August 23, 2019

Proposed strategic branding could bring cohesion to West Branch

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WEST BRANCH - The branding ideas presented by Ben Muldrow during a public meeting at Michigan Works Jan. 9 encourage embracing the assets of West Branch and surrounding areas, while bringing cohesion that is designed to attract new business and spur additional tourism.

"We are looking at both destination identities and organizational brands," Muldrow said. "When we are talking about the destination of West Branch, visitors don't care where the corporate boundaries are."

The proposal created a lot of buzz among the full crowd in attendance, including City Manager Heather Grace and Rising Tide Fellow Mary Bickel.

"I think it is really encouraging," Bickel said. "It shows that Project Rising Tide can reach a vast audience. I felt like everyone in the room was really positive about it."

Bickel, who works out of city hall, said it is encouraging to witness how excited the city is about the branding.

"We are going to collaborate with the community," she said. "It's not just about the city but it's about creating a collaborative community that will bring in new businesses and local pride. It is exciting being here, right in the hub of city hall, and I want to see that excitement displayed downtown and out on Hamburger Hill."

The branding campaign is part of Project Rising Tide, a collaborative program spearheaded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Talent Investment Agency and Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Collectively the three agencies form the Talent and Economic Development team, known as TED.

According to the Rising Tide website, the TED team has committed its assets to help specific communities in the state to "empower them to shape their future and maximize economic potential."

After the city of Grayling graduated from Project Rising Tide in February, the torch was passed to West Branch when it was selected as the next city for the program.

Through Rising Tide several needs have been identified in the city, such as housing for middle-income earners, attracting and retaining talent, downtown growth, consistent branding and sufficient childcare providers.

Muldrow said West Branch lacks continuity in much of its existing branding and logos.

"It is important that individual organizations can preserve their individuality," he said. "We want to make sure we acknowledge the fact that we have these different organizations, but we want some connectivity between us."

Taking into account West Branch's existing brands of the Smiley Tower, Victorian theme and Bigfoot capital, Muldrow presented his firm's ideas to bring more cohesion to the city, visitors bureau, chamber, area businesses and existing events.

Muldrow said during the branding survey conducted online late last year, the respondents were not shy regarding their opinions about the existing brands.

During Muldrow's presentation, he explained that the branding isn't meant to erase the area's existing brands, but to recognize them and bring them into a more attractive cohesion that is better understood by people within and outside the community.

"We are not picking a theme," Muldrow said. "Communities are extremely diverse. They have diverse goals, diverse initiatives. We are trying to create a stage that allows this community to tell its best story in each circumstance it might find itself in."

Muldrow modified the existing themes into broad definitions - the Smiley Tower interpreted as happiness, warm and inviting; the Victorian downtown theme of West Branch as historic; and Bigfoot as the abundance of natural resources and the outdoors.

"One of the first things I am recommending from you all is acknowledging these three things you have invested time and effort in, and simply evolving those into concepts that are more broad brush. It isn't about the smiley face water tower. It is about the warmness, friendliness, the personal connection you get here. It is not about Victorian as much as it is about a quaint small town with a historic downtown. A place that feels different because of how it looks and the stories that it has. The Bigfoot is the segway into converting outdoor recreation into an economic catalyst for our community."

Muldrow said it is essential when promoting outdoor recreation that the community be able to profit from it.

Muldrow's tackling of the Victorian theme that worked its way into zoning codes in the city drew laughter from the audience, as he explained his view with progressive photos of Queen Victoria through the duration of her monarchy.

"Victorian is kind of a weird thing," he said. "It is a time period. It was a time period during the reign of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years. By the end of the Victorian era even Victoria was tired of the Victorian era."

Muldrow said the town's interest is less about the Victorian theme than it is about its rich cultural history.

Beyond the branding, Muldrow delivered powerful messages about West Branch, including a mission statement that encompassed many aspects of the city and surrounding communities.

One of the messages is the proposed tagline "Be Happy" that could be modified to fit various situations such as "Brew Happy" or "Pour Happy."

"This is a great way to sell our community," Bickel said. "Not only to the outside, but to our community. To show them that just because we did something one way before it doesn't mean we can't rebrand and we can't focus on something new and get excited."

Grace said the message "Be Happy" is one of the things the city has already adopted by embracing a "Work Happy" policy, encouraging more compliments and a positive working environment.

Bickel said beyond the message of bringing tourism, the statement is something the community can use to foster a greater pride.

"I think it can show cohesiveness between the city and the townships," Bickel said.

The next step after the branding is accepted is the community continuing the momentum that has started, Bickel said.

"A big piece of it is 'How do we continue this momentum?'" she said. "It is really exciting right now. How do we continue that five months from now? How do we make sure that it rolls out appropriately and quickly to continue that momentum? We want to set up the system to make it sustainable in three years and five years."

Grace agreed with Bickel.

"Part of the implementation is not just sticking a logo on it and being done," she said. "We need to embrace this - this is our ideal iteration of what we see our community being in its best form - and live it."

The final slideshow Muldrow presented incorporated the area's rich natural resources and its proximity to larger metropolitan areas in a proposed advertisement showing a snowmobile blazing a trail in the woods and a message of "9:00 a.m. meeting, 1 p.m. unmeeting."

"We live where you vacation," Bickel said.

Muldrow's complete presentation is available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/v7ifGXvpAnY. The community can also provide feedback on the branding to Bickel at westbranchcdfellow@gmail.com or by contacting her at city hall at 989-345-0500.

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