Kelly Culnan | 06.26.17 | Insights

What a Strong Brand Means For a City


  • branding
  • community
  • Design

When you hear the names of cities in the US, you typically think of their commonly made associations. San Francisco is known for unique geography, cable cars, and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. New York, arguably the pinnacle of branded cities, is associated with the hustle and bustle of Times Square, the downtown financial district, shopping in the luxurious upper east side and so much more.

Cities create and sustain their brands essentially in the same way companies do. Media portrayal plays a significant role in the image of a city. Without even realizing it, we often make assumptions about cities we’ve never been to based on what is seen on the internet or television. Successful branding makes a city a desirable place for people to work in, live in, or travel to. However, a brand should be more than just an image; it should encompass and effectively communicate the city’s character, emotions, and values.

The Durham Brand – I’d like to contemplate what makes the city of Durham authentic and how the brand embodies that.

Vibrance. Eclectic Charm. Tech. Historical Fabric. Growth. Arts. Athletics.

These are some attributes that the city of Durham has come to envelop. Once known primarily for basketball and tobacco, Durham has flourished into a city of entrepreneurial zest and tech culture. A charming feature of Durham is the way it blends historic fabric with new vibrancy. The nickname, Bull City, comes from the former brand of tobacco, Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. While the city no longer produces tobacco, the spirit of that prosperous time is rekindled in businesses and culture. The Durham Bulls, a minor-league baseball team, hosts games right across the street from the American Tobacco Campus, another instance of the preservation of historical roots.  

The 20th century Durham brand is encapsulated in the image below. Advertising for the city was almost exclusively geared towards Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco. This was an extremely prosperous time for Durham. The American Tobacco Company eventually dissolved in the late 20th century, leaving the area desolate with only empty, old buildings. In 2004, the American Tobacco Campus reopened with office spaces, stores, and restaurants. From the start, American Tobacco Campus strove to bring in new opportunities while showcasing where the Durham community came from.

The Bull City bleeds character and charm. Walking through downtown, I am overwhelmed by the culture that resides and thrives in this small city. Local businesses are a significant part of what makes Durham special. Pie Pushers, a pizzeria that started out as a food truck, has recently opened a storefront location that offers pizza with “Durham-style” crust, a hand-tossed thin crust. They strive to fill in a gap that exists in the Durham food industry: a classic, affordable pizza pie – an excellent addition to the eclectic charm of this city.

RUNAWAY, a boutique that many of our team members sport T-shirts from, is a brand that asserts the idea of running from convention. They chose Durham as its flagship location because of the city’s capacity to move forward while maintaining historic roots, a staple of the Durham brand. The concept of running from convention fits right in with Durham’s character. This city breathes innovation and entrepreneurial energy. We do things differently not simply for the sake of being unique, but to to overcome barriers and discover new endeavors.

Growth is a significant part of Durham’s brand. The city takes pride in all the new endeavors and developments that have come about through its thriving community. Our team has had the privilege of watching the progress of a future high-rise downtown, One City Center. As the tallest building in Durham and the 4th tallest in the Triangle, this structure will serve as a symbol of the growth and progress in our city.

Changing Brands:

Part of building a strong brand is not only dealing with change, but thriving in it. I’d like to revisit work done by our designer, Raleigh Felton, to show a little bit of his journey in designing a brand for the city of Raleigh. In 2014, the City of Raleigh put into action a “Downtown Experience Plan” which would reinvent downtown Raleigh over the following ten years. Around the same time as that initiative, Felton worked on design to rebrand and draw attention to the city.

Similar to the City of Durham, Felton explored a blend of the old and historic with new and vibrant feel of the city. He also strived to find a way to reflect the energy, diversity, and individualism of the members of the Raleigh community. He felt that the individuality and unique backgrounds of people is a staple of the city, so that should be incorporated into the brand. His work was displayed on an Instagram feed that aimed to get different designers in the community involved in the rebrand Raleigh initiative.

Smashing Boxes in the Tech Community:  

Smashing Boxes takes pride in being an addition to innovative, entrepreneurial spirit of the Durham brand. Back in 2014, our co-founders, Nick Jordan and Brian Fischer partnered with the Iron Yard to form the Iron-Yard Academy powered by Smashing Boxes in the American Tobacco Campus. We thrive off of the tech culture and are constantly learning and sharing new information in a variety of ways.

Having a brand with these succinctly defined characteristics is immensely valuable for a city. Creating interest and respect for a place is beneficial to the businesses as well as the overall community. A strong brand is able to encompass the character of a city in concise words and images. Just like all cities, as Durham grows and undergoes change, the brand will evolve along with these new endeavors.


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