MANSFIELD – On a Thursday afternoon in April, downtown Mansfield was bustling – not New York City bustling, but still bustling, especially for a rust belt city that once felt pretty down on itself.
The memories of two tough recessions and the run-down remnants of formerly significant employers like Westinghouse still loom over the city, but signs of revitalization are evident.
A family of four, a young couple and two boys, were walking down Fourth street towards the Little Buckeye Children’s Museum, which will relocate to a larger building on Park Avenue West within the next five years. The boys ran ahead, but the smaller, more rambunctious of the two was swiftly reined in by the hood of his jacket as they approached the museum. The taller boy slowed his pace, as if to avoid a similar scolding.
On Main Street, three people reclined outside of Relax, It’s Just Coffee. Two young men chatted at one table and another man, this one with graying hair, sat nearby with his laptop. He didn’t break eye contact with the screen, even as the coffee shop’s door swung open and closed several times in only a few minutes.
Directly across the street, Coney Island Diner was busy, too. Though it was well past lunchtime, at least four booths were filled and other customers were eating and talking with each other along the bar.
Further down the hill, cars pulled in and out of the Brickyard, mostly to visit the BMV, but during the summer the space will be packed with hundreds of lawn chairs and thousands of people for the popular Final Friday concert series put on by Downtown Mansfield, Inc.
Everyone within a block or so radius can hear music from the Richland Carrousel Park, which on this particular April afternoon had its doors propped open, allowing a light breeze to blow through the building as a few children rode around in circles on the carousel horses.
There’s plenty to experience and enjoy in downtown Mansfield, explained Jennifer Kime, CEO of Downtown Mansfield Inc. (DMI), but there could be a more effective and collaborative means of communicating this to potential visitors and residents.
She and 14 other local leaders -- including representatives of the Richland County Foundation and the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development -- pitched the creation of a downtown brand in the Mansfield Rising Plan, which was released in late February. Branding is listed as the second of more than 30 action items in the plan and has been called a priority by several of the plan’s authors, including Kime.
“The real Mansfield, it’s all about art, entrepreneurship, higher education, etc. And when you’re trying to capture all that in a brand, you’re capturing what you are, what you've been and what you're going to become all in one. That is really the key,” Kime said.
The brand should be something “unifying,” she noted. It should represent the entirety of downtown Mansfield, feel authentic to its current population and should be able to attract new visitors and residents alike.
“I think everyone has their own visions and ideas of brands for Mansfield, and over the years, there's always been this kind of struggle for one unified identity around some sort of a theme."
Jodie Perry, President of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development, feels optimistic about the city's potential. She and the other authors of the Mansfield Rising Plan traveled to the South By Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas in March 2018.
“The South by Southwest Conference is a center of innovation and forward-thinking ideas, so I think that every single person that went found something that challenged them, challenged things that they currently believed,” Perry said. “And I think it was really also key that it allowed the 15 of us to do what I would call ‘concentrated bonding.’
“We were out of Mansfield and we were the only people that we knew there, so it gave us the chance to have conversations that we wouldn't have every day because we're too busy with our day jobs. It built trust with one another, which I think now having gone through the planning process, I think that was really huge.”
Otherwise, she continued, that trust could have taken longer to build.
“To build that connection with each other, we wouldn't have even gotten to those conversations for a good year, whereas we were having them by day three in Austin,” she said.
Lee Tasseff, President of Destination Mansfield - Richland County, believes this proposed collaboration between downtown organizations will be essential to launching the most impactful, long-lasting branding initiative.
He imagines hiring a community branding expert, such as North Star Destination Strategies, an organization mentioned in the Mansfield Rising plan.
“Your community brand is your culture’s connection to commerce,” reads a statement by North Star in the plan.
The document goes on to describe a need for “cohesive” and “open source” branding content that could be used by any organization or business that’s looking to draw people to the area.
“I think when you hire the right company, they can guide you as to here's how you need to bring everybody together because all of us are going to have to be full-fledged partners and accepting whatever comes out of this,” he said.
The Brand that Marion Made
Dean Jacob, president and CEO of the Marion Community Foundation, had long since grown tired of hearing the same negative stories about Rust Belt cities like Marion and Mansfield Ohio.
A lifelong Marion resident, Jacob knew his community had positive news to share, but the negativity in the city seemed oversaturated.
“This was a time where things were starting to take a turn for the better, not only in Marion, but all over the place. The communities known as Rust Belt communities were tired of feeling like woe is us,” Jacob said.
In an effort to accelerate the transition, the Marion Community Foundation launched a campaign called “MarionMade,” which the authors of the Mansfield Rising Plan are now considering as a possible model for the downtown branding initiative.
The Mansfield plan recognizes benefits in how MarionMade highlights the community’s past, but stays focused on the “present and future of the lively remarkable community.” The campaign’s website promotes the city’s people, products, places, programs and projects with frequent stories.
“I think people were hungry for it,” Jacob said. “We reached out and did presentations, and people loved it. It seemed to automatically click.”
In 2016, the Marion Community Foundation worked with Marion CAN DO!, an economic development organization to determine the biggest needs, a workforce message and an internal message of community pride.
Together the two organizations found Bryan Haviland, president and CEO of FrazierHeiby, whose experience was in public relations and marketing communications.
“We knew what we really needed to do was hire a marketing firm to tell us what our strengths and weaknesses are, and he seemed to be the perfect person to come here and help me figure out what my message is for site selectors and businesses coming into the community,” Jacob said.
Haviland came up with the phrase “Marion Made,” and it just seemed to fit, Jacob said.
By 2017, they were ready to launch “MarionMade," which is housed within the Foundation.
“It fit within our mission, and once we got it up and running, we realized it had potential,” Jacob said.
The Foundation hired a part-time program manager and had a committee directly involved in the program’s creation, too. From there, a group of volunteer writers have worked with the program manager to keep the campaign’s website updated frequently.
“Most stories are about 300 words, and all are supposed to be positive stories,” Jacob said.
Brand recognition has been the focus for the first two years, but now the aim is to focus on sharing what Marion is, he explained.
To fund MarionMade! The Foundation organizes an annual gala featuring a dinner and an awards show. The cost of admissions cover the cost of a program manager.
“It’s something that in theory should last forever,” Jacob said. “It’s interesting to see attitudes shifting and to see people talking positively about the community.
"I think we were a catalyst -- that Marion Made came about as attitude’s were shifting -- but its been interesting to see that shift progress.”
A cautionary tale of Fargo's former brand
The average annual temperature in Fargo, North Dakota is 42.2 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter months, the cold sinks in further with average highs reaching only 18 degrees in January and 24 degrees in February. Average lows are 0 and 6 degrees respectively.
Clearly it's cold. But for years, the city’s slogan was “Always Warm.” It was meant to be a reflection of residents’ “warm personalities,” not the frigid temperatures that often cut autumn short and linger into spring.
Still, imagine the potential rage of even one uninformed snowbird who might have relocated to Fargo for warmer temperatures. The slogan wasn’t meant to misinform people, but it did.
“In Fargo, it looked like they were trying to convince people that it wasn’t so cold, but it is cold,” said Will Ketchum, president of North Star Destination Strategies, an agency that has provided “place branding” for cities, counties, downtowns and other regions for about 19 years.
His organization is quoted in the Mansfield Rising Plan for saying, "Your community's brand is your culture's connection to commerce." Branding is the second action item listed in the plan, and one of the first expected to be addressed. The team of 15 local leaders has anticipated the delivery of a branding plan within nine to 12 months.
Lee Tasseff, President of Destination Mansfield-Richland County, anticipates this portion of the project as one that could have a long-lasting impact on the area. But working with a professional, he said, will be key.
"Anybody can build you a logo. Anybody can give you a color scheme. However, the real question is does the company you're working with have the research horsepower to get your brand right?" Tasseff said. "Because there's a whole lot of research and background work that has to happen for them to go, OK, this is who you are, this is what you need to portray.
"If we're going to do this, it has to be done correctly."
When working with Fargo about five years ago, North Star Destination Strategies started by listening to the community. The organization was determined to find the city’s personality and then accentuate it with more than a slogan.
“The personality has to already exist, and we try to get the community to lean further into it. We try to pull it to the surface and let it shine a little more,” Ketchum said. “Sometimes amazing qualities are right under their noses.”
This was certainly the case in Fargo, he noted.
The city’s new brand would highlight its free-spirited and quirky residents and wouldn’t shy away from the city’s cold temperatures.
The slogan for Fargo became “North of Normal.” Residents embraced this, and festivals like the annual Frostival have brought the brand to life.
The late January event proves Fargo can be fun, even in winter. It features an ice kickball tournament, reverse dog sled races and an “undie run,” where participants run around the block in nothing but their underwear.
“They did a great job. It was worth every penny,” said Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s in its fifth year, and it is still working well for us.”
He explained that North Star provided the organization with a few options, including “Prairie Cool.” However, “North of Normal” won the day.
“That’s the one that jumped out at us right away. It wasn’t too hard to pick, and I’m going to suspect that’s what they thought, too,” Johnson said. “I think we all felt, on the staff, that it captured both the cold weather and the quirkiness.”
The biggest challenge they faced was getting buy-in from nearby Moorehead and West Fargo, as North Star suggested highlighting only Fargo on the brand’s logo. The ultimate decision was to create two versions -- one without mention of Moorehead and West Fargo and another with those two included.
“If I’m disappointed in anything, its that we haven’t had more groups embrace it,” Johnson said.
Fargo’s downtown community partnership adopted the brand, but Johnson wishes other organizations would do that same.
Residents, however, seem to have bought in.
“The positive reaction from people is one of the reasons we paid for the research. Because we wanted to pay someone to tell the people what we already knew. A lot of us had something like this in our heads, but hadn’t articulated it,” Johnson said.
The brand was unveiled and celebrated in January 2015.
Since then, its success, Johnson said, is as undeniable as Fargo’s cold temperatures.
Merchandise with the new logo tripled the bureau’s sales revenue. And he’s seeing more young people move to Fargo.
“North Star, they recognized that we couldn’t run away from winter anymore, we had to embrace it, so we did,” Johnson said.
Tasseff hopes the same scenario can unfold for Mansfield. He wants a brand that residents will embrace and visitors will find intriguing.
"It's a combination of these two... The story we tell will have to be consistent. We'll be telling them different versions of the same story. So it's all connected," he said.
How Albuquerque aims to accent the unique
When told to be like other cities, the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, says “no.”
“(We are) tired of everyone telling us to be like Austin or to be like Portland, which are like these role model cities in some ways. We want to be our best self based on who we actually are,” Mayor Tim Keller said at CityLab Detroit in October 2018.
The city might be known by some as the setting for popular television show Breaking Bad. Others might flash to the city's annual hot air balloon festival. However, Keller wants Albuquerque to be known for its own “cultural uniqueness,” as the city situated between Dallas and Phoenix has a significant Hispanic population.
So, when designing a new city logo, the mayor was determined to tap into Albuquerque’s identity. He wanted the brand to be authentic to residents. In fact, he said, he refuses to shape the city's future around other places.
The finished logo reads “One Albuquerque,” but can be read “One Burque” which is how many of the Hispanic residents refer to the city.
“We’re actually honoring our heritage with this logo. The point is we are one Albuquerque, and we’re also one Burque,” Keller said. “And we respect that and come together to deal with our challenges, but we also recognize we have very different identities, and that’s OK because we all chose to live in Albuquerque.”
Mansfield has it's own identity, too.
“I don't want (Mansfield) to be known as only the place in-between Columbus and Cleveland. We have great things going on here," said Vinson Yates, president of OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital and OhioHealth Shelby Hospital.
Yates took this position in late 2018, coming to the area from Columbus, where he served nine years as a board member for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
“Columbus has gone through a re-branding. At many times, it would have been referred to, depending upon if you're on the east or west coast, as the cow town somewhere in the middle of the United States," Yates said. "But right now, when you go to different pieces and parts of Columbus, you will see multiple buildings rising out of the ground at a million square foot, plus.”
Right before his eyes, he's seen that change. He believes similar change, albeit at a smaller scale, is possible for Mansfield.
"Culturally, I think there are so many things up here that I don't think you would normally just expect to see in this six-county region," Yates said. "The Kehoe Center is wonderful. The arts, the culture, the symphony, the work that's going on in downtown Mansfield are all are all very impressive.
"The activities are robust, whether you go from a Mohican to Malabar, there's a lot to do."
He admits the proximity to Columbus, Cleveland and Lake Erie is enticing, but from his perspective, there's plenty happening locally, too.
“Right here within Richland County, you have a ton that will keep you busy for a long period of time."
Dublin's Wee Bit of Irish Attitude
Dublin, Ohio isn’t Dublin, Ireland, and there’s no “magic dust” that’ll transform the city of nearly 50,000 into the European metropolitan city with more than 540,000 people.
Scott Dring, Director of Visit Dublin (Ohio), knows this. But after working with a community branding expert more than a decade ago, he found this doesn’t keep visitors and residents from embracing the city’s wee bit of connection to Ireland’s capital.
“What we found was most people equated Dublin with Ireland, so we went all in with what the research showed us because it was a differentiating point for us,” Dring said. “The slogan was ‘Irish is an Attitude,’ and the community locally went a little crazy. They adopted it and loved it.”
Restaurants added Irish-themed items to their menus. The city painted its fire hydrants green and an Irish entertainment series and large festival were planned.
This wasn’t “magic dust,” he said, but it gave the city an identity, one more valuable than the city’s longtime selling point: “We’re near Columbus.”
Dublin’s new brand was a “platform to sell all the great things” Dublin already had, Dring explained.
“The product must sell itself,” the tourism organization’s president said. “The brand can’t force people to act.”
Lee Tasseff, President of Destination Mansfield-Richland County, recalls wondering if Dublin’s campaign was a “stretch” when it kicked off.
“The ‘Irish is an Attitude brand, I remember when they told us they were launching it, and we thought, geez,” Tasseff said. “But they did the research to come up with it. Everything they did, they backed up with studies, research, fact and said, 'OK, here's why we're going to build off of this.' ”
Sure enough, Tasseff has been impressed with the results and long pondered what a brand might look like for Mansfield.
“Branding is what people think you are. Certainly, you can create it, but it's got to be authentic. Just like the whole ‘Irish is an Attitude’ thing. It turns out, it went together with Dublin,” Tasseff said.
Making it happen in Mansfield
Branding has been a priority for Jodie Perry, President of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development. Creating and implementing a brand for Mansfield was mentioned in both the Chamber’s strategic plan (released in early 2018) and the Mansfield Rising Plan (released in Feb. 2019).
“So we already knew that this was a need and the exciting piece about it being included in the Mansfield Rising project is that there's additional people at the table,” Perry said.
The Mansfield Rising Plan lists potential partners, such as the city of Mansfield, Richland County Foundation, Downtown Mansfield Inc. and major employers like OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby Hospitals and the Gorman-Rupp Company. These organizations and businesses, the plan proposes, could create a steering committee, which would be allotted nine to 12 months to develop and deliver a branding plan.
“I think if it's going to be successful, it has to be collaborative in nature,” Perry said, “which sometimes when you do things collaboratively, they happen a little slower, but I believe firmly that you end up with a better end-product.”
Further, she explained, having key players at the table could better ensure that the newly developed brand fits everyone’s needs.
“This brand can be utilized in a multitude of ways, whether it's us (the Chamber) doing economic development marketing, Destination Mansfield doing tourism marketing, or the city, the county,” Perry said.
She and Tasseff both believe guidance from “neutral” community branding professionals will be crucial to the brand’s success, especially when it comes to involving the community. They believe everyone needs to be “on board” for it to be successful.
Dring says Dublin has proven a brand with community buy-in can take off.
“I think it’s brought a great sense of pride to residents. It’s something they embrace,” he said. “I think the key thing for us was getting buy-in and educating people why we were going through this process.
“Don’t create it in a vacuum and spring it on people. Get everyone involved early on. It’s not a quick process. It’s something that takes time, but it’s worth the effort.”