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Why City Branding Needs More Cliches

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I am writing this post while flying home from Chicago...which is really too bad, as I am missing an interesting, important and inspirational meeting as I do so.

Said meeting is to introduce Montreal's new Quartier de l'innovation (I suppose "Innovation Sector" is as good an English equivalent as any), and present its team of ambassadors, of which I am one, alongside such heavyweights as Cirque du soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre, Sid Lee President Jean-Francois Bouchard and Martine Turcotte, Vice-Chair of Bell.

We ambassadors are aligned and assembled to represent and bang the drum for this McGill University/ETS-led project that aims to establish a creative/tech/knowledge hub in Montreal's burgeoning lower downtown/Griffintown area. (An aside-- I think I have already set the record for the amount of /slashes ever used in a blog post.)

This is the second such effort of "re-branding" Montreal I've been involved with lately; the other being the city's 375th Anniversary celebrations, a project being led by my friend and partner Gilbert Rozon.

Now I tell you this not to brag about the fascinating nature of my extra-curricular activities, but to explain the common goal and underlying theme of these two projects -- breaking free of handcuffing, handicapping stereotypes.

Studies show that when people think of Montreal, the images that pop up are those of its Mount Royal centrepoint, the St. Lawrence river, snow, Celine Dion, bagels, the Olympic Stadium, as well as the artery-hardening delicacies of poutine and smoked meat. Sadly, this is no joke. Not that there's anything wrong with the mountain, the river or cheesy french fries doused in sauce, but they're hardly the makings of international awe. Perception is reality, and such is Montreal's reality on the world stage.

Even more striking is that these deeply-engrained cliches are also Montreal's reality within Montreal. In fact, in the preliminary positioning documents for the 375th, there was much talk of focusing on many of the above-mentioned landmarks and pockmarks.

Yikes.

The good news about all this is that during our first get-together, the 375th group rallied and rebelled against the stereotypes, and the Quartier de l'innovation never even mentioned them.

So what I learned this week seated in the intersect set of these two groups is a new need for the city of Montreal -- and for any business, group or person trying to make its mark, for that matter:

The need to create new cliches.

Cliches and stereotypes get a bad rap, but they exist and are perpetuated largely because they are based on truth -- well, at least a modicum of it -- or on perception, which we have established as reality earlier on in this post.

You can fight common cliches, but where's the win? Saying Montreal's NOT about winter or greasy, calorie-packed, high-cholesterol food?

The win is in the convincing otherwise, and the art of convincing rarely comes from the negative or exclusionary "This is what we're NOT"; it comes from the "This is what we ARE."

I say this after spending a weekend in Chicago, a city I've been visiting for 30 years, and which is one of the cornerstones of the global Just For Laughs Festival circuit. Three decades ago, the city was still shedding its gangster/meat-packing/pizza past.

These days, you think of Chicago and top-of-mind images include majestic green space (Millennium Park), public art (Cloudgate, aka "The Bean"), unparalleled nouveau cuisine (Alinea and others) and quirky neighborhood "scenes" (like Lincoln Park or Old Town) that were once the proprietary shadings of cities like London or New York.

These images and their positioning power rarely come naturally; usually, they are the result of guts, vision and tenacity that can push an agenda of long-term planning through ignorance, political opposition and indifference.

Which brings me back to cliches. Once you're putting the time and effort into changing perceptions, you'd better be sure that the change you're putting in place will not merely say what needs to be said in a confident, defining manner, but actually stand the test of time.

So I don't know where Montreal's 375th will ultimately take us (we still have three years to prepare), but suffice to say that one of the primary goals will be to create the cliches that will not only mark the city, but make it remarkable (as well as create the unmistakable visuals that will be shared around the world via social media).

And if one of the cliches we create is the shiny image of Montreal's tight-knit Quartier de l'innovation, all the better.

So forget what others think of you; think of what you WANT others to think about you. Then distill it down to its most common root and exploit that root in a most elementary, basic way.

You'll be creating a new cliche. And an easy way to define your destiny.