Signs that read “Washington County (est. 1784) It All Happens Here,” welcome visitors as well as passersby to the rural east Georgia community, named for Revolutionary War General George Washington, who would later become president.
"Branding enables communities to develop and embrace their identities," said Rob Gordon, director of the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government. "Every community has a unique story. This work provides an opportunity to tell that story in a compelling and impactful way, creating strong connections to the community and enhancing local pride while also attracting visitors."
In recent years, branding has become a niche market for the Institute of Government, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit that provides continuing education and assistance to local and state government leaders.
In 2018, it was formalized as the Institute of Government’s Community Branding Program, designed to create comprehensive brand packages to create a concept of place for cities and counties. Since then, the team at the institute has helped brand four communities with three more in process this year. Many have been communities in which UGA is already a household name, having worked with the Institute of Government on downtown revitalization or strategic planning. Others have been Archway Partnership communities, in which a UGA employee lives and serves as a liaison between the city/county and the vast resources of UGA. The Archway Partnership is also a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit.
“We had buy-in before we got started, which I think made all the difference in the world,” said Conni Fennell-Burley, the UGA Archway Professional in Washington County. “So often in communities it can be the same 10 people sitting around the table making all the decisions. We knew we couldn’t just hand it off, we had to have everybody at the table.”
The process is lengthy. The first thing the branding team does is meet with residents of the community to hear their stories, learn what they think makes their hometown special. Their founding philosophy is that the brand belongs to the whole community, so to be successful, they need a diverse and inclusive population involved in the planning process.
The Washington County project included the creation of a steering committee with members from all eight municipalities, 21 focus groups, 176 individual interviews, 106 responses to an online survey, and a community immersion tour.
Much more than a logo, branding takes stories and values of a community and translates them into a set of tools—including promotional marks, colors, logos, fonts, messages and photographs—that a community can use to promote itself.
“Anything you can do to differentiate from ‘Anywhere USA’ is critical,” said Kaitlin Messich, a UGA Institute of Government faculty member who leads the branding program. “Branding gives you an edge up. You look welcoming, professional and present, everything that is great about your community in a very packaged, condensed and targeted way. It can help put you on the next level in terms of promotion, economic development and marketing.”
“This process is like a pep rally for your community,” she said. “It’s a really unifying experience, because it’s very positive. We’re not trying to find out what’s wrong with your community, we’re trying to find out what’s great about it. It’s aspirational.”
Washington County resident and business owner Debbie May agreed.
“It reinforces what makes this a special place and helps tell that story to newcomers,” said May, who lives in the city of Tennille.