Branding Place - Orange County: Critique and Cautionary Tale

By: David T.

Whether you are 'Conversant' in branding or not, the object of the predicate in the title may strike you as-no pun-misplaced. Typically one hears of branding a product or company and sometimes even experiences. But what about the naming, branding strategy and perceptions associated with places - towns and cities. As fodder for my reflection, I'm going to point out examples local to our Orange County office.

First, some qualifiers: Moving to Orange County only 8 months ago after 16 years in San Francisco, I bring the perspective of an outsider. Upon moving to Orange County, I found it strange that many residents identified where they lived by reference to county, rather than town or city. Of course, there are other famous counties: Bergen (NJ) and Fairfield (CT), but I can not think of anywhere else in the U.S. where county functions as the primary identifier of residence than in Orange County. True: If you live in one of the beach cities-Laguna, San Clemente, Newport-you are more likely to refer to them when specifying an address. But, there is an invisible line as one moves East into the hinterland, where Everything is and Everybody lives in Orange County - a place where oranges are now largely imported (I'll bet). My first encounter with Orange Country "branding," if you will, was an advertisement marketing new homes in Newport Beach. The headline read: "New, Detached, Gated. Newport." My first thought was that this slogan-designed to promote the sale of half-million-dollar homes in a prestigious city address-could've served just as well to promote one of the states' new penitentiaries. New. Detached. Gated. Are these the benefits that entice the buyer? San Francisco-if similarly formulated in 3 words-seemed the alter ego of this concept: Old. Attached. Open.

Take a look at the brand strategy behind some Orange County city names:
* Lake Forest: Neither lake nor forest in any meaningful sense.
* Laguna Woods: No laguna, no woods.
* Laguna Hills: There are hills, but are they so unique in contrast to the hills in other towns as to merit special call-out?
* Mission Viejo: No Mission and very little that is 'viejo'.
* Villages of Irvine: The use of the term 'villages' here really refers to very modern housing developments that bear little relation to the sort of entities for which the term was originally coined-places that grow organically, are formed around a central piazza lined with businesses including the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker-of which the Villages of Irvine bear little. So, why the resort to anachronism? Why not craft language as new to fit these hybrids?

Why is it that very nuevo towns are so anxious to brand themselves as viejo and quaint? There seems to be paranoia or at least an inferiority complex that underlies the branding of OC cities. Shouldn't Irvine, for example, project an image of itself as planned, pristine, and modern (all of which it is) rather than a collection of villages?

So, what is the point of all this? To 'diss' the OC or those who have-for better or worse-crafted the verbal grid that organizes its image? Well, sort of. Again, whatever these folks thought they were doing when they invented this lexicon, they have packaged the place and given it a de facto persona. Maybe this is a cautionary tale about branding at its worst, a How-Not-to-Do-It sermon from a proud professional, anxious not to see his discipline smeared by the work of imposters or hacks, anxious to avoid getting painted along with them by the critic's brush, afraid to see the accusation of 'spin' stick. I suppose there is that to it, as well. But think of it this way: This is a business development pitch to the Oligarch of Orange County to contact us, rebrand his Kingdom and save a worthy empire from the hands of Mad Men.

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