advance” (attached to the coat of arms for the old City of Ottawa)

“Shaping Our Future Together,” “Prosperity Together,” “Forward Together” (three different suggestions for the new City of Ottawa post-amalgamation)

“We’re debt free” (slogan for the old City of Nepean)

“Ottawa – Where Quality and People Meet” (slogan for old City of Ottawa, 1988)


Kanata’s brand

Branding Kanata to companies around the world was one of the reasons that a number of businesses – including those in the Kanata Research Park along March Road – decided to come together under a new banner earlier this year.

Business improvement areas are usually reserved for small businesses such as retail stores and restaurants, in distinct parts of the city such as the area around Preston Street.

But organizers of the Kanata North BIA say it was the best mechanism for marketing the area to new companies thinking about locating in Ottawa, as well as to potential employees that existing companies are trying to recruit.

“We’re thinking it’s time to kind of pound our chest a bit,” said Kevin Ford, president of the business and technology services division of Calian, one of the BIA’s members. “We’re losing ground to (places such as) Kitchener-Waterloo.”

The BIA was the best way to go about this, he said, because that means it will have money to support the ideas they’re developing. BIAs are automatically funded through members’ property taxes, giving the Kanata organization a stable funding base. It also allows members to meet on a regular basis to discuss what they’re trying to work on.

Mr. Ford hopes the money will complement Invest Ottawa’s efforts to help market the city, with a focus on what Kanata in particular has to offer. The BIA plans to use web advertising and social media to get its message across.

Organizations: Ottawa Centre for Research, Beijing organization, Kanata North BIA Francis Moran Associates National Capital Commission Division of Calian Kanata organization

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, China Trees Nepean Kanata Research Park

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Recent comments

  • Omar
    January 08, 2013 - 19:02

    Ottawa needs its own Potemkin Village (look it up).

    • MG
      January 10, 2013 - 09:24

      "Ottawa needs its own Potemkin Village (look it up)." According to the definition on wikipedia: "The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is." I think that we already do! The light rail!

  • Sylvain
    January 08, 2013 - 17:11

    Yes!... a permanent Super-EX in the downtown flat... LRT nearby... nice view of the Parliament & skyline and the Gatineau side and the war museum, Oh! wait... never mind... we need more eyes sores "condos" everywhere. there is a lot of potential empty land just collecting dust for no reason. Themes: The E.B Eddy Amusement park with the lumberjack style, get amused while learning about Ottawa/Gatineau's past. it's a win-win solution. It would save us some $$ to go to wonderland. Right Mr. Mayor!