Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013
Katie Chapin knew they had a good idea. She just didn't know how good. Chapin was part of a team of students in the VCU Brandcenter wrestling with a project for a local branding effort. Venture Richmond, an organization devoted to enhancing the vitality of the Richmond community, was exploring ways to brand Richmond as a way of building pride within the city and attracting attention outside of it.
Chapin’s class had been tapped to develop concepts. Chapin and her partners, who included Jarrod Higgins, Michael Whitten, Cecilia Bogardus, Pankaj Rawat and Sara Cobaugh, had come up with a deceptively simple concept: A logo with the letters “RVA” that was a sort of blank canvas, open to interpretation by artists, businesses, organizations, anyone who wanted to place their own personal stamp on it. The idea, they figured, was that the brand would be the community’s in the most authentic way possible.
“It was a way to give people a chance to own that term,” Chapin said. “Richmond means different things to different people.”
Years after the idea was born, the RVA brand – with its distinctively overlapping letters – is everywhere. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, posters, signs, store windows, business logos, on the side of the city’s garbage trucks and police cars, as ubiquitous in the suburbs as it is Downtown. Residents take the brand with them when they leave town, and it is often spotted far outside the city’s borders, such as when eagle-eyed locals caught sight of it on a musician’s case on Saturday Night Live.
The logo is integrated in myriad ways into not just official city efforts but into small and large projects that simply boast Richmond as their home. The RVA term that was formerly used only by the creative class has become a type of citywide rallying cry – a knowing shorthand for residents and others, taken to goosebump-raising heights in Richmond-based NO BS! Brass Band’s “RVA All Day” – and the effect on metropolitan pride is undeniable. Outsiders have taken notice, such as in the form of plaudits from such entities as Fast Company, a magazine devoted to cutting-edge business practices, and CEOs for Cities, a civic innovation lab and network of urban leaders looking for new ways to improve American cities.
The success of the brand can be attributed to many partners, including Venture Richmond and a host of local agencies, organizations and others that have teamed up to develop, position and polish the brand. Many skilled professionals have volunteered their time and expertise to devote themselves to making it work. That first seedling, however – the initial ingenious concept that started it all – was planted by VCU Brandcenter students.
“We had no idea it might be this big,” Chapin said. “That wasn’t even something we were hoping for.”
Kelly O’Keefe, professor of brand strategy at the Brandcenter, which is now part of the School of Business, has spoken for years about the persistently lackluster quality of branding efforts for cities. The problem, he said, is the difficulty of targeting a community’s essential identity with a logo or slogan.
O’Keefe worked closely with the Brandcenter students and Venture Richmond on the RVA brand project. A key reason RVA flourished on a road littered with less successful efforts is that the Richmond team understood the limitations of the form, he said, eschewing a catchy slogan or breezy summation of the city that would inevitably “be easy to hate and hard to love.”
Another reason is that the project was designed to welcome the community to participate and personalize the brand; organizers would not keep tight reins on the brand and its various renderings. After all, central to the effort was to identify and promote the city as a creative hub – an identity that VCU’s presence is critical to claiming – and creativity “is about a little chaos,” O’Keefe said.
The idea, as conceived by Brandcenter students and perfected by professional partners, was to present the brand to the city and let them go crazy with it.
“It became about giving people tools instead of giving people rules,” O’Keefe said.
The Brandcenter is the top graduate marketing communications and advertising program in the country. Its students are enlisted by top companies and others to take on difficult branding problems. This was a particularly tricky one, though.
Chapin was familiar with the city’s complex identity and personality. She had family in Richmond’s West End and would visit when she was growing up. That was her image of Richmond until she moved to the city to attend the Brandcenter. As she was introduced more intimately to Downtown, the Fan District and other neighborhoods, the city began to grow larger.
There were many sides of the city to consider, and the students didn’t want to focus on one to the exclusion of others. For instance, Richmond is often revered for its history, but the students were wary of any brand that was about a distant past. They also didn’t want to discard the hundreds of years the city was built on.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Chapin said. “It’s quite complicated because Richmond has so many different ties and pieces to it. We wanted to find a balance.”
O’Keefe said the student concepts for the project, including those that were not ultimately incorporated, were creatively unique, rigorously researched and strategically savvy. Professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet oversaw the development of the work, helping to guide the students away from the typical pitfalls of community branding. Student presentations to Venture Richmond were warmly received.
“Everybody loved the student concepts,” O’Keefe said. “They were brilliant. They’d really put their hearts into it.”
The RVA concept that was ultimately selected manages to elude the trap of choosing either history or forward-leaning innovation – the brand is accommodating to both – or of representing some niche aspect or section of the city. It does not force the city into a narrow identity.
“It allows everyone to stay unique,” Cantrell said. “The amount of stuff that is within the realm of possibility with this is huge.”
Chapin doesn’t live in Richmond anymore, but she and other members of the Brandcenter team have enjoyed seeing their class project’s enduring impact. Friends and others send her images of new ways and places the logo has popped up. Their work has taken on a satisfying life of its own.
The students involved in the RVA project were in their final semester at the Brandcenter. Chapin said they’d grown attached to the city and enamored by it. They wanted to help capture what they’d grown to love.
Cantrell said the students’ emotional investment in the project was evident.
“In some sense, I think they felt like they were leaving a gift to their adopted home,” she said.
The widespread community buy-in to the RVA concept and the ripples it has caused makes the success of the project different than the typical branding success story. It’s not about selling more units of a product or burnishing the image of a business. Instead, the RVA brand has provided an identity for a city and an outlet for its energy.
“That team of students did something really big,” O’Keefe said. “They changed Richmond.”
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