Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Place Branding - The Case for “Yo Boulevard!"

by Vince Rogers

Place Branding is a fairly new concept in the branding “discipline”. The term refers to the process of communicating a well-crafted image to a target audience in order to create a specific perception of a particular place. Most often place branding is the aide-decamp of Branding’s close relative – Reputation Management. Reputation Management is the process of formulating a positive image or repairing a negative image of a brand. Most often a brand accrues a bad reputation following a negative event or unfortunate change in circumstances.
In the case of a place, whether it is a nation, a city or a neighborhood, this bad reputation usually evolves over time. It ultimately can lead to losses of population, declining economic activity and high crime rates. A negative perception can be associated with a place for years, even if the facts don’t support the perception. This in summary is what has become the plight of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.
The neighborhood is home to Martin Luther King jr.’s childhood home, Ebenezer Baptist Church and in years past, was considered a very desirable residential location in Atlanta. Today the principal through street in this community - Boulevard, has earned a reputation for facilitating every urban vice imaginable. According to Kwanza Hall the presiding Atlanta City Councilmember for the district, it is “the most concentrated pocket of poverty in the southeastern United States.”
There are several cities in America such as Detroit on the negative end of the spectrum and Miami on the positive end of the spectrum that have experienced a change in perception over the years. So what can be done to change the perception of a place when the fortunes of the community have reversed? There are essentially 4 Key Steps to a implementing a successful Place Branding Strategy:
  1. Assemble a Diverse Team of Advisers
  2. Partner with the Business Community in the surrounding area
  3. Concentrate on Achieving Key Objectives
  4. Leverage Existing Community Assets
TEDx Atlanta - The Birth of the Yo Boulevard! Brand
In March of 2012, Councilman Hall was as an attendee at a TEDx Atlanta www.tedxatlanta.comconference. Surrounded by some of the best and brightest minds in the city, it dawned on him that he should seize the opportunity to seek confederates for his campaign to restore civility to Boulevard. In January, Hall had already declared 2012 the “Year of Boulevard”. It was at the conference that the brand name “Yo Boulevard!” www.yoboulevard.com evolved and became a living breathing entity. The association with TEDx Atlanta served the purpose of gaining access to a diverse source of advisers with vast intellectual capital. It also provided the potential for partnerships with the city’s most progressive business leaders who possessed the necessary physical and financial capital.
The Children Are Our Future
Hall determined that the most important objective that should be pursued was empowering the children who lived in the community to break the “cycle of poverty”. He decided to focus on the children as the key objective because he believes that “You can change all the physical structures, but if you haven’t given people real opportunities, all you’re going to do is push them out.” Borne out of the TEDx conference, a three (3) part challenge was issued to the business and community leaders in the community:
  1. Sponsor a child for summer camp
  2. Hire a child for a summer internship
  3. Help a young person start a business and become an entrepreneur

During what was termed as the “Summer of Possibility” in association with their diverse team of advisers and by leveraging local businesses and vital community assets, Yo Boulevard! achieved all three objectives.
Operation PEACE: A Diamond in a Rough Place
Facing the onslaught of “gentrification” and the specter of past “urban renewal” schemes, it is unlikely that the residents in the Boulevard corridor would have welcomed warmly a new round of infiltration by people they consider “outsiders”. Even the inroads of more affluent or well educated residents of the adjacent communities might be met with skepticism without the intercession of an established and trusted force in the community. The natural candidate to fill this role in the Boulevard community was Operation P.E.A.C.E.www.operationpeace.org
Under the steadfast and trusted leadership of Executive Director, Ms. Edna Moffett, since 1995 Operation P.E.A.C.E. has been a dynamic agent of change in an otherwise neglected community. Operation P.E.A.C.E began as an effort to improve the lives of the children in the Old Fourth Ward community. In addition to serving as a buffer between the neighborhood children and the negative forces at work in the community, the organization has evolved into the primary community resource for residents looking for solutions to their problems. According to Moffet, “Because of our long track record as a catalyst for change in the community and a driver of successful outcomes for our youth, it was decided that Operation P.E.A.C.E. should be the standard-bearer for Yo Boulevard!”
“Living Laboratory for Innovation”
Only time, effort and “right action” will determine whether Yo Boulevard! can effectively counteract years of negative perceptions of the Old Fourth Ward community and the infamous Boulevard corridor. Hall's stated goal is to convert the community into a “Living Laboratory for Innovation”. His prudent insight and stalwart commitment to the project are evidenced by his observations that"We're talking about changing something that's been in place for thirty years. It's not going to change in six months." Although place branding initiatives have an inherent idealistic quality, with the type of pragmatic leadership that Councilman Hall provides to the project, it stands an excellent chance of succeeding.
Any successful branding strategy requires the dedication of adequate time, resources and organization. In the case of Place Branding, it is best to move moderately rather than be overly aggressive. The alliances that have been forged can be broken and confidences of the various stakeholders can be easily eroded. Yet if managed properly, an area that was thought to have already seen its best days can be transformed into a vigorous, lively and productive community.

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