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MAKING A MARK UGA Institute of Government carves out niche market helping communities be more than “Anywhere USA”

By Shannah Montgomery

Here you can go down to Dairylane for a burger and shake after watching the Washington County High School Golden Hawks under the lights on Friday nights; kayak or fish your Saturday away at Hamburg State Park; or visit Georgia’s oldest jail where Aaron Burr spent a night on his way to Richmond to be tried for treason after shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Here in Washington County you can find all this and more and the community wants the rest of the state to know it.

After a year-long process led by the University of Georgia, residents of Washington County—a UGA Archway Partnership community— and its eight municipalities selected a brand, complete with tagline and logo, to draw attention to the community’s assets.

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.”

Messich and Allison Cape, an Institute of Government graphic designer on the branding team, work with communities to get the right look, color, feel and design, and then help the community launch the brand. It takes many hours of work and the ability to find common ground among the local stakeholders. The public rollout, however, is the fun part, Cape said.

Proposed ways to use the new Washington County logo and one of the eight community logos.
“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.

“It captures our heartbeat.”

The team launched the Washington County Brand Dec. 2020 and has Monroe on the slate for spring with Vidalia following Fall 2021. They are also returning to Hawkinsville, where their “Come Home” brand was launched in 2018, to create a signage master plan for their downtown. The Copper Basin brand was the team's first brand launch. “It gave them a way to keep their identify and share what it means to the people there,” said Messich.

Contact: Kaitlin Messich, kmcshea1@uga.edu, 706-542-0741

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Shannah Montgomery
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