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Calgary and Edmonton are creating a powerful lifestyle brand

Alberta's cities are on the cusp of joining the global club, but entry is not cheap.

Kyle Murray is a professor of marketing and the director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta

Sep 23, 2016

by Kyle B. Murray

Illustration Marc Nipp

Too often, when people think about branding, they think about logos or colours or tag lines. There is little doubt that the Nike swoosh, the UPS brown and BMW’s “ultimate driving machine” have been effective marketing tools. In fact, they have been so effective that we tend to forget that those elements of the brand are really just cues for the strong associations we already have with the companies. Nike is about sport, UPS delivery and BMW luxury vehicles. The value of a brand is rooted in this type of association and how easily certain companies come to mind when people consider running shoes, delivery services or high-end cars.

And that value is real. Last year, Interbrand estimated BMW’s brand to be worth $37 billion, Nike’s $23 billion and UPS’s $14 billion. All of which were well behind the top global brands: Apple at $170 billion and Google at $120 billion! Clearly, strong brands add value.

Of course, it is not only corporations that benefit from branding. Not-for-profits from the New York Metropolitan Opera to the World Wildlife Fund have built a base of patrons and donors that are brand loyal. Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau use brand-building techniques to boost their popularity. Cities are working hard to manage their brands based on attributes that range from economic opportunity to arts and culture. Ultimately, cities would like to be known as places people want to live.

When young Albertans dream about jobs in Hong Kong, London, New York, L.A. or San Francisco – or even Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver – they are imagining more than work. They are thinking about what their lives would be. Great cities enjoy powerful lifestyle brands. They have vibrant arts scenes, professional sports, world class retail, and unique tourist attractions. They are interesting and exciting places to be.

Calgary and Edmonton are on the cusp of joining this global club, but entry is not cheap. Consider, as an example, Edmonton’s Ice District. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new hockey arena has people talking. The development brings new office space, residential towers, retail and, of course, a new home for the Edmonton Oilers. It is exciting for the city. The downtown core has been transformed. As the NHL season gets underway, the building (plus Connor McDavid) might even create a little envy here and there.

It will undoubtedly lead many to ask if it is worth the cost. Study after study has indicated that the direct economic benefit to a city of a professional sports franchise is minimal and does not justify spending public money. Of course, if cities made spending decisions based only on direct economic benefits, we would live in dramatically different urban environments. How would investments in libraries, art, public transit or parks measure up?

In fact, city budgets tend to be spent on things that do not have a direct or immediate return on investment. Schools, roads and sewers are not profit-driven enterprises, yet without them it is hard to imagine attracting people and businesses. The very real, although indirect, economic benefit of these investments is in making the city attractive to people and businesses. Although there are many things that go into making a city successful, appealing to talented people is at the top of the list. Talent attracts investment and generates entrepreneurial opportunities, which in turn build a diversified economy. As a result, the competition to attract people and investment is as intense as it is global. Talented people can choose where they want to work and they are looking for more than just jobs.

I realize that large investments without a direct benefit can be a tough sell to taxpayers who are constantly squeezed. In the current environment, it seems sensible for Calgary’s city council to balk at CalgaryNEXT’s price tag. But, longer term, cities have to consider how they are going to compete for talent on a global scale.

Alberta has a lot to offer. Our population is young, affluent and well-educated. Many of the key ingredients are here, including quality healthcare and education, a vibrant arts community and an inclusive sense of civic pride. To get to the next level, we need to take some risks. Superficial slogans and updated logos are not enough. Our cities will need to invest in what makes us unique and attractive. For different people that will be different things, ranging from Grande Prairie’s new dinosaur museum to the Calgary Philharmonic to the Oilers. As citizens, we need to actively support investment in the evolution of our cities and tell others why Alberta is such a great place to live and work.

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