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How we got to the essence that is Iowa City

Editor’s note: This is part two in a series about the nature of a brand. Read part one here.

Branding dates back 4,000 years, to a time when Norse cattle were marked to signify ownership.

But branding and brands are different.

Brands exist only in the minds of humans. They are wisps of perception and innuendo and interpretation and memory. They are smoke and fog and dreams.

This is what makes the discipline of branding and marketing so incredibly difficult.

Companies don’t “own” brands. They own the representations of those brands — the identity elements such as marks, logos, and images, even colors and sounds. Those elements become badges of belonging for those who feel a deep connection to the spirit of the organization, and to others who feel that same connection. Think Harley, Nike, Apple.

Nowhere is a sense of belonging more powerful than in the places that we live. Why is a sense of place so important to us? Because it helps us better understand who we are and where we belong.

At Medium Giant, we specialize in tourism and economic development, working with destinations all over the country. Each of these places is special, shaping and being shaped by the people who live there.

Every one of these communities has a brand — from villages, towns, and cities to counties, states, and regions. The perceptions of these places vary, depending on the impressions made on humans who tend to form opinions of them based on nothing more definitive than Hollywood or hearsay.

Although that can make working on a place brand frustrating, it can also make it some of the most rewarding work you’ll ever do. Let me tell you a story about a place whose brand we helped crystallize. That place is called Iowa City.

Iowa City: A Collection of Communities

We were hired by the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to rebrand the place as a visitor destination. The name alone hints at the challenge to come.

Before we go on, think about your own perceptions of Iowa. You may have positive or negative or neutral feelings about the place, depending.

Corn may come to mind. Miles and miles and miles of it.

Maybe TV images of presidential candidates eating corn dogs at a state fair flash through your head.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you may very well have clear perceptions of Iowa City as the home of the University of Iowa —more specifically, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where some of the greatest American writers ever have passed through.

When we started working with this unique place, I knew very little about it. In my mind, it was a horizon of endless cornfields, a place where ghosts come out to play baseball.

In fact, when we pitched the business, we flew into Des Moines and then got in the car to drive two hours east through — you guessed it — miles and miles of rolling cornfields.

But when we drove into Iowa City, our perceptions started to change immediately.

Iowa City is a pretty college town tucked into the hills of southeast Iowa. The gentle Iowa River runs through the middle of the city. It has an intimate and walkable downtown that borders a campus of more than 33,000 students. Interestingly, Iowa City has one of the last remaining — and most successful — pedestrian malls in America. It sits in the heart of the city.

The University of Iowa is a member of the Big Ten, a conference with a reputation of academic excellence. And there’s the aforementioned Writers’ Workshop.

Iowa City is at the center of a group of communities that together form what you or I would assume is all Iowa City. However, Iowa City proper tends to vote Democratic while its adjoining sister communities run from purple to ruby red Republican.

They hired us to figure out what to call this quirky collection of communities and then to build a unifying brand identity to help them attract overnight visitors. God help us.

But slowly, over the course of the week we were immersed in Iowa City, the culture emerged. We began to realize the importance of all the things I’ve just told you about it.

Add to that their deliberation, the way they always answered our questions deeply and honestly. This was a clue to their nature.

Even the richness of the food — from pie shakes (literally a piece of pie put into a milkshake!) to the very best creamed corn ever (it comes in a bowl with a spoon) — was significant.

But the most telling for us was the community’s love of literature.

The Coralville Marriott had a walk-in library. With a fireplace and books by Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor. Really.

Iowa City’s public library sat smack dab in the middle of downtown, with parking spaces limited to 30 minutes and carefully monitored by the police department. (I learned this bit of information painfully, blissfully eating my creamed corn while the meter ran out.)

After the creamed corn (still parked at said meter), we walked over to Prairie Lights, Iowa City’s famed independent bookstore. It was a weeknight, and the upstairs was so packed that we barely had room to step up and turn around. A reading was going on, and there were so many people in the place that we couldn’t ever see the writer who was speaking.

We talked to dozens of people that week. As the character of this place emerged from our conversations and experiences, we began to realize that the nature of this place and its people was deeper than food, or literature, or any of the other obvious connections we found.

This thoughtfully quirky place cultivates curiosity. The eclectic communities that make up what we call Iowa City form its cabinet. Iowa City is a Collection of Curious Communities, each with its own unique chapter contributing to the overarching story of Iowa City.

Here is how we represented that idea in the primary brand identity:

Iowa City logo

For the campaign, we leaned in, stoking the curiosity of those who encountered the brand and paying homage to Iowa City’s literary roots and its deeply thoughtful people.

Branding and creative for Iowa City

So now when you think of Iowa City, thinkiowacity.com.

And when you need help building your own brand, think of us.

How we got to the essence that is Iowa City

Editor’s note: This is part two in a series about the nature of a brand. Read part one here.

Branding dates back 4,000 years, to a time when Norse cattle were marked to signify ownership.

But branding and brands are different.

Brands exist only in the minds of humans. They are wisps of perception and innuendo and interpretation and memory. They are smoke and fog and dreams.

This is what makes the discipline of branding and marketing so incredibly difficult.

Companies don’t “own” brands. They own the representations of those brands — the identity elements such as marks, logos, and images, even colors and sounds. Those elements become badges of belonging for those who feel a deep connection to the spirit of the organization, and to others who feel that same connection. Think Harley, Nike, Apple.

Nowhere is a sense of belonging more powerful than in the places that we live. Why is a sense of place so important to us? Because it helps us better understand who we are and where we belong.

At Medium Giant, we specialize in tourism and economic development, working with destinations all over the country. Each of these places is special, shaping and being shaped by the people who live there.

Every one of these communities has a brand — from villages, towns, and cities to counties, states, and regions. The perceptions of these places vary, depending on the impressions made on humans who tend to form opinions of them based on nothing more definitive than Hollywood or hearsay.

Although that can make working on a place brand frustrating, it can also make it some of the most rewarding work you’ll ever do. Let me tell you a story about a place whose brand we helped crystallize. That place is called Iowa City.

Iowa City: A Collection of Communities

We were hired by the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to rebrand the place as a visitor destination. The name alone hints at the challenge to come.

Before we go on, think about your own perceptions of Iowa. You may have positive or negative or neutral feelings about the place, depending.

Corn may come to mind. Miles and miles and miles of it.

Maybe TV images of presidential candidates eating corn dogs at a state fair flash through your head.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you may very well have clear perceptions of Iowa City as the home of the University of Iowa —more specifically, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where some of the greatest American writers ever have passed through.

When we started working with this unique place, I knew very little about it. In my mind, it was a horizon of endless cornfields, a place where ghosts come out to play baseball.

In fact, when we pitched the business, we flew into Des Moines and then got in the car to drive two hours east through — you guessed it — miles and miles of rolling cornfields.

But when we drove into Iowa City, our perceptions started to change immediately.

Iowa City is a pretty college town tucked into the hills of southeast Iowa. The gentle Iowa River runs through the middle of the city. It has an intimate and walkable downtown that borders a campus of more than 33,000 students. Interestingly, Iowa City has one of the last remaining — and most successful — pedestrian malls in America. It sits in the heart of the city.

The University of Iowa is a member of the Big Ten, a conference with a reputation of academic excellence. And there’s the aforementioned Writers’ Workshop.

Iowa City is at the center of a group of communities that together form what you or I would assume is all Iowa City. However, Iowa City proper tends to vote Democratic while its adjoining sister communities run from purple to ruby red Republican.

They hired us to figure out what to call this quirky collection of communities and then to build a unifying brand identity to help them attract overnight visitors. God help us.

But slowly, over the course of the week we were immersed in Iowa City, the culture emerged. We began to realize the importance of all the things I’ve just told you about it.

Add to that their deliberation, the way they always answered our questions deeply and honestly. This was a clue to their nature.

Even the richness of the food — from pie shakes (literally a piece of pie put into a milkshake!) to the very best creamed corn ever (it comes in a bowl with a spoon) — was significant.

But the most telling for us was the community’s love of literature.

The Coralville Marriott had a walk-in library. With a fireplace and books by Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor. Really.

Iowa City’s public library sat smack dab in the middle of downtown, with parking spaces limited to 30 minutes and carefully monitored by the police department. (I learned this bit of information painfully, blissfully eating my creamed corn while the meter ran out.)

After the creamed corn (still parked at said meter), we walked over to Prairie Lights, Iowa City’s famed independent bookstore. It was a weeknight, and the upstairs was so packed that we barely had room to step up and turn around. A reading was going on, and there were so many people in the place that we couldn’t ever see the writer who was speaking.

We talked to dozens of people that week. As the character of this place emerged from our conversations and experiences, we began to realize that the nature of this place and its people was deeper than food, or literature, or any of the other obvious connections we found.

This thoughtfully quirky place cultivates curiosity. The eclectic communities that make up what we call Iowa City form its cabinet. Iowa City is a Collection of Curious Communities, each with its own unique chapter contributing to the overarching story of Iowa City.

Here is how we represented that idea in the primary brand identity:

Iowa City logo

For the campaign, we leaned in, stoking the curiosity of those who encountered the brand and paying homage to Iowa City’s literary roots and its deeply thoughtful people.

Branding and creative for Iowa City

So now when you think of Iowa City, thinkiowacity.com.

And when you need help building your own brand, think of us.

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