Thursday, December 3, 2009

City as Logo

A few days ago I came across the Absolut Vancouver vodka bottle. The bottle was designed by Douglas Fraser and consists of an almost Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-style 'V' with a flying plane over it. I wasn't sure at first how much I liked it, but it has grown on me after my impulse purchase in line at the BC Liquor Store.

The bottle is a limited edition creation with a portion of proceeds to go towards a fund (upwards of $120,000) which Absolut will donate to an art installation in the city (contest details found on their website). But what does it really mean to have an Absolut Vancouver bottle?

In the past few years in the run up to Vancouver's Winter Olympics in 2010, this city has experienced a flurry of branding like never before, with the creation of so many different logos and mascots it makes my head spin. There's the official Olympic logo, the Vancouver Olympic logo, the Paralympic logo, the city logo, the family of mascots, the creation of an Olympic torch, the design and subsequent controversy over the Olympic sweaters, the rest of the clothing line, the Olympic athletes clothing, and so on and so forth.

So, now to add to that, we have our very own limited edition vodka bottle. And Absolut is not just a brand; it seems they've transcended to a higher plane where branding equals art and not marketing. Would we care if Special K came out with a limited edition Vancouver cereal box? Probably not. There are books dedicated wholly to cataloguing and showing off the different designs for Absolut bottles. It's a brilliant play on their part. I admit the only reason I bought this bottle was for the Vancouver design and not for the vodka it houses (although that will get consumed). But why did I buy it? I bought it because I thought it was neat.

I guess the real question you have to ask is: Was the bottle created to sell "Vancouver" or to sell Absolute Vodka? Or was it created to sell anything at all? What is Absolut Vancouver?

New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo. All these cities evoke feelings, images, ideas, when we hear their names. But what makes city branding different than product branding is that the products really ARE different. The value-added process of branding a product like jeans or t-shirts, is that you get people to pay more for something that is essentially the same as the next pair of jeans or t-shirt: people buy it for the brand, the logo, the image. It's what distinguishes one from another.

But each city, unlike a pair of jeans, is already pretty different and offers a different experience than the next. There is a tangible feeling that exists in cities that you can't get from wearing a pair of jeans unless a brand tells you to feel upper class, or punky, or hipster. Good cities are their own brand, their own logo. New York would still be New York without the I <3 NY shirts. But rip the label off a pair of Levis and they become just another pair of jeans.

So, back to that Absolut Vancouver bottle. I don't know exactly what Absolut Vancouver is: Is it a commercialized ploy to increase sales? Is it a philanthropic gift to the art community? Does it create a vain sense of "world city" in a city that is so obsessed with being a "world city"? Can we brag about this to our friends in Toronto?

Probably a messy combination of all of the above.

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