Designing Brand With The Community

How a “mob from Surry Hills” and few hundred West Coasters are working together to build a new place brand

Strahan Community Meeting

We’re currently working with the West Coast Council to build a brand that will promote long-term, sustainable economic growth and spark a whole-of-region transformation. This post focuses specifically on how we’ve approached engaging the West Coast community to make it happen. You can follow the whole project process on the West Coast thread of Stories For The People.


When we received the brief for the West Coast Branding Project, there was one word which stood out, page after page: Community.

The West Coast of Tasmania is an area of 9,500 km2 of land and has a population of just over 4,000 (ABS, 2016 Census) across five towns and two smaller townships. The community is small and dispersed. But by the same token it’s strong, tight-knit and tough.

Our brief is to design a brand that can help spark a major economic shift in the region. We know, as well did our client when they briefed us, that achieving this will require the full support, ratification and affirmation from a large part of, if not the whole, community. We also knew, when we read the brief, that the work itself would only benefit from connecting with the community, in particular in the early stages of work.

Not only this, we’ve seen time and time again, including very recently in Hobart, what happens when projects like this don’t put the community front and centre of the process. It does not usually go well.

Our approach to this project has been to stand side-by-side and work hand-in-hand with the community at every opportunity. Below, we explain how we have done it, focusing on a set of four steps and principles:

1. Getting the word out in the right channels
2. Setting an expectation of transparency
3. Going deep on connection to place
4. Exhibiting close to reality

With more experimentation still to be done, we hope over time that this approach can become a template for conducting more impactful place branding work, across diverse and far-reaching parts of the world.


Getting word out in the right channels

At the beginning of the project we held five community sessions in each of the West Coast towns. These sessions were an open invitation to all West Coasters and our aim was to get as many people, from as many different parts of the community into the room.

We used three main channels to publicise the sessions: articles in the local paper, The Advocate; posters in local shop windows and radio promos on 7XS. With the incredible support of Annie and the 7XS team, radio become our most important broadcast channel. We ended up doing interviews on-air every morning while we were in the West Coast, summarising the session we had done the night before and promoting the one coming up that evening.

Our radio debut on7XS (above), coverage of the project in the local Advocate newspaper (left) and a couple of not-so-happy letters to the Editor (right).

Connecting with existing community groups and networks on-the-ground was as, if not more important than putting the word out on broadcast channel. The best example of this is our engagement with the community in Tullah, a town of just under 200 people on the north-east corner of the West Coast region, on the road to Cradle Mountain.

Before we ran the community session in Tullah, we met with the Tullah Progress Association (TPA). The TPA is a lynchpin of the Tullah community and in recent years has put on triathlons, helped train up locals in running guided bush walks and raised enough money to replace road signage on the way into the town.

Getting the TPA involved in the project from the start didn’t necessarily mean they were advocates of the branding work, but it did mean that they advocated for local people to get involved and have their say — which, after all, was the first step. The community session in Tullah was the first one we ran and had the second highest turnout, despite the fact that Tullah’s population is a fifth of the size of the next biggest town in the region.

On the flip side, we also felt the impact of not being connected to local community groups. In Rosebery, we happened to schedule a community engagement session later on in the process, on the same night as both the local Lions meeting and district high school parents’ evening. As such, turn out was a lot lower than we’d hoped. Had we been in contact with these groups not only could we have rearranged the date, we could have asked their leaders to spread the word using their tried, tested and trusted communication channels.

Alongside face-to-face engagement, we set up a Facebook group, The West Coast Branding Project. Initially we used it to create events for each of the community sessions — it was another publicity channel. However, over the last three months the group has grown to almost 350 members, sharing stories, answering our questions and discussing the future of the West Coast. It’s been our means to keep conversation going with the community and we hope it will continue to be so as we head towards the launch and roll out of the brand.

338 members (and counting), a few big questions, thousands of comments and one washed out Facebook Live.

Working with extreme transparency

Often, at least in my own experience, place-branding is conducted behind closed doors with only a selective group of stakeholders and privileged community members, with a bias towards those with high cultural capital and/or influence, privy to the process.

As a result, it’s hit or miss on whether the community it’s designed to represent believes in and gets behind what comes out on the other side. For some bigger places and communities this is less important and arguably more complex. But for a place of 4,000 people — which has long experienced outsiders coming in and telling them what to do – it’s imperative.

At For The People we work to a philosophy of transparency with our clients. This means we share a lot of work-in-progress thinking as we go and one of the ways we do this is by filming videos of our internal working sessions. These videos are poorly produced (our kit usually consists of an iPhone and a selfie-stick), scrappy, and usually far too long.

Working with West Coast Council was no exception. Before we kicked off the research phase we recorded a video to capture our hypotheses for the project using a method that we call ‘The Grid’. Once we’d finished the session, we uploaded the video and shared it with our client, Christine. The next day we were down on the West Coast meeting the Council team for the first time face-to-face. At the beginning of the kick-off meeting, Christine, thanked us for the video, said that she had shared it with the Council team and then asked us to post it to the community Facebook group.

West Coast Grid 1.

I was taken back by the request. Very often, we encourage clients to share our videos with different teams across their organisations but we’d never put one out in public for a whole community to see.

We posted it on Friday afternoon and waited to see how people would respond. When we checked in on Monday, it had over 60 views (big weekend ratings in the world of internal project videos) and several people were discussing it on Facebook. Not only this, the video had acted as primer for face-to-face community engagement; as we ran interviews and community sessions in the week that followed, several people referenced and built on the ideas that had been raised in The Grid.

In the three months that have passed since, we have shared more videos, of internal and stakeholder meetings, posted weekly project updates on Facebook, and even put our work up in shop windows across the West Coast.

Sharing that first video on Facebook set a precedent for the project, to openly share our work with the community as we go. We believe that this approach will mean people are ready and waiting with open arms to take on, build and own the brand, once our scope of work is done.

Empty shop windows on Strahan waterfront where we displayed posters summarising our initial analysis.

Going deep on connection to place

“If you accused them of being Tasmanians they’d say, certainly not, we’re West Coasters” — ABC West Coasters

Looking at the best place brands around the world, for example New York, New Zealand or the official-unofficial Kentucky brand, they communicate much more than the what-to-dos, why-to-gos or how-to-invest, they give you the feeling you’ll get when you’re there. When we were speaking to the West Coast community, that’s what we were trying to find — the unique character, spirit and feeling of the people and the place.

We knew before we started on-the-ground research that people from, or indeed living on, the West Coast had a strong sense of local identity and a deep connection to place — a fair bit had been written and recorded about it. In a project like this it is tempting to rely on what’s already been documented, to rest on the past or look for evidence to reproduce what’s already known. But this approach doesn’t get you to the place of setting a bold new vision or sparking economic transformation.

We focused our objective for community engagement on finding out:

“What’s to true our past, is true now, and always will be true about the West Coast.”

Part of our task then in community sessions, interviews and speaking to people out and about was to get under the skin of the West Coast and get to that truth in as much detail as we could, as quickly as we could. To do this we used three methods:

Method 1: Five-minute questions:

We built a master set of questions to get people thinking about their relationship with the West Coast. The questions were deliberately designed to be provocative but also simple, so that we could ask them wherever we were, however little time we had, and make clear, comparative notes on the nuances that came up around the whole region. We also used the same questions to prompt discussion on the West Coast Branding Project Facebook group

5-minute questions:
— What makes West Coast different from any other place in the world?
 — What’s the most common thing you hear people say about the West Coast? 
 — How would you describe West Coast to someone who’d never been? 
 — What makes e.g. Queenstown different from e.g. Strahan
 — What really makes you angry or frustrated about living here?
 — What are you most excited about for the future?
 — If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be & why?

Method 2: Notes to the West Coast

We used this as a warm-up exercise at the community meetings to get people talking around the table and get everyone in the right frame of mind for subsequent discussion. The task was to write a note to the West Coast, a love letter of sorts, prompted by a specific memory or experience. In the sessions, we had an extraordinary mix of people — some fourth-generation West Coasters, others who had only lived there for a few months or years. We didn’t anticipate this beforehand, but in fact, the exercise acted as a leveller; to make sure everyone felt that they had a legitimate voice in the process. What came out of it were funny, moving, untold stories, that we probably otherwise wouldn’t have heard.

Loves letter, of sorts, to the place you call home.

Method 3: Dos & Don’ts

Designed as an on-the-spot etiquette guide, we asked everyone to fill in the need-to-knows, what-not-to-dos for visiting, living and working on the West Coast. From this exercise, we learned some very practical information — like how to survive wild West Coast weather (wear a big waterproof jacket and Blunnies) — but also some fundamental truths about the character and spirit of West Coasters.

Dos & Don’ts: Where we leaned to wear Blunnies, bring a crayfish, not to mention the Dam, and to never knock a West Coaster.

After research, we came back loaded with notebooks full and hundreds of letters and templates. And much of the content in here — stories, language, anecdote — became the raw material for the brand.

In our travels around the West Coast, many people we met were able to talk openly and astutely talk about what makes the place so special off-the-bat, without any prompt at all. Others were hesitant, perhaps skeptical of what we were asking them, but often surprised by what they wrote or created as a result. In the end, we didn’t use every method in every session, but used them when we needed to focus discussion and help people go a bit deeper. And this got us to the place we needed to get to — under the skin of the West Coast.

As is often the case, the really good stuff came out right at the end, in the last ten minutes of the sessions. This is where we found the truths that we’d been looking for and these truths went on to become the foundations for the new brand. Below is a transcript taken from the last few minutes of the Strahan community session:

When the last of original owners was marched out of Port Davey, West Coasters were here and we were left as the custodians of the land. Our roots are in mining, forestry, and fishing. Our core, our heart, in is the land and the environment we live in. I believe that West Coaster have looked after it.
Of course, we have places like Queenstown in the early days which people look at say, “It was a disaster”. And it was, but that’s what happened in those days. That’s in our past and we’ve learned from it.
Today, there are still families here who can go to Kelly Basin and look in the log book and see their fathers, and grandfather and their great grandfathers who went down there. And now they take their kids down to do the same. There the traditions and values here — recreational values and lifestyle vales. And I believe that’s a main part of being a West Coaster and being on the West Coast. 
 — Transcript taken from the Strahan community meeting

Taking the brand to exhibition

After the initial community engagement and wider field research on the West Coast, we spent three weeks designing two conceptual directions for the new West Coast brand.

In a place branding programme, it’s usual to test concepts with the community at an interim stage and in a series of small, closed focus groups or workshops. In fact, in some states and local government areas in Australia there are strict guidelines for when this kind of testing has to happen and how it should be conducted.

Fortunately, the West Coast Council gave us freedom to do this testing how we saw fit. We used the two philosophies that we’d established at the beginning of the project to guide our approach — to be as transparent as possible and get feedback from as many people in the community as we could. The way we did was by putting on, what we termed, Brand Exhibitions in each of the five towns.

West Coast Brand Exhibitions held over three days across the region in community halls, RSLs and vacant shops.

We worked with the Council to decide the best format and locations for the exhibitions. We didn’t want anyone in the community to miss out because of timing so every exhibition was open from 12–8pm, each with two live sessions, one at lunch and one in the evening, where our team talked through the concepts. Venues varied from community halls to an old vacant ice cream shop and an RSL with beer on tap.

The exhibition itself was designed to take people on a journey, from outside the West Coast to deep into the heart of the community. Both creative directions followed the same format:

  • Telling our story to the world: Billboards in Sydney, print ads in the Conde Nast and flyers in Hobart airport.
  • Getting around the West Coast: Roadsigns and maps guiding tourist towards extraordinary experiences when they’ve reached the region.
  • Standing proud as West Coasters: Ideas and applications to connect the communities, stories and places across the West Coast.
  • Doing the basics well: Everyday signs, symbols and Council collateral (including some very popular designs for new recycling bins).
  • Designing our future: Written proposals and ideas to inspire investment and diverse economic growth in the region.

When working out how our exhibition patrons should feed back on the concepts we were aware of a few factors. Firstly, seeing creative work of this kind can be difficult to process on-the-spot. Secondly, group discussions around creative concepts or new ideas are particularly susceptible to loud voices influencing the course of consensus. And finally, there’s a natural tendency to want to cast a vote one way or the other. Our aim was not to choose a winner, but to get detailed and constructive feedback on both concepts so that we could create the best brand possible for the West Coast.

With these factors in mind we designed two feedback postcards, one for each creative concept, both with the same set of structured questions, which we gave out at the beginning of each exhibition and which people posted in a box in confidence on their way out. We still had valuable one-on-one discussion and group debates in the room, but this approach made sure that everyone’s voice was heard.

After we’d wrapped up the five exhibitions we also shared images of the concepts boards, short video intros and a survey link containing the same questions as we’d asked on the postcards to the project Facebook group.

Feedback postcards for each creative route and open post-it walls where people could share overall feedback, questions and concerns.

What we learned and what happens next

The feedback we received from exhibition was overwhelming positive. In every town people affirmed that we were on track to fulfil our stated objective; to build a brand that is true to the West Coast past, present and future. The fact that we were able to get to this point is testament to the enthusiasm, honesty and commitment from members of the community who’ve been involved so far.

“You’ve distilled the essence of the West Coast.”
“It’s captured the heartbeat of the West Coast — the brutality, honest and severity.” 
“It shows how we look at ourselves past, present and future.”
“You’ve reflected back to us not only who we are but what we could be.”
Feedback from the brand exhibition postcards

Of course, our biggest test is still to come. We’re now developing the final brand direction and preparing for launch in late July this year.

There’s still a big proportion of the community we haven’t spoken with at all. We’ve realised over the last few months that this is, at least in part, because branding projects like this don’t have immediate relevance or impact on most people’s lives, and for many people on the West Coast this fact may stay the same after launch.

Despite, or perhaps because of this fact, we’re now working on building a brand toolkit that puts community at the centre, where every single West Coaster has the opportunity to assess, adapt and take ownership of the brand after it’s launched. We’ll be writing more about how we get one over the next couple of months.


For The People are working with West Coast Council, Tasmania to create a brand for the West Coast that can spark a whole-of-region transformation and build a sustainable foundation for future growth. You can follow the whole project process on the West Coast thread of Stories For The People.