How to Brand Your City Without Copying Another

5 min readJun 6, 2018
Image Credit: Flickr Contributor Michael Righi

When it comes to developing a city brand, it’s tempting to look to other areas for examples. But, according to Laura Sellors, a partner at the international branding firm Entro, the secret to place branding lies in highlighting a city’s unique characteristics — not mimicking a tried-and-true formula.

On June 6, Sellors will share further insights on place branding at City Nation Place Americas, a two-day conference co-hosted by the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate. We caught up with her ahead of the conference to learn more about her communications and design philosophy.

What role do media and graphics play in communicating a city’s brand? What are some effective strategies for using these tools?

It is crucial to articulate who you are as a city, and get this out into the public as succinctly and powerfully as possible. In a large organization like a city, the challenge is to bring forward all of its different entities and characteristics, while having something non-generic that stands out compared to other cities. It is also key to set a tone for what visitors can expect, that can truly be matched when they actually arrive. A brand is also not just one message for an entire city — the individual neighborhoods and districts that make up a city can also create their own sense of arrival and place.

Tell us about one of your most powerful place-branding initiatives. What made it such a success?

Daniels Spectrum is a community cultural hub and a key part of the revitalization of the social housing area of Regent Park [in Toronto]. For our work on the exterior façade and internal environment, we considered the multiple cultures making up not only this neighborhood, but also the diversity of Toronto. We used a unique algorithm to distill the flags of the countries of origin of residents and community members into simplified, colored bands. These bands served to ignite a welcoming feeling and the familiarity of home, while also speaking to the vibrancy of the community and the arts centre.

“It is important that cities don’t try to replicate what has worked for others.”

For Oakridge [in Calgary], the aim is to recreate the “lost forest” and try to create a symbiosis of nature and a more urban environment. Emphasis was placed on the participation of city developers through stakeholder consultation. The exhibition is called “Unwritten,” as the brand is a living, morphing entity. Oakridge is now seen as a living city, with a high participation and exchange of ideas. This is an ideal and somewhat different approach to how cities evolve and identify themselves. New communities that are built must always be flexible in how they tie into the social, cultural, and physical landscape.

Your organization has worked on a number of wayfinding projects — an often overlooked element of urban design. How important is wayfinding, or being able to navigate through a space, to a city’s overall brand?

Since the mayor of a city can’t greet everyone personally, we must have other ways of orienting visitors to their new surroundings. Wayfinding also has the power to guide people through the city in a way that tells a story and highlights its best features and attractions. Great wayfinding, especially when it is internationally understandable, can give people a sense of security, and demonstrate how organized a city’s planning can be. It can also communicate a city’s understanding of its own culture and aesthetics. As a visitor, there should be always be an element of wandering and exploring the city on your own, but once you need to find information or get to a destination within the city, you should always be able to go back to the system and find your way.

Your firm is based in Canada and Switzerland, but you’ve also done work in New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, and even smaller cities like Albany, Rochester, and Glendale, Arizona. How do residents’ priorities differ based on location?

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Thomas Conté

For any city, we always try to find elements that are unique to that area, city, or project. We look at the history of the place, the landscape, people, buildings, and whatever else can help to carve out a niche that can then be digitized and verbalized through branding and graphic design. These city brands can also live in the broader context of a country, idea, and so on. There are many layers to the aesthetics of a place, which can be expressed in the type of font or colors chosen, or the graphic vernacular people might be used to. It is also important to remember that some strategies may work for some areas, but not for others.

Attractions such as the “I amsterdam” sign in the Netherlands, Pike Place market in Seattle, or Guggenheim Museum in New York have become synonymous with their respective cities. How can developers and communications firms work together to create this same kind of legacy?

While these particular attractions have been successful, it is important that cities don’t try to replicate what has worked for others. Every city should try to find what is unique to them and what they can truly own, and work with developers to create this in an honest and sustainable way. Permanent architectural or landscape investments can be iconic and represent a snapshot of the current time. For example, the Eiffel Tower in Paris was revolutionary at its time and was developed to bring people to greater heights. This architectural achievement influenced many others, and this leadership has allowed it to remain as a symbol of Paris even today. Developers should invest in architecture to question the status quo in this same way, and lead visually.

Laura Sellors is a partner at Entro, an international branding and environmental design firm. In addition to overseeing the organization’s growth, Laura help shapes its international portfolio across key sectors, including commercial real estate.