Reimagining the Rural Brandscape

By Jeannette Hanna, Chief Strategist, Trajectory

In North America, agriculture has a brand problem. It’s often viewed as either wantonly industrial or quaintly old fashioned; a bastion of jeans-clad, weathered older men or modern-day, back-to-the-land hippies. For many urbanites, rural is a synonym for conservative and unsophisticated. Yet today’s food-growing centers are hotbeds of innovation, high-tech and creativity, competing for talent and investment – often on a global scale – with nimble marketing and brand savvy. Urban centres may dominate the discussion of places that matter, but there’s a quiet revolution growing in food production that will have a profound impact on our collective futures. Rural economic development may not seem sexy, but we all have a lot riding on how successfully communities support and sustain their natural environments, green spaces and food producers.

So, what does it take to nurture the places that feed us all? For insights into the power of branding the next-generation of agriculture, look to two very different locales in Canada: the prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan and the Town of Lincoln, Ontario, close by Niagara Falls. 

Lincoln, Ontario

Lincoln, as a municipality, only came into being in 1970, the result of an amalgamation of several smaller communities. While it’s a dominant player in Ontario’s $2.3 billion grape and wine industry, with over 50 award-wining vineyards nestled among some of Canada’s most productive tender fruit orchards, thriving floriculture and greenhouses, the Town’s name is barely recognized beyond the Niagara peninsula. It also encompasses an extraordinary array of tourism assets – small hamlets and villages, a burgeoning culinary scene, heritage sites, and natural attractions including prime beaches, must-see hiking trails and parks. Yet it has languished, as a visitor destination, in the shadow of the iconic Niagara Falls, less than 40 km away. Paul Di Ianni, Lincoln’s first Economic Development Director, is on a mission to change all that.

When he took up the mantle of the town’s economic development in 2017, Di Ianni initiated an in-depth tourism study. “We’re a Greenbelt community. We can't change our urban boundaries. We’re home to unique rural communities. It’s clear that wineries are key to our economic growth. So, what can we do?” he explained. The study identified two essential actions for the town: hire a tourism professional – enter Britnie Bazylewski – and develop a new tourism brand for the area. Bazylewski summarized the challenge as: “We had a lot of competing voices at the time. There was a lot of fragmentation. What we needed was a collective vision and voice.”

The first challenge was to agree on a destination moniker that would help put the Lincoln area on the map for visitors in a meaningful way. After engaging a cross-section of area businesses and partners, “Niagara Benchlands” was embraced as a name that celebrates the area’s topography and wine appellations (“benches”) as well as positioning it as “Niagara’s other natural wonder.”

The brand strategy focuses on championing the Benchlands’ authentic advantages: a unique terroir that’s propelled its food and beverage “Tastemakers” onto the international stage; and its lush backcountry in the heart of the UNESCO-designated Niagara Escarpment Biosphere. The area’s relaxed, come-as-you-are character creates a “wanderers welcome” attitude that celebrates “curious meandering” as a local specialty. It’s a deliberate strategy that flips challenges like under-developed transportation, hospitality and tourism infrastructure into opportunities. “This is not Disney World,” quips Bazylewski, “We’re looking to develop products and experiences that preserve a sense of place so we need to be very strategic.” That translates to focusing on audiences – cyclists, hikers, foodies and slow-travel enthusiasts – for whom the quirks of back roads and rural byways are an asset, not a liability.   

Creating a compelling destination brand is vital to another economic priority: attracting new blood to food-related careers. According to provincial statistics, in 2016 the average age of a farm operator in Niagara was 56 years and it continues to rise. A large percentage of local enterprises are family-owned businesses where succession planning is a critical issue. “We can’t stay stagnant,” Bazylewski states, “so how can we enhance the sectors here and attract talent? Agriculture is a difficult career path but we’re seeing more next-generation involvement.” Having two world-class post-secondary institutions and several renowned agriculture-focused research facilities in the area is an important advantage in building the region’s profile as a place of innovation, where you can build rewarding careers. Di Ianni recently masterminded Ontario’s first ag-tech “hack-a-thon” in Niagara as part of Lincoln’s youth development strategy. The event brings businesses, education, technology and communities together to tackle issues that impact the agricultural, horticultural and eco-tourism sectors with teams competing for cash prizes and business exposure. “We’re trying to change the brand of agriculture. There are so many stories not being shared. From operations to experiences, we want to be catalysts for change,” Di Ianni emphasizes.

Regina, Saskatchewan

2,700 km across the country, Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Chief Economic Growth Officer at Economic Development Regina (EDR), echoes that need to change the face of agriculture, but at a whole other scale. This prairie capital has emerged as a global agtech powerhouse, boasting a who’s who roster of world-leading agribusiness and food companies. Because innovation is paramount in this hyper-competitive space, Regina’s several higher ed institutions are complemented by a R&D “supercluster” and a start-up ecosystem that’s attracting big venture capital.

For Beaudry-Mellor, Regina’s agtech focus has real urgency. “The world’s population will outstrip the available land by 2050. We’re approaching a situation where global food demand exceeds supply,” she asserts. That makes Regina’s food producing prowess vital far beyond Saskatchewan’s borders. “We can help grow more food, protect the environment, and work with the coolest tech around. It’s where the environment and human purpose connect. It’s a progressive place to be – a mission to feed people with healthy sustainable food over the long term,” Beaudry-Mellor argues.  

Surrounded by 80% of Canada’s farmland, Regina is positioning itself at the centre of the sustainable agricultural revolution, spurred by Canada’s first venture-backed Agtech Accelerator – a game-changer for the sector. While up-and-coming companies are innovating in areas like autonomous and sustainable farming, Regina’s latest coup – a $2-billion renewable diesel fuel and canola-crushing plant – is a major leap forward for carbon-reduction initiatives as well.

Today’s agriculture profile is diverse and technically advanced. Like her counterparts in Lincoln, Beaudry-Mellor is adamant that it’s time to change outdated perceptions of the sector: “We need to change how people think about farming and agriculture. People think of it as outdated, backwards – an old man’s industry. People don’t realize how much data mapping and analytics are involved. It’s about growing more food on the same land with less impact on the environment. There’s an outdated view of the role of women in agriculture too that’s fundamentally false. It’s not uncommon to see women driving combines. Many women are COOs of the operation. It’s women who are telling the food story.”

Rural 4.0: re-thinking agriculture

Agriculture can be a powerful force for social change and economic equity as well. Saskatchewan has the largest Indigenous agriculture population in Canada. In various interviews, Chief of Cowessess First Nation, Cadmus Delorme, argues that agriculture is a key economic driver of economic self-sustainability for Cowessess. As Beaudry-Mellor notes, “it brings reconciliation full circle. We have to use this opportunity for economic reconciliation.” 

Beaudry-Mellor sees sustainability as a key part of Regina’s brand story: “It’s a criteria for investment. Lots of corporations are struggling with ESG,” she notes, referencing requirements for environmental, social, and governance reporting. “Consumers are using their wallets to vote… food traceability and shared values matter. The ability of a place to tell that story in a compelling way is key. It’s got to be a holistic proposition.”

While EDR is building Regina's brand internationally as a capital for agtech movers and shakers, it’s also hoping to build resident pride in the city’s “homegrown” ingenuity – an upstart trait that feeds a rich mix of cultural, sport, recreation, festival and event offerings for visitors. Regina’s reputation as a premiere host city is underscored by having the largest integrated event facilities in Canada. For Beaudry-Mellor, tourism and economic development are natural complements: “Most people think of tourism as big events. The smartest cities see these as investment opportunities. Done well,” she suggests, “tourism is a great conversion tactic – turning visitors into residents, local businesses and investors.”

In Lincoln, Britnie Bazylewski is upbeat about how the Niagara Benchlands brand proposition is enabling multiple sectors and communities to pull together in new ways: “Everyone wants to be part of something. People want to own their own piece but still come together as a community with one voice and direction. We’re setting Lincoln ablaze. We’re seeing a real hunger for cross-sector collaboration. People are willing to take new risks and see what else they can do for bigger impact. They’re not myopic. That’s new and exciting. We have amazing partners who are igniting the potential of our talent.” Di Ianni also believes this brand momentum reinforces the synergies of tourism and economic development. “As we're attracting early investment,” he explains, “it helps lots of small hamlets also get more investment.”

For Bazylewski, the global success of the Niagara wine industry (and its innovations like icewine), offer learnings for sustainable tourism and economic development. “We’re always looking for new ways to innovate. We want this to be a food innovation hub. We intend to put Lincoln on the map as a world-class destination. There’s lots of opportunity to show the world what we have to offer. We can grow and still protect our rural roots – it all comes back to the land and the people.”

While the differences between Niagara Benchlands and Regina in terms of size and geography are significant, they both point to the importance of place branding and storytelling in making the case for investing in sustainable agricultural communities of all types – as visitors, as career options and as places that matter. It’s powerful food for thought because we all have a stake in how well they grow.

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