Launching a place brand strategy amidst a pandemic

Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo was facing an unusual challenge in early 2020 – how to create and launch a place brand during a global pandemic. We reached out to Andrea Haley, Director of Brand and Corporate Services for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism, to understand how they turned lockdown into an opportunity to build community support for the place brand strategy.

What was it like developing a place brand strategy in the midst of a pandemic?

It really was unusual! We were fortunate that some of our initial in-person engagement was already completed prior to the first lockdown. We really embraced the opportunities to connect virtually - you can do so much online! The focus groups we did were extremely targeted. I think it was easier to get more people to commit their time because they didn’t have to travel. This model was extremely effective in getting very detailed feedback on the work that we were doing and the strategy we were building together.

The other thing the pandemic did, truthfully, was grant us more time. We were grateful for the additional time to listen to the community so that the strategy authentically represented them.

What are the objectives for your new place brand– what do you want it to achieve?

One of the primary reasons that our organization was formed was to change our region’s image and reputation. For too long, our reputation has been defined by others controlling our narrative. For the last 20 years, we’ve been saying “that isn’t us,” but we haven’t stood up to say, “this is who we are.” Our community place brand is all about reclaiming our story and drawing on the collective strength and voices of those who proudly call Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo home.

And I would like to add the importance of it being authentic. If we tell people we have the best pizza in the world and they come here and find out we don’t even have pizza, what happens? To change our reputation, what we put out to the world has to match who we are. Many do not know that we are more than just our economic opportunity - we are a place where people choose to start and raise their families, and one of the most generous communities in Canada! That our region has extensive diversity, from the people to the land, Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo is a melting pot of culture and natural wonder. I could go on, but at the heart of the place brand is sharing the pride we have in our home—Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. This is the authentic us that we want to share with the rest of the world.

Engaging your citizens – and uniting the different communities in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo under one place identity – was an important factor in your strategy. How has it shaped your approach?

The entire project started by creating a master story for the region. Story is so important because people can connect with a story. When you start bucketing values, it doesn’t come out the same way. We began with in-depth interviews of over 70 people from across the region – Indigenous, urban, rural, new arrivals, long-term residents - asking why they live here, why they stay, and what this place means to them. Our job was just to listen. Once we had completed all of that, the common themes were pulled out to create a master story - the ‘essence of the community’ if you will.

We then brought the master story to the community. Our community is so passionate, and they gave us wonderful feedback. For example, we had a wildfire in 2016 where over 88,000 people were evacuated. It came up as a strong theme in our research because everyone referenced it; it was such a significant event and it impacted so many people. When the original master story was shared, it opened with a statement about the wildfire, but the community was very clear that this is not how our story begins, that it belongs somewhere in the middle. So the community shaped the story and how it was told.

We then took that master story and transformed its essence into our place brand. But that’s where it started – with story and with listening. And nuance! I can’t tell you the importance of nuance – words don’t mean the same thing to everyone, so listening was crucial to getting the right words.

We had a place brand committee helping guide us throughout the process and once we had the strategy in a good place, we developed a presentation we could deliver in an online format that we kept taking back to the community. We hosted open conversations, and we kept listening and refining, and listening and refining. We got the strategy to a place where everyone saw themselves in it. And then we were ready to launch.


So who is Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo?


The journey with our community led us to our brand purpose of ‘pursuing opportunity, together,’ and we’ve used that to create seven place brand building blocks which help us to position ourselves. Together the building blocks represent the main assets and strengths of our place. From that, we created the five traits of our place brand personality: hard-working, giving, tenacious, innovative, and bold. Our community is extremely resilient, but they didn’t want to define themselves that way – perhaps from overuse of the word! But there is a real grit and tenaciousness here, so finding the right words was critical.

The most interesting part, and the piece that took us the longest, was our voice. Defining a voice is just as important as creative brand expression. We landed on ‘confidence paired with humility’ and that’s shaping everything throughout our communication strategy.

Our community also had a bit of a naming identity crisis. Fort McMurray is our urban area that’s globally known, but internally, we say Wood Buffalo because we identify ourselves as a region. Through a deep name exploration, the name that best represented us was ‘Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo’ because it combines and unites our urban and rural strengths, together as one.

And finally, our place brand logo aims to add context to this name with where we are located in Alberta, Canada.

Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo logo

The icon for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo was inspired by the regional geography.

The geographically inspired icon acts as a distinct and functional brand element that not only reminds audiences of our location in Alberta but also mirrors the ‘F’ in ‘Fort McMurray’. We’re discovering that there are endless ways to activate the regional icon in our marketing efforts; it’s such a unique and versatile branding element.

What would be your top tip for another place looking to develop their place brand? 

I would say the success of our place brand is rooted in listening. Our community is so passionate about who we are and our amazing place, that our team’s primary role was to listen. Listening is an art – you need to listen for nuance, specific word selection, and you need to be able to wrestle with all of the content amongst all of your stakeholders. It makes so much difference, and when you take a lot of collective feedback, that nuance can be easily lost.

A lot of the wording in our brand strategy comes directly from the mouths of our residents. In the brand purpose description of “opportunity”, for example, there’s a line that said, ‘we are strengthened by Indigenous culture and Indigenous businesses,’ and it was changed to ‘we are grounded by Indigenous culture and strengthened by Indigenous business’ to honour the intention more appropriately.

And something else important to note around listening, is that listening takes time. You need to dedicate the time it takes to build it with your community, and doing things together takes longer – but is so worth it!

When creating a truly authentic place brand, listening is the difference between developing a place brand and revealing one.

In what ways is your place brand strategy helping to drive your recovery?

What was important was rolling it out to our community first. You have to create that sense of pride and belonging internally – it is an inside-out approach. In many ways, our timing is excellent because we’ll be sharing it with the rest of the world once the economy begins to reopen.

We launched the place brand with a local campaign called ‘The place we’re proud to call home,’ and we just let that community pride work its magic. We mailed out an introduction to the place brand through a pop-out viewfinder to every postcode in the region. We encouraged people to use the viewfinder to share their view of what makes this place home. If you go to Instagram and Facebook, you can see all the pictures that people continue to share, using the hashtag #myFMWB.

We also launched an online community toolkit to make the place brand accessible to everyone. This resource is focused on providing every person and business with the tools to market the region themselves. I believe that our communities are our best marketing tool – each and every one of us has a role in changing our reputation by sharing what makes our place so incredible.  

Finally, yet importantly we hosted workshops for employers and human resource professionals to help them understand how to use the brand, for their attraction and retention efforts. Place brand plays an integral role in helping to attract talent and labour to our region.

What’s next for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo?

Our focus is on continuing to bring the brand to life! We’ve got three areas we’re focusing on. The first is a long-term time horizon. Place brands aren’t a one- or two-year initiative like a marketing campaign. It’s an authentic representation of our identity – our distinct character. Second is local adoption; it is so important that the community adopts the place brand and uses it. Our greatest marketing tool is our community! One of the most important things is our community having the confidence and pride to use their voice when talking about our community. The third is relentless consistency. A big part of the journey is educating people on what a place brand is and why it’s so important. Terminology can be a barrier, so you have to start by explaining what a place brand is to give the context before jumping into what we’re trying to achieve. The place brand must be championed by the entire region to truly change our reputation.

The next steps are really exciting for our region! Before we began our place brand journey, our region’s economic development corporation amalgamated with our local tourism destination marketing organization creating ‘Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism.’ The next step is to develop a new online web presence that represents our unified organization and provides a global window into Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

We are also continuing our in-region campaign to strengthen our pride of place. This is paired with continued community outreach through workshops and placemaking initiatives.

The big, exciting thing we have this year is doing a targeted national campaign where we will share our place brand outside of our region’s borders for the first time. We’ll be aligning it with our business and stakeholder objectives and the opportunities identified in our baseline brand equity measurement study. But the key thing I want to mention is that we believe effective place marketing must involve its residents. Our community wants to market our region. We would never use a stock image in what we’re doing; it has to be authentic to us and the people who live here. So a big piece of this national campaign will involve the community in creating it; we’re building out what that will look like right now.

We’re proud to be on this journey beside all the incredible people and businesses of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. Stay tuned as later this year we will have so much more to share as we continue building this out together.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.