Downtown DC is at a crossroads and we can influence the path it takes in profound ways through branding.

Branding used to be understood solely as a communication package. Today, we view it as a way of looking at a set of relationships between a customer and a product or service, which takes into consideration all aspects of the relationship.

Branding aspires to establish an emotional connection. It goes beyond communication-related issues and includes the ways in which a product or service is delivered. It helps to define how this particular set of relationships is distinguished from others so as to create a competitive advantage.

Once the brand is created, organizations or businesses are required to manage all aspects of its activities so as to further strengthen and enhance the relationship and guarantee the promised experience.

The Downtown DC Business Improvement District set out on a mission to uncover the attributes that make our Downtown unique. The brand addresses those who have the influence, opportunity and drive to have a positive impact on the shape and character of Downtown. The benefits accrue to everyone that gains from a strong, diverse and sustainable Downtown.

Why branding?
When the Downtown BID began operating in 1997, we focused on bringing order and strategically managing Downtown’s physical appearance with “clean, safe and friendly” services to support the neighborhood’s revitalization. At that point in time, Downtown could have been branded as “dull, dirty and dangerous” – crime rates were high, public and private investments were lacking and, with few activities to compel office workers to stay beyond normal business hours, there was no excitement.

But much has changed since then. By 2006, both the Downtown area and the BID had grown and taken on new attributes. Both had begun to convey very different values that required redefinition. Downtown had become a hot market without a clearly defined identity. The Downtown BID took on the challenge of uncovering Downtown’s brand essence and developing value statements to create a template for telling the area’s and our organization’s story.

Downtown DC has always been a place that matters. In that sense, it has always had a brand – as a center of national and local government, a center of commerce and a central gathering place for the region.

Our task was not so much to brand Downtown DC, but to “rebrand” it in order to bring long held public perceptions into congruence with the area’s transformation into a commercial, cultural and entertainment hub, as well as to plan for future economic growth and vitality.

Lessons Learned

1. Create an advisory committee to guide decisionmaking and create stakeholder buy-in.
Our advisory committee consisted of:

  • Michael Altman, former Director of Marketing, Smithsonian Business Ventures
  • Richard Bradley, Executive Director, Downtown BID
  • Angela Fox, Executive Director, Crystal City BID (former Director, Cultural Tourism DC )
  • Vicky Isley, Vice President for Marketing, Destination DC
  • Steve Moore, CEO, Washington, DC Economic Partnership
  • Howard Riker, Vice President of Hines and Downtown BID Board Chairman
  • David Feehan, Executive Director, International Downtown Association
  • Karen Sibert, Director of Marketing and Communications, Downtown BID

2. Hire a top-notch team of place branding specialists.
We selected Cundari SFP of Toronto, Canada, which has a long history of branding not only places and destinations, but also businesses and products such as the Four Seasons and BMW of Canada

3. Identify stakeholder groups and target audiences to represent each sector of the economy or use categories to gather all relevant perspectives.
We reached out to industry representatives from real estate development, retail, restaurants, hotel, hospitality and cultural organizations; government, civic and business groups; and major employers and others.

4. Let the research drive positioning.
Our consultants conducted face-to-face and telephone interviews with key Downtown stakeholders and opinion leaders. They poured over BID research publications and planning resources and conducted a SWOT analysis. Then, they hit the streets to touch, taste, see and smell the Downtown experience. What they learned formed the basis of our value proposition.