Edmonton's Biggest Challenge

An unconventional branding blueprint for Edmonton

BY RANDY BROSOSKY

AS I write this, it's our last night in Cozumel. Soft sands, gorgeous skies. The friendliest fish this side of Caribbean--a diver's paradise. As I site here, the cool evening breeze is taking just enough edge off of the heat of the day to make it blissfully comfortable. Tomorrow we travel home. In the space of twelve hours, the temperature we experience will drop by over sixty degrees celsius. Eeep. But that's okay. Why?

I'm going home. To Edmonton. YEG as many of you know it. Where the heart is. And I love it.

My love affair with Edmonton started as any other would. As a kid coming from a small town I was infatuated by the possibilities of the 'big city.' It grew on me. Close enough to my parents to have ready support. Far enough to enjoy independence. And in the last couple years, I have really started to make fascinating, valuable connections with amazing people. Driven people. People of vision. Of passion. People who resolutely call Edmonton home and cherish it for the rich community that makes up its heart.

So what do people think when they hear Edmonton? This:

Last September 25-year-old graphic designer Mike Kendrick created &
shared this poster that sparked up lots of local conversation. "Edmonton
is very much a winter city," he said. "We should be embracing that with
pride, rather than being angry or insecure about it." 

This image was passed around 'the internets' a month or so ago. Many people shared it, commenting on how funny but true it was. Chuckling. LOL-ing. 'Liking' it and Tweeting it. People found it quite entertaining.

I didn't laugh when I saw it. I felt quite different indeed. A lump in my stomach. A sense of defeat. A hopeless psychic shrug. It doesn't matter how many fascinating people I meet. How many great plans and initiatives are started. How much drive and ambition we have.

This is how we are known. Worse, this was mostly shared by Edmontonians. This is how we see ourselves.

I've written about Edmonton's branding problem before. I am far from the only one. Todd Babiak has written and spoken about it as well. All these vibrant people. All these fantastic ideas. StartUp Edmonton, ArtsScene, #YEGalleyburger, Festival City, some of the best damn recycling programs in the world, WhatTheTruck?!, a river valley that is the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America, an IT and media community that is collaborative instead of competitive, an incredibly talented film community, more theatre per capita than anywhere else in North America. And the poster above is how we see ourselves. That's what resonates with people. That's what gets shared on Facebook. That's what we identify with.

I stared at my computer in stunned silence for a while. I considered moving. I have the belief that Edmonton can become a vibrant place that is world renowned--for tangible reasons, not for the crap that usually comes raining down on us from the mouths of politicians pushing agenda. That belief went out like a candle in a rainstorm. Work that I had already been postponing sat on my desk with no hope of catching my interest ever again.

This was it. This was our 'brand.' This was who we are. This was everything we didn't want to be.

Hmmmmm.

I stared. I listened to the radiators creak. The sun went behind a cloud and my office seemed colder.

Everything we didn't want to be.

Everything we didn't want.

Huh.

Well would you look at that.

Here's a checklist of all the problems with our image. Our identity. Neatly laid out. And there were two ways to look at it: something to be depressed about, or something to inform change.

Here's a side-by-side shot of Randy's trip to Cozumel, Mexico
and his return home to Edmonton, within the same week!
We can't come up with an identity on a piece of paper and then follow it. No city can. We have no choice but to find ourselves--new-agey as that might sound. But that doesn't mean we have to do it without guidance. I look at the poster in a new light. This is it. This is the Edmonton that we don't want. Much as businesses look at their vision statement to decide what actions will drive the company toward their goals, we can look at this to make decisions that will drive us away from what we don't want to be. What we cannot afford to believe in. An image of Edmonton that we ourselves mock mercilessly.

I started to smile. Whoever designed this little poster perfectly encapsulated what we want to steer away from.

I thought about it. Why was there so much resistance to the plans for the new museum? Because it will look exactly like the pedestrian outdated buildings that this poster mocks. Sure, there was resistance to the new Art Gallery too, but there is resistance to everything. Ask any politician. The questions becomes, what resistance is worth putting up with? What battles do you fight, what hills do you die on to make the world a better place than it was when you got there. How many people do you hear still complaining about the AGA vs. the number of people who speak positively about it?

Why was there so much furor over the airport development? It was a mix of this same resistance to change, plus a generous heap of hope that what will come out of it steers us away from the idea in this poster.

We're not sure who we want to be when we grow up. We're still young, in the scope of the world. But we certainly know who we don't want to be.

So here's your mission, should you choose to accept it. Save that poster on your computer. Hell, print it out. Just put it somewhere where you can see it every couple of days. Look at it. Learn it. And if you ever make any decision or choice that has even the remotest chance of affecting Edmonton, steer as brightly and boldly away from the idea in that poster as you can. The trap is not choosing. The trap is safe decisions and non-decisions. (Capital Ex anyone?) The sides of the trap are laced with the belief that others will decide and that there is nothing you can do. The bottom of the trap is flooded with complacency and inertia. This is not just about what councillor you vote for or being on your condo board. This is about a philosophy, a belief, that we can be more than "Alberta's own frozen wasteland" and it is a belief you need to embrace deeply, and to act on. In every way you can. The opportunities may be few or frequent, but there is nothing more powerful than an idea. And once that idea catches on, we can make Edmonton the city that it is capable of being.

Tonight I leave Cozumel--home of the friendliest fish this side of the Caribbean, the diver's paradise. Tomorrow I return to Edmonton. What am I coming home to? It is not the world's biggest social bubble. But changing that idea is up to all of us.

We can shed the shackles of the 'cards we're dealt' and start making new rules to the game. We can be the captains of our destiny, without having to be rich enough to own a hockey team. Let's make it our mission that some day, soon, people will look at this poster and say "Really? Edmonton used to be like that?" Let's make this image, this negative idea, a thing of the past.

Who's with me?


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