Beyond Roads, Rates and Rubbish
Open Source Branding a Regional Council
As I write the first draft of this piece, I write from the backseat of a 4x4 Toyota Hilander. Packed in the car with me is a bunch of waterproof gear, hiking boots, supplies to make wheatpaste, and my teammates Pete and Jason. Normal?
Not exactly. But…nothing about this project has been ‘normal.’
Usually, when you work on a brand project, your main client is a brand manager, or perhaps a CMO or CEO. That requires a bit of stakeholder management. Getting to know them, understanding what makes them tick, feeling out different tensions between departments, and gathering information. It means sharing concept work with clients before presenting to a group of end users.
And then we took on a project with the West Coast of Tasmania.
Number of stakeholders? 4,000. Why? What crazy studio would sign up for that gig?
For starters, we’re working for a local council. That’s a career first for everyone at For The People. If I’m honest, when I think about regional councils and the quality of design, I don’t think ‘progressive, exciting branding.’ I think roads, rates, and rubbish.
But this brief was different. The West Coast Council weren’t just asking for a logo.
The brief: create a whole-of-region brand that would lay the foundations to increase population, drive public and private investment in the area, drive tourism and re-ignite pride in the West Coast amongst locals.
Ya know, small stuff.
To put the region in context, the West Coast of Tasmania is 4 hours from Hobart, and 12,000KM from the next landfall (Chile). At one time, in it’s mining and pining heyday, the West Coast boasted a population of over 30,000 people. But when mining dried up, so did population — today’s population hovers around 4,000.
So, the question: can a council brand really reverse the fortunes of a boom-turned-bust region? To answer that, we need to look at the world of councils and community engagement.
The World of Councils: 99 Problems and a Logo ain’t One
1. Council Role of ‘Roads, Rates and Rubbish’ needs a Rethink
Councils have a perception problem. We wanted more than roads, rates and rubbish for councils. We believed that councils could play a bigger role than picking up trash. Councils can be a catalyst for change — especially when they harness and direct the collective energy of their communities. Testing this assumption, For The People partnered with the West Coast Council to create an open source brand: one that the community was involved in creating and would have full access to at the end of the project.
Our approach: Lay the foundation for the council to lead, not clean up after people.
2. Boring Questions Lead to Boring Answers
Too often, “consulting the community” looks like running a teeny tiny ad in a newspaper and blasting a dead email list to tick the box of letting people know they can come to a workshop and ‘have their say.’ Um, SNOOZEFEST. Boring questions beget boring answers. No census report is going to tell you that once, in the early 1900s, a quick-thinking mine manager performed an impromptu amputation on a trapped miner under the threat of a mine collapse — freeing the man and saving 11 other men minutes before the entire mine came down. This is the stuff that’s in the fabric of a place, and unless you start to pull on the threads of these kinds of stories, you’re doomed to generic representations of place.
Our approach: Ask good questions, and look for good stories.
3. Community Engagement: Top Down Approach is Back to Front
Here’s the problem with destination and regional branding. When it’s top down, and you don’t accurately reflect what’s true about a place, buckle up: people will create their own identity. Keep Tassie Wild. Kentucky for Kentucky. Keep Portland Weird. To my knowledge, none of these were formally commissioned. They came from people in response to a bad branding project or the absence of a formally commissioned brand identity.
We knew from the get go that our approach would have to be different, so we could deliver something the community could actually use. The council had to embrace sharing what is usually a behind-closed-doors-process, and we had to embrace a much-larger-than-usual group of stakeholders.
- Real talk > Research for research’s sake. We spent deep time in the community and didn’t outsource it.
- Public > Polished. We published everything for the community as we shared it with the council.
- Bottom up > Top down. We wanted to hear from locals about why they called the area home.
Our approach: Talk to the people in the place you’re designing for. Don’t outsource community engagement. This shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but apparently, it is.
What We Heard…and What We Did About It
We spent about 90 hours interviewing people, visiting community groups and key sites on the West Coast. In that time, we heard that the West Coast was getting passed over for investment, tourists thought the drive was too far and nothing was worth visiting, and locals thought the infrastructure was tired and not evenly distributed. If it were a person, the West Coast was a smart person with a lot of raw potential and a lack of confidence.
But underneath that lack of confidence were these CRAZY cool stories about how tough West Coasters were. And when people told us their stories, they were quirky and dark and funny.
What we designed is a graphic representation of that spirit— of what it means to be a West Coaster.
We heard: “We don’t want to lose our town’s identity.” The small towns in the West Coast are staunchly individual. So we drew out the stories and sayings from each town, giving each town the tools to carry their own look an feel. Queenstown’s gravel oval, Rosebery’s mists and mines, Strahan’s seaside heritage, Tullah’s lakeside tranquility and Zeehan’s silver heritage — all were represented. So we…gave each town more than a name.
We heard…”There’s more than environmental destruction here.” The West Coast has developed a reputation for environmental destruction — but there’s also swathes of World Heritage sites in the area. Many locals we spoke to wanted to develop sustainable (environmentally and economically) tourism. Part of that means showing people the protected environment that the West Coast does have. So we…captured the West Coast — in all its wet, dark, rainy, moody glory.
We heard…Stories. So many stories. About the time AC/DC played at Queenstown memorial hall..and, as rumour has it…where Bon Scott met Rosie, of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ fame. Or the time the T.T.S. Loongana set a record sailing across the Bass Strait to deliver rescue equipment for men trapped in the 1912 Mt. Lyell disaster. But they were mostly either in people’s heads, sitting in museums, or tucked away on little chat forums at various corners of the internet So we…captured them and gave context to them, so newcomers and locals could share in the rich history of the West Coast.
We heard…”When times are tough, West Coasters pull together and ‘find a way or make a way (Mt Lyell Railway’s official motto).” The West Coast’s population is in decline. Times are tough. So instead of developing a tightly held brand book, we made the system totally open to the community. By registering with the council’s West Coast Made program, local operators can get access to the photography, iconography, fonts, and logo. So we…built a system for the community to use.
We heard…“There’s a certain way of doing things here. There’s pride in being a West Coaster. But people outside of the West Coast don’t understand that.” We didn’t simply want to craft a killer video or a slick logo. We wanted to create something that sums up the pride we heard when West Coasters spoke about their heritage. Something they’d be proud to wear and represent themselves with.
We heard…“People come visit us in the rainforest and then complain about the rain!” We wanted to help people who were new to the West Coast, to learn the ways of the West Coast — whether that meant making sure to look out for the wildlife (“did you hit anything on the way in” seemed to be the local greeting to newcomers!), or reminding people to pack their umbrellas. So we looked at signage and communication as tool to help newbies navigate the West Coast ways — literally and figuratively.
Reflections on How We Did It
Building a brand that’s true isn’t just a program of engagements and activities. It’s about being in the lives of the people you’re designing for. And the truth is that not many organisations are actually committed to the real cost. The West Coast council were an absolutely pleasure to work with — willing to be transparent with stakeholders and giving them the floor to share their experiences, which meant we could design a brand identity that resonated with locals. When developing an honest brand comes from an authentic place, it’s only made better by community participation.
There’s Power in Truth
A funny thing happens when you seek the truth. People came out of the woodwork to build brand with us, from the very beginning. The Tullah Progress Association met with us to share their experiences and hopes for Tullah. Locals hosted us for tea and scones. Typographer Mathieu Reguer went above and beyond to deliver Sidetrack, a font that references the prolific large scale sign painted typography that appeared throughout the region during the settlement and mining boom. Illustrator Marco Palmieri developed a suite of illustrations and iconography that can be coupled with type and language, to further express the rough and ready life personality, and demonstrate the past and present history and environment of the region and towns.
It Takes a Village
Participation was the name of the game all the way through to the brand launch. The Queenstown men’s shed built the lumber elements of the brand exhibition. Local schoolchildren from Mountain Heights high school turned up to paint at the brand exhibition. Pete, Jason and I worked late into the evening wheat pasting posters to boards, nailing photos up, setting up the merchandise stand and testing AV on the cinema.
Heads and Hearts
Caring takes up a lot of head and heart space. Everyone on this project — our team at For The People, the West Coast Council, our partners — all went well above and beyond to deliver an honest representation of what the West Coast is. Blood (our cycling model), sweat (Pete, Jas, the men’s shed, countless others!) and tears (happy tears at the brand film, but also some delirious-late-night-induced tears throughout the project, too!) were a part of the process. Local councillors took time out of their day to drive us around their favourite spots on the West Coast. Locals invited us into their homes for tea and homemade scones. Lifelong West Coasters mailed us graphic reference to use during our creative exploration. Shed-loads of conversations happened over text, Slack, and phone to wrangle deadlines and deliverables.
Even though we’d had such an open and transparent process to develop this identity, launching it felt a little bit like tap-dancing naked in front of strangers: our stuff was all out there for people to see. This was our moment of truth. Pete, Jas, and I hung around the exhibition listening to people’s reactions, answering questions from people who knew us (the benefit of working extensively with a community — there were a lot of familiar faces). Listening to the responses about the brand film was particularly rewarding. There’s something about film that captures emotion and seemed to capture the renewed West Coast spirit that we’d started to see throughout this process.
We also were stoked to see that the brand merchandise was flying off the shelves — people were already wearing it around town, and putting their names on waiting lists for tees that had sold out already.
On Sunday, The Unconformity’s closing day, we headed out to watch the Unconformity Cup, a footy match between ‘The West’ and ‘The Rest’. We’d heard so many stories about how generations of Queenstowners and West Coasters remembered the harsh gravel oval in Queenstown, it felt a bit surreal to see the oval in use. By the time we left the oval, people were already hashtagging #gravelnotgrass and their bloody knees — something we didn’t anticipate, but cemented the fact that the West Coast has experiences and stories worth sharing with the world — and that this system gives people the tools to do it with.
By the Numbers: What Putting it All Out There Looks like
From the beginning, the way we worked was incredibly open. At For The People, we’re usually pretty transparent with our clients, but this was next level ‘open.’ Broadly speaking, this was the schedule of our community engagement:
- 40 hours of formal interviews
- 50+ hours in research
- 5 x Community consultations
- 400+ strong FB group
- 3 local community news articles
- Several letters to the editor (not all happy)
- 5 local radio interviews
- 1 ABC radio interview
- 100+ cups of tea
- A few scones
- Branding exhibitions x 5
- One very public brand launch
Where to From Here?
The brand launch was only the beginning. This is the beginning of a new way of operating — not only as a council, but as a community. Over the course of this project, we’ve witnessed new volunteer groups being formed — to encourage locals working across existing groups. We’ve seen different groups pitch in for a shared purpose. We’ve heard of exciting proposals put forward by locals for state government funding. This is only the beginning.
The thing I’m proudest of about this project is not the identity, or the tone, or the photography —it’s that I’m already seeing the West Coast redefining its future by drawing on an attitude that’s always been intrinsic in the West Coast: a rugged determinism to find a way or make a way to build a sustainable future for the region.