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Just What is a Brand?

June 17, 2014
When I started at Milton in December 2009, one of the terms I heard thrown around a lot was “brand.” What is our brand? We’ve got to brand. Brand, brand, brand. 

It seems brand is one of those words everyone uses as a stand in for a range of complex concepts. There are literally thousands of books written on the subject, so there’s way more information available out there than I can ever get into. 

But, for the sake of brevity, I’ll say this: I personally like to use brand to explain three basic concepts – a visual standard, a concept of collective identity and a specific, repeatable yet intangible experience.

Confused yet?

Visual standard
In Milton, our brand is a visual standard. We have a logo that encompasses this standard. The logo uses “Milton” and “Established 2006” in Trajan font and “Home of the Best Quality of Life” in Century Gothic font. There is a horse running, because we are most well-known for horse farms.

Milton, Georgia, Logo

“Milton” and “The Best Quality of Life” are in a color called Pantone 730c (it’s a goldish brown), everything else is in black.

If you see something Milton, it’s going to have that Trajan and Century Gothic fonts. There’s going to be a horse. There is going to be a specific set of colors chosen to work well with Pantone 730c. 

In this case, our brand, our visual standard, exists to subtly tell users they are dealing with Milton. It is all going to look the same. At some point, like the Nike swoosh, you won’t have to see the word “Milton” to understand you’re dealing with a specific municipality in North Fulton.

Collective identity
This is perhaps the toughest thing to accomplish. How, exactly, do you boil down a city of 33,000-odd residents into a single visual concept? The answer is research.

Luckily, I had been intimately involved in the City of Milton’s first strategic plan. This three year plan is used to guide budgeting by accumulating specific goals through meetings with residents. In those meetings, we met with residents from every strata of Milton. The plan was created solely from their input.

And because of that, so was our brand. Like I said, we’re most well-known as an equestrian community. Through those meetings I knew what was most important to residents was a responsive, responsible government that values collaboration. So our brand has to characterize both those ideas. 

Let’s look again at that logo. Trajan font, interestingly enough, is based on Roman lettering found on first century ruins. As such, it’s often used to connote legal, governmental or academic excellence since neoclassicism was popular among the Founding Fathers. 

You’ll see it today mostly on movie posters that have something to do with history or the law. So if I want people to connect Milton with the best of American government, history and thought, it’s the perfect font to use. 

Place that with a running horse, long a symbol of both prestige and, conversely, earnest work, and you’ve got a nice visual clue as to what we hope to accomplish. 

Now that Century Gothic font. This is important from a design aspect. In simple terms, whenever you have a big, thick font with serifs (those little feet on letters) you want to juxtapose another font that is thinner and sans serif (or without those feet). Century Gothic is that font.
Plus, since it is thinner and sans serif, it’s generally looked at as more modern – an era marked by increased collaboration. So with simple font choice, I’m juxtaposing classic American government with a modern take on collaboration. 

I’m really over my word count this month. But we’ll pick this up next month, where I’ll discuss that intangible experience aspect of branding.
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.