Make Something Edmonton made in Edmonton – so far, so good

GigCity Edmonton Make Something EdmontonHere’s a small sign you might doing something right in your town: When the Mayor forms a task force based on your idea.

So it is with local writer and neo-marketing guru Todd Babiak, whose “Make Something Edmonton” project will turn into an $800,000 campaign to help Edmontonians develop a better attitude towards Edmonton. The launch party happens Thursday, March 21 at the Avenue Theatre, where plans will be announced to … well, help Edmontonians make something Edmonton. Think of it as an anti-branding exercise.

“Brand is an awful word,” says Babiak. “I looked all around North America, and there was not one successful city branding initiative that I could find. They all failed.” What may have once worked in advertising laundry soap does not work in promoting civic pride, he says, and yet “people have been convinced that a tagline and a logo and some pretty colours and some key messages means we have a brand, and therefore this means that everyone should fall in love with us. And this is not the case. It’s snake oil. And lot of cities have failed at it.”

Case in point: Calgary spent $1.4 million in creative fees alone, Babiak says, for some L.A. company to come up with “Innovative Energy.” It was the first word that took all the effort.

How is “Make Something Edmonton” any different? At least it’s not “Mostly Harmless.”

Babiak explains, “I hope we’re taking a more thoughtful approach. We’re having the community build it and instead of having an advertising agency telling us who we are. Start with a story then activate it as a community. I hope that’s different than traditional branding, and hopefully what we get out of it is much better.”

Some people might have an instinctive aversion to such boosterism – like cool kids sneering at pep rally nerds and imagining Edmonton as one enormous high school. It IS one enormous high school. Everybody who’s stuck around knows each other and in which clique they belong – and the high achievers are still with us. Nerds! But maybe this reaction is just part of that endearing Edmontonian quality of self-deprecation and constant complaining whose power might be harnessed. Lord knows there’s little else to talk about in this Godforsaken frozen wasteland … and there I go again.

The ‘Problem’ with Edmonton

GigCity Edmonton Todd Babiak AvenueBabiak, who has published four novels with a fifth on the way, has put his writing gifts to the service of modern marketing through his company Story Engine. Through a year of research, he has determined that Edmonton has an image and reputation problem, though he uses the word “challenge.” A lot of people agree.

He says, “We complain and we apologize and we sit in our basements eating corn chips and complain about Edmonton, and that’s part of our culture, we’re self deprecating and that’s funny. The good part about that is that we don’t say we’re world class and that we’re the best place in the world and all that stuff that feels phony. So we have a good BS detector here. The bad part is that when a company wants to bring in great workers, or the university wants to bring in a top professor, or the Oilers want to bring in a great player, they’re working against the fact that we don’t really know how to talk about Edmonton.”

What we often do, he says, is go on about the beautiful river valley in some vague way “as if other cities don’t have water features.” We use terms like “diverse” and “sustainable,” and look for “universal synonyms for goodness that you could apply to anywhere,” Babiak says. “Bland, empty phrases that don’t get into why we have chosen to live here or why we have chosen to stay.” Dig a little deeper if you have the time, he goes on, and  one discovers that what Edmontonians like most of all are things that are made in Edmonton – like BioWare, PCL Construction, the Alberta Avenue revitalization project and the Fringe Festival. There’s the key to school spirit.

Babiak says, “Calgary’s proudest moment was when Imperial Oil moved its head office from Toronto to Calgary, which is a very different kind of thing than Edmonton.”

Take that, Flames fans.

The Solution

GigCity Edmonton Amy ShostakThe Make Something Edmonton Task Force is made up of people who actually live and work in here, movers and shakers, not bellyachers, bridging arts and business, young and old and all between. The volunteer chairpeople are Rapid Fire Theatre’s Amy Shostak (arts, right) and software company CEO Chris LaBossiere (business). Together with about 50 other folks with a vested interest in positive Edmontonia, with Babiak as creative director, they will do presentations across the city, connect with creative and business people, and help develop ideas to realize the spirit behind the slogan. There’s a new website to gather it all together.

“We don’t want you out there rah rahing Edmonton,” Babiak says. “Just go do something. If you see an ugly wall … put a mural up. If you think Edmonton’s boring in February, start a party or a festival. Just go do something and then tell us about it, and let’s all make something Edmonton.”

Already the idea has grown, Frankenstein-like, out of the control of its creator. There are a number of ideas being kicked around. One group wants $3 million worth of tiny little lights to festoon the High Level Bridge for its 100th anniversary this June. Another fellow wants to hold a “keg race,” in which brave participants chase after (empty) beer kegs rolled down Cloverdale Hill – giving literal impact to the phrase “getting out of the way of people’s creativity.” There are others following the “do something and tell us about it” philosophy. As long as it’s made in Edmonton. We all saw what happened when it wasn’t, and Babiak’s favourite example is the Edmonton Indy: Trying to introduce race car culture to a place known more for horses.

Babiak says, “Maybe if we’d started with soapbox races in 1972 and slowly built a community of race cars, then for sure it would’ve popped here.”

And remember that the Make Something Edmonton organization is itself made in Edmonton, interest being enough that the launch party is sold out (click here to get on the waiting list). So far, so good.