Recently, I was invited to a focus group by Tourism Calgary, so they could pick my brain (along with another 15+ Calgarians) about Calgary’s identity and brand. Always game to be a guinea pig (that’s how I met my wife…another story), so I quickly said, “YES!”
I was intrigued by one of the introductory remarks – “this not going to be about picking a new logo or new moniker, but more an open discussion about Calgary’s identity and unique sense of place.” Interesting.
One of the take-away ideas from the facilitator’s introduction was that almost every city around the world is telling the same stories to tourists - how great their festivals are, bragging about their new museums, parks and plazas and boasting about their culinary culture and craft beers.
A related key message was - what cities are not doing is understanding and/or communicating what makes them different, unique or special. Note: Something I hope I am trying to do with my blogs from Calgary or other places I visit, I am always looking for something unique.
We then were divided into three groups of about 6 people each for some group exercises. Here are two that I found both interesting and strange at the same time.
Answer this question: What would the world miss if Calgary didn’t exist?
Yikes…my immediate thought was “nothing.” In fact I would hazard a guess 80% of the world probably doesn’t even know Calgary exists and if they do, they know very little about us. An obvious answer is “energy” but in reality that doesn’t come from Calgary. Then there is the Stampede, but not sure the world would really miss it if it didn’t happen, anymore than the world would miss Carnival, Marda Gras or Oktoberfest. I don’t think the world would miss our museums, public art, restaurants, shopping or fishing on the Bow River either.
Our group didn’t come up with anything and neither did the other groups. I am not sure how productive this question was. Love to hear from readers if there is something they can think of.
What _________ (fill in the blank with the following words - colour, drink, animal, car, movie character) would best describe your city? Again, interesting but wondered what possible insights this might reveal.
What’s OUR colour?
Two of the groups chose blue. One group picked Sky Blue to reflect the warm blue skies Calgarians enjoy every month of the year. One person pointed out that even when is -30 degrees C in the winter, our bright blue sky, makes it seems warmer. Try telling that to someone from Vancouver or Southern Ontario. I pointed out that because of our clean blue skies, our downtown skyline and the mountain vistas are much more vivid than in other cities I have visited. I remember once reading a letter-to-the-editor from an overseas visitor gobsmacked by the quality of light in Calgary, describing it as “celestial.”
The second “blue” group picked Twilight Blue, pointing out that as the sun sets in Calgary, the light becomes quite magical. Ah yes, I miss those golden sunsets on Bankers Hall that we used to have before the rise of Eighth Avenue Place.
The third group picked red, the colour associated with all our sports teams, the Calgary Tower (20th century icon) and Peace Bridge (21st century icon). Nobody said it, but I am sure a few thought it - many Canadians also think of Calgary as a haven for “rednecks.”
What’s OUR drink?
Two of the groups picked “beer” which seems a bit cliché as every city in North America has been infected by the craft beer craze. See above comment on take-away ideas i.e. “all cities tell the same stories.”
Our group picked beer originally, then talked about the Caesar, (invented in Calgary) and finally settled on Vodka. The rationale - you can drink it straight or mix it with anything. We all immediately grabbed onto the notion that while Calgary is very clean and white, we are Canada’s third most ethnically diverse City, and an interesting mix of Canadians from East Coast, West Coast, Central Canada and the Prairies.
As I like to say, “Calgary is the most Canadian city in Canada as we are a mix of Canadians who hail from all regions of our country.”
What’s is OUR animal?
I quickly picked Magpie. Beautiful and exotic upon your first glance, they become very loud and brash the more you see it. As well, magpies are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals in the world; as well they are intensely social with a strong sense of community. I thought this described Calgary to a T.
Overruled, our group ultimately chose “dog,” for it’s friendliness and loyalty, which we all felt were Calgary qualities. One person was even specific, suggesting a herding dog (border collie), as we love to work hard. I have often said that Calgary is the place where Canadians come to “work hard and get ahead.” Someone also pointed out we have some of the best dog parks in the world. Point well taken.
The group sitting right behind me actually did pick the Magpie – I think they overheard my pitch and bought it.
The third group picked Bison. Though, originally picking the horse, one person in the group pointed out that in a storm, horses run away while bisons charge into the storm, which is what Calgarians do when faced with a challenge. That received applause from the entire room.
What is OUR car?
This is a great question for Calgary as our city has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the world. One group chose the SUV, an obvious choice given Calgary’s demographics are dominated by families. A hybrid between a sports car and a sedan, it is a good metaphor for our city that combines fast living with family life.
Our group unanimously chose the Ford 150. It is a well known Calgary is the pickup capital of Canada. One members pointed out he knows a billionaire in Calgary who drives a Ford 150. It nicely references our rural roots, our connection with the land and our strong work ethic.
Being the contrarian (surprise, surprise) I suggested the Car2Go smart cars as Calgary has one of the highest Car2Go memberships, pointing our it references Calgary’s growing “sharing culture” as well as our aspiration to be a “smart city.”
As luck would have it, the group behind me did choose Car2Go – I do think I was in the wrong group!
What’s OUR movie character?
Two groups chose Woody from “Toy Story.” This was too obvious as Woody dresses up like a cowboy but isn’t really a cowboy; how perfect is that. But the references go much deeper - Woody is Andy’s favourite toy and the leader of all of his toys, but his status as the favourite is challenged. Indeed, for much of the late 20th and early 21st century, Calgary had to fight to be recognized as one of Canada’s leading economic engines, a budding urban playground and the favourite city for Canadians to move to.
The other group chose R2D2, however I can’t recall what their rationale was. Perhaps it reflects our position as a high tech, future-oriented city or our love of cosplay.
Upon reflection, I wonder if Tourism Calgary was soliciting ideas for a fun viral tourist video about Calgary.
I can see it now. It will have a couple of redneck cowboys in a blue Ford 150 with their border collie in the back, while two cowgirls hop into a Car2Go and suburban family all in Star Wars attire (one as R2D2) jump into their red SUV while a murder of magpies play in the trees.
The redneck cowboys head to the Red Mile’s Trolley Five (via Memorial Drive so they can pass by the red Peace Bridge (with hundreds of walkers and cyclists and then up Centre Street for a shot of the red-topped Calgary Tower) for a vodka martini with a Beltline lager chaser and a bison burger on a lively patio while their loyal dog (a blue heeler) waits on the sidewalk being admired by a parade of pedestrians (beside him, a blue bowl labelled “fresh Bow River water.”)
Meanwhile, the blue jeaned-attired cowgirls head to Inglewood (passing by the bison at Fort Calgary), to do some shopping and checking out the new exhibition at the Esker Foundation before meeting up with friends for dancing at the Saturday blues jam at the Blues Can hosted by Tim Williams (winner of the International Blues Competition in 2014).
The Star Wars family heads to the nearest LRT Park & Ride in their red SUV (with a shot of some public art along the way), then hop on Little Ralph’s Train (on which, to their surprise, a couple of young aspiring singer songwriters are jamming some tunes) to the Stampede Red LRT Station where they become part of tens of thousands of people enjoying the annual Calgary Expo (aka cosplay) with huge posters for Big Rock, Village and Wild Rose breweries in the background.
It ends with a shot of the magic blue twilight sky and setting sun on the Bow River full of rafters and paddlers with Downtown skyline glowing in the background and the byline:
Imagine Being In Calgary!
I can't help but wonder if this exercise will be any more successful than those that generated the "Heart of the New West" or "Be Part of the Energy." I didn’t get to pitch my idea that Calgary’s moniker should be the:
“City of Parks & Pathways.”
Rationale: We have 5,200+ parks, including two of the largest urban parks in the world (Nose Hill and Fish Creek), two great festival parks (Prince’s Island and Stampede Park), a park-like zoo, great family parks, great dog parks (e.g. St. Patrick’s and Bowness), the world’s longest elevated indoor walkway (+15), 700+km of pathways city wide and new the 133km Greenway that encircles the city. Need I say more? OK - Banff National Park (many tourists already think of Calgary as the gateway to Banff), Kananaskis and Dinosaur Provincial Parks are a few just hours away.
Who wouldn’t want to visit the City of Park & Pathways? Who wouldn’t want to move to the City of Parks & Pathways for a job? Works for both tourism and economic development, don’t you think?
Do I have a seconder?
Vanessa Gagon, Tourism Calgary's Brand Manager writes:
I love how you weave photos of all the awesomeness in our city into your post!
The response to this project has been really great, people are excited! Over the last few weeks we've conducted a residents survey (800 Calgarians - with approximately 200 from NW, NE, Central and South Calgary), 4 workshops (81 participants) and focus groups with community leaders (29 participants), that's 910 people who have been involved! Oh and we did a staff workshop so 930 people! Folks have been so gracious with their time and are eager to help in any way they can, confirms we live in the best city in Canada! :)
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