‘Brand’ St. Albert? Plug the potholes first!

This column was published in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

The “Dr. Phil of tourism” brought his medicine show to St. Albert last week with the answers to what ails us. Thanks to Roger Brooks of Seattle, we now know that all we need to become a northern tourist sensation is a new “brand.” Right?

Wrong, unfortunately. The $70,000 US St. Albert has spent buying “branding” services from Mr. Brooks’s company is not a good use of our tax dollars. We could achieve the same goals ourselves for a tenth the cost – and spend the money locally to boot!

Branding is a business buzzword that describes marketing efforts to make businesses, products or services that are essentially the same seem unique in order to appeal to customers. There’s big money to be made giving things a “brand identity.”

Of course, people, businesses and places have always done this – they just used other terms and didn’t pay so much for the service.

The problem isn’t that branding doesn’t work – it can be an effective part of a marketing strategy. Imagine you’re looking for an edge over another automotive lube joint down the road. If you call your service “Mother Nature’s oil change,” maybe you can appeal to would-be environmentalists.

But merely proclaiming ourselves to be “Alberta’s botanic arts capital” isn’t going to turn St. Albert into a tourist mecca.

Here’s why: What is unique and desirable about St. Albert is not something that will attract meaningful numbers of tourists. Our city is safe and pleasant, in touch with its remarkable history, in possession of fine recreational facilities and home to an iconic civic building and a well-known gardening business.

In other words, it’s a great place to live. That means we’re unlikely to require “branding” to persuade people from the Capital Region that they’d like to move to St. Albert.

But we will never have – nor would most St. Albertans want – the kind of attractions needed for mass tourism. We are not next door to a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon, and we are not about to build Disneyland.

Moreover, as Mr. Brooks himself pointed out, successfully branding a community doesn’t happen overnight. You earn it. It takes time. So if a community has a perception problem – say, for too-high taxes – you can’t change it merely by adopting a cool slogan.

So did we really need an American branding guru to tell us some people come here to visit Hole’s Greenhouses, and that it might be a thought to develop a few spin-off businesses?

Not so many years ago, you’ll recall, every community in Western Canada was painting murals on buildings to attract tourists. “If you paint them, they will come,” was the theory. Lots of places, including St. Albert, painted them. Alas, the tourists never came.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious. No one in their right mind is gong to drive 10 miles – let alone 1,000 – to see a fading mural by an amateur artist on the side of a dilapidated building.

But at least the mural craze had some advantages. It was cheap, and in most cases employed local people.

Not so branding. Branding costs big bucks. It requires expensive specialists like Mr. Brooks, often from far away. It puts nothing back into the local economy. And in the end, if you’re not selling widgets or gasoline, it doesn’t make much difference.

Now that we’ve spent $70,000 US to determine the obvious, Mr. Brooks says he’ll be back in the fall with a proposal for the next stage. You can bet it’ll cost a whole lot more!

As taxpayers, we should ask ourselves: Do we really need to spend any more on this kind of thing? We’d do better using the money plugging potholes.

One Comment on "‘Brand’ St. Albert? Plug the potholes first!"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Can anybody say "Climenhaga for Mayor!"

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