The word “brand” is an illusive term. Most people think a logo and a tagline constitutes a brand. This is a common misperception. A logo and a tag line are only the visual signatures of a brand. You will find several definitions for “brand” in the dictionary as both a noun and a verb. It’s believed that the word brand was derived from an Old English term, bærnan that means to burn. The word is commonly used to refer to mark something denoting ownership. The practice of branding can be traced back to 1300 BC in the form of potters’ marks on Chinese and Roman pottery. In the 1200s, English bakers and metal smiths were required to put their marks on their goods to insure honesty in measurement. As far back as 2000 BC, cattle and livestock were branded for proof of ownership. Ranchers still use red-hot irons to brand their marks into the hides of livestock. These same brands often appear over gateways as ranch identities.

In the 1800s, consumer product companies like Proctor & Gamble began branding their products with package graphics and print advertising. During this time, advertising began to emerge as an profit center unto itself. Advertising specialists became strategic partners for companies who used marketing to sell their products and services. A company’s image (brand) was influenced by advertising, product packaging and the resulting public perception.

By the late 1990s and the early 2000s, branding became a central focus for companies and their products. It also was a significant tool used by municipalities, institutions, organizations and individuals.

The American Marketing Association defines a “brand” as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers.” Ideally, the development of a well-crafted brand will result in more visitors, economic growth and sustainable urban development.

When asked to define brand, I give people the short version first. “Simply put, it’s the impression other people have of you regardless of your intention.” But there is more to it than that. In his book, Destination Branding for Small Cities, Bill Baker explains “a true brand is an organizing principal that will influence everything you do as a DMO (destination marketing organization) in order to orchestrate outstanding customer experiences.” If you are considering developing a brand for your community, or thinking about changing the one you have, I strongly recommend Bill’s book. You can purchase it through Amazon Books (

For cities and tourist destinations, branding has become an effective tool used to attract visitors. It’s the process a community undergoes to develop an identity supported by a strategic campaign to deliver an intended message to a targeted audience for a desired response.

Thousands of cities, towns and small communities throughout the world compete for the same slice of pie, specifically visitor dollars. In challenging economic times that slice begins to shrink. People travel less and spend less. Vacationers who regularly travel abroad continue to plan their vacations; it’s just that in order to save money, they choose to visit areas in their back yard.

The question city tourism directors ask is how can we entice visitors to spend their dollars in our area? The answer lies in understanding why people go to other countries in the first place. The majority of travelers desire to go to where they can experience something unique. They want to see places that are different than their own hometowns.

Despite the most aggressive branding attempts, the reality is that the resulting “brand” is ultimately defined by public perception alone. Many communities spend thousands of dollars on a brand that fails to deliver the desired results. A badly conceived or poorly communicated brand will only burn up marketing budgets and discourage stakeholders.

When seeking the services of a branding expert, it’s unwise to bargain-shop for the cheapest consultant. Instead, look at the performance of their work. Talk to their former clients and judge them on the results, not the quantity or high profile of their projects. Your brand is one of the most important investments you will make to propel your marketing efforts. A well conceived brand by an experienced brand developer, delivered through effective modes of communication, would bring prosperity to your community. I used to tell my clients “If you brand it, they will come”. I’ve since changed that to “If you brand it right, they will come in greater numbers”.

Getting visitors to come to your community is one thing. Keeping them there or giving them a reason to come back is another. When you market your brand it’s like making a promise. Once the promise is made, you have to keep your promise by delivering a memorable experience. This is where Branded Wayfinding comes in.

With the proper combination of planning and design, a wayfinding system can be as beautiful as it is functional. It can enhance the character of an area by creating a memorable sense of place for visitors and the local community while improving circulation with strategically placed guide signs.

Branded wayfinding combines the function of navigation with the aesthetics of theme-supportive graphics. If designed well, a branded wayfinding system will do two things. First, it will help your visitors navigate easily to key destinations within your community. Secondly, it will enhance a sense of place through brand-supportive graphics. Good navigation gets visitors to where you want them to spend their money. Providing visitors with a good experience will encourage them to stay longer and to keep coming back.

Not so long ago, the word “wayfinding” didn’t exist, although the basic concept of “finding one’s way” using landmarks, maps and signs did. Eventually, businesses and community leaders realized that if they put signs up along roads they could steer more patrons their way. This preceded the notion of branding, a relatively new concept. The function of early wayfinding was purely navigational. Today, the development of a brand often follows the process of creating a wayfinding system. I’m of the opinion that branding should always come first. In order for a wayfinding system to support a brand and help establish an experience for visitors, a brand should be fully developed and ready for implementation before the first visual concept for wayfinding is explored. A brand is the nucleus around which all visual communications must revolve.

Disney strategists, along with tourism and destination specialists, understand that visitors remember the feeling they get from their surroundings at a destination as much as the activity itself. This feeling comes from the architecture, landscaping and overall ambiance of the environment. Signs within that environment are highly visible elements and can influence the feeling of place if they are designed to support the brand or theme of their environment. That feeling can also be enhanced before their arrival with billboards and thematic road signs.

If you have ever driven to Disney World, you understand that the experience starts well before you enter the front gate. For those of you that have never made the trip, picture a family traveling by car to the Magic Kingdom. They get their first glimpse of Disney World through billboards on the side of the road. (Billboards tell them they are on the right path but also generate anticipation of a great experience).

As they get closer, the billboards become more frequent. By now, the kids have put down their iPods and are looking out the windows with their mouths open. A few miles away from the park, green highway signs start to display “Disney World 2 Miles Ahead”. (The State Department of Transportation will gladly place Tourist Oriented Directional signs on main routes to key destinations within their jurisdiction because of the economical benefit to the community).

Even the parents are starting to get excited. Soon the glorious site of the Disney World gateway sign comes into view. Now the kids have become completely unglued. They have officially devolved into caged monkeys.

As the family passes through the entrance (Primary gateway), they see brightly colored guide signs with large round mouse ears. (While these signs direct visitors to the many destinations within the park they also support the Disney brand and create a visual sense of place, enhancing visitor experience). Now the entire family is singing “It’s a Small World After all” and the car is bouncing up and down. They have arrived!