What Is Branding? Why Does It Matter?

In the flutter of introductory chit-chat, I am often asked, “So what do you do?” Usually I rattle off the quick answer: “I work for a branding and strategy agency! We develop and strengthen brands for forward-thinking companies! We help our clients strategize their next move and see new, untapped opportunities for better!” This is the answer for what Block Club is, but having been asked this question several times by friends and family not necessarily entrenched in the spheres of urbanism, art, design and branding, I’ve felt prodded to think about the real question I am being asked, which is not what Block Club is, but what Block Club does. And so what is branding, really? And, okay, so why is branding important? No, really. Why. Why does it matter?

Branding matters, especially in Buffalo, NY. At its core, branding is the shaping of perception. It is powerful in this purpose. Branding can sell, sell, sell. Branding can create a need where a need previously did not exist. Branding fills up stadiums. Branding sways polls. Branding creates household names and a misstep can bring beloved, generations-old companies to their knees. On an everyday, street-level scale, the brands in a city—the businesses you pass, the signage and menus, the wayfinding and official maps, all the way down to the posters stapled to telephone poles—brand neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods brand the city as whole.

Consider every time you have passed through a city for a short time, perhaps on the way somewhere else. What impression did you walk away with? What was your answer when your friends asked, “So how was [Chicago, Portland, Cleveland, Nashville]?” Was it a comfortable city? Was it easy to get around? Did the neighborhoods feel dense and alive? What interesting things did you see? Now consider that friend who is finally passing through Buffalo on their way across the Northeast: What is their takeaway? How does our city look to them?

A well-branded city is pleasant to experience and easier to navigate. For a city in transition, great design on a street-level scale is one of the fastest, most effective and most immediately apparent ways to alter the way outsiders experience a new place. Being in a city full of smart brands means experiencing many moments in a day of beauty, of cleverness, clarity and confidence.

It’s incredible when I think about the Buffalo I moved to ten years ago and how the streetscapes have changed in the decade since. The blocks feel tighter, the signage is nicer, the streets feel more neatly organized, people are carrying around boxes and bags from the places I know and love and they look really nice. Branding our home city is one of our core passions here at Block Club and one of my principle motivators. It’s great to think that this is how I am able to help—that that is the thing I do.