Dearborn tells its story of diversity, innovation, and connectedness

Through a cohesive city-wide branding initiative, Dearborn is sparking a vibe that will reverberate through the community’s shared consciousness.


Dearborn's new branding concept. Courtesy Octane Design.The new branding is the result of a year of intensive research and engagement through a collaboration with the City of Dearborn, the East Dearborn and West Dearborn DDAs and multiple stakeholders.


The goals of the branding project are multifold and include revealing the city’s numerous assets and resources while honoring its rich history. It's also about strengthening connections between Dearborn's East and West downtown districts and the many unique neighborhoods within the city.


The brand is intended to be multifaceted, with an overall look supported by themes that can be extracted and used for unique purposes such as employer recruitment efforts, business outreach, or community development, says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of East and West Dearborn Downtown Development authorities.


Before the logo or narrative could be conceived, city stakeholders embarked upon a lengthy information-gathering campaign to intuit thoughts and feelings from business owners, residents, visitors, and the workforce of Dearborn.


“We had almost 2,000 surveys completed by the community and multiple focus groups and stakeholder meetings to reach out to a broad base of the community representative of Dearborn,” says Sheppard-Decius.


Under the direction of the DDAs and its partners, the project was implemented by Applied Storytelling, a brand strategy firm located in Detroit and Los Angeles, and Detroit-based Octane Design.


Eric La Brecque, founder and principal at Applied Storytelling, says in the best branding scenarios, every stakeholder – from city government, downtown development authorities, to businesses and residents – participates actively and enthusiastically.


“In Dearborn, the process was as good as it gets,” he says. “From the way the city reviewed the work, to the way we interfaced with the DDAs, the level of interaction was everything we could have hoped for to do our best work. That’s really rare.”


Independently, both firms have experience building civic brands – Applied Storytelling has worked on brand-building for Toledo, Calgary, Las Vegas and others, while Octane Design has crafted work for Grand Haven, Downtown Ferndale, Warren, and the Woodward Avenue Action Association. They have shared clients, including The Henry Ford, and together they clicked when working on initiatives for the Visit Detroit brand.


“We were constantly talking about working together more,” says Bill Bowen, principal at Octane Design. “The DDAs liked how our visual design and Applied Storytelling’s strategy complemented each other.”


But no level of engagement will tell the whole story well if the process is not authentic, says La Brecque.


“Nobody likes a stranger to come in and say they know what is right for a community,” he says. “You overcome that with bonding and empathy. You’re going to a lot of meetings and sharing a lot of meals and making presentations and visiting a lot of sites. That’s how you learn and how you earn your respect.”


Among the meetings and conversations, common themes rose to the top, say Bowen and La Brecque, and these themes informed the design characteristics of the branding.


“You are designing for a community of current and potential residents, visitors and businesses,” says Bowen. “When you brand a city, you create a sense of place which helps to define the community, what this place is and what the city’s future strategic goals may be.”

Dearborn's new branding concept. Courtesy Octane Design.


The brand logo, which Bowen describes as representing “rich mosaics, vibrant neighborhoods, lively downtowns and diversity,” supports the theme of hands-on innovation, and will be used in banners, wayfinding, streetscapes, printed materials and more, to display Dearborn’s “smart, real, creative, down-to-earth and diverse” culture. When layered together, the brand iconography, typography and logo “convey the feeling of a rich, layered quilt,” says Bowen.


The rollout will be lengthy, says Sheppard-Decius. Over the next year, signage and marketing materials, refreshed websites and social media messaging will be transitioned into current media and communication channels, says Sheppard-Decius. In the longer term, a wayfinding system that incorporates elements of the logos and colors is planned. The entire project was funded by the City of Dearborn, the East and West Dearborn DDAs, Ford Land and Fairlane Town Center, and is being implemented through a five-component plan that encompasses research, surveys, narrative development, brand identification and development, and implementation, she says.


“Telling our own story”


Sam Abbas sees Dearborn’s branding as the beginning of a longer-term era of economic growth and vitality in the city. As a business owner, WDDDA Board Chairperson and member of the Dearborn brand development advisory committee, Abbas recognizes how valuable branding can be.


“Branding can be how [a city] portrays itself in the media, or how it portrays itself on paper. It can be as simple as a letterhead. Is it forward-thinking or historic? Does it signal an innovative city that is driving southeast Michigan?” Abbas says. And while Dearborn is a city with a rich history, including that of Henry Ford and Ford Motor Corp., Abbas is thrilled that Dearborn’s new branding is fresh and future-focused.

Dearborn's new branding concept. Courtesy Octane Design.


“I’m excited to see this logo utilized. It’s what we need,” says Abbas. “It makes me feel like we are part of an innovative and diverse ecosystem, both economically and population-wise. It really captures these elements.”


Dan Merritt, co-owner of Dearborn’s Green Brain Comics and vice-chair of East Dearborn DDA, recognizes the brand’s potential to control Dearborn’s narrative. “This is an opportunity to design and tell our own story,” he says. “Dearborn has been misrepresented for a long time in national media, and we are using this to get in front of the message and tell people the reality by showing them what Dearborn is.”


One message Merritt wants to share is that small retailers can thrive in affordable East Dearborn. “The East Dearborn downtown has a lot of great smaller shops that are affordable and give business owners access to a lot of city services that other places in the area are overpricing.”


The slow burn of effective branding


Ultimately, however, the design and narrative must be a perfect fit in order to build strength with the passage of time, La Brecque explains.


“You don’t experience the story the way you might experience a book or a movie that has a beginning, middle, and end, or that is consumed in one viewing,” he says. “The brand story is experienced over a long period of time and pops up time and again. It’s not continuous, but it appears when you go to an event, or read a company’s recruiting materials, or eat at a restaurant, or while walking through a neighborhood. What we are trying to do is help people see the common themes and elements of Dearborn.”


While the brand is designed to support several strategic goals, including and unifying Dearborn’s downtowns, it is also designed to build momentum over time, says La Brecque.


“It takes time for this to stick and for the city to grow into the story,” he explains. “It has to work for the next several years, and things that are true today will be true tomorrow. It’s not an ad campaign, though it does inform advertising and PR and marketing efforts. It takes time and yields over the long term.”


For Dearborn’s brand to be effective, it will be embraced and internalized by individuals, companies, and groups, and then revealed and shared in a grassroots way, says La Brecque.


“So much of the work is woven into the grain of the city and picks up on what’s most interesting and different from the universe of possibilities,” he says. “It’s focus and amplification, and the community picks up on that.”

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Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.