By Marc Stoiber
Sustainable Cities Board Member
Marc Stoiber is vice president of Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, a leading innovation agency based in Chicago. Stoiber and his green team work out of Vancouver.
Just before the Olympics kicked off in Vancouver, our mayor unveiled a new logo and tagline for the city.
“Vancouver: Green Capital” was intended to focus the world on Vancouver’s credentials as a green innovation hub. Instead of oohing and aahing at our scenery, Olympic visitors (and thousands of news cameras) would discover our prowess in greentech, urban planning and social justice.
Unfortunately, this new initiative is simply the latest in a long line of disconnected green branding efforts from a long line of well-meaning Vancouver mayors. And its effectiveness will no doubt be hampered by our inability to stick with one horse.
This scenario belies an innovation challenge for cities looking to establish themselves as green leaders.
So what is the key to building a strong green brand for a city? And is it worth the trouble?
Learning from Curitiba
Some cities seem to have cracked the code on successful green branding. Curitiba, for example, has achieved icon status as a center for green innovation. Speaking with Guilherme Fragomeni of Curitiba at this year’s Sustainable Cities conference, I discovered the secret was bold marketing as much as visionary infrastructure.
During the 1970s, while Brazil was welcoming industry with open arms, Curitiba accepted only non-polluters and constructed an industrial district with expanses of green space. This earned it the derisive moniker of “golf course.” The snickers stopped, however, when Curitiba’s growth outstripped that of its more polluted neighbors.
The city also understood the importance of creating green initiatives that inspired with their looks as well as their eco-efficiency. Its transport corridors and bus metro systems provided both a smart solution to gridlock and a symbol of thinking outside the box.
As more green programs were developed, branding was always a top consideration. A recycling program from the ’70s, for example, came with initiatives to turn trash into flowers at recycling centers.
Today, as Fragomeni says, Curitiba may be actually have to tone down its green branding, or risk being criticized as a city that publicizes green initiatives more than it implements them. He points to the city’s Sustainable Cities 2010 award — won despite Curtitiba’s rivers being technically dead.
Modeling Success In Costa Rica
The eco-resorts of Costa Rica are internationally renowned. Their successful brand now seems to be driving the aggressive pursuit of green in the country’s capital San Jose.
Speaking with Costa Rican Planner Royee Alvarez at Sustainable Cities, I discovered his country has launched a national campaign to become the first Carbon Neutral country by 2021. There are tax breaks for green development, public service overhauls, urban densification and efficiency boosts at every level.
The goal, as Royee relates, is simple: to boost the economy in the way eco-resorts boosted Costa Rica’s tourism business.
Sustainability is part of every major city’s vocabulary today. But branding those efforts has been sporadic and unremarkable. What can leaders learn from this?
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint — Instead of creating a new green brand with every new mayor, stick to your knitting. A mediocre, but consistent green brand will beat a brilliant fly-by-night in every race.
2. Lead with insight — Consumers love the eco-resorts of Costa Rica. They want San Jose to reflect eco-innovation that is consistent with the easy luxury of its resorts. If Costa Rica uses that North Star insight as guidance, it will create a green brand it can own — and profit from.
3. Do, then talk – Curitiba is a model for urban eco-innovation. But it also runs the risk of over-branding. This isn’t dangerous if you’re selling shampoo. But when it comes to environmental issues, discretion beats overpromise.
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