Federal Way looks to reshape image

Someday, local signs could read, “Lakehaven welcomes you.”

Perhaps, “You are now entering Marine Hills.”

Or maybe it will be “Federal Way: For life. For you.”

Okay, so those identifiers are spoken for – by a utility district, a neighborhood and a department store, respectively.

But creating a new image – and maybe even a new name – for Federal Way is presently on city officials’ plate.

The city recently hired Seattle design firm The Leonhardt Group in a consulting role to begin the process of “branding” the city. The long-term process could involve a catchy slogan, a new city logo, new street signs, informational pamphlets, and potentially a new city name – should citizens approve one in an election.

“When you get down to it, branding is all about perceptions,” Leonhardt Group Brand Strategy Manager Rob Osler told a collection of councilmembers, staff and Lodging Tax Advisory Committee members at a recent city meeting. Osler has worked on brand strategies for REI, Nordstrom and other Northwest companies, but said it could be a bumpier road when a public agency attempts to revamp its image.

“This is messier,” Osler said. “We’ve got a lot of different stakeholders, and there’s a lot of emotion.”

The firm helped reshape the image of Tacoma City Light – now Tacoma Power – and also came up with The Bon Marché ad campaign “For life. For you.”

It is The Leonhardt Group’s job to identify what Federal Way is “excellent at,” to isolate the perceptions of residents and others in the region and to subsequently gauge their reactions, said Sue Nixon, company president.

“One of the things we do is help you intercept your audiences,” Nixon said.

She explained the branding process could have at least three benefits. Outside companies are likely to locate in a city of good repute, tourism dollars are more likely to come where the regional perceptions are roundly positive, and city staff morale is likely to rise, making workers more productive.

“We felt that the strategic part of this was very, very important,” said Assistant City Manager Donna Hanson. In its amended 2002 budget proposal, the city allocates $40,000 to the branding process.

Patrick Doherty, the city’s deputy director for economic development, said there would be a “steep, learning immersion curve” as The Leonhardt Group begins its task. Later, the company will come back with its findings and work with city leaders to create consensus on a message. Then it will be time for business and public buy-in.

Branding has worked for cities before, Doherty said, noting a City of Seattle urban design office was “branded” when he worked there in recent years.

The message helped raise awareness of the department and its goals. “People really started to relate to the function” of the office, he said.

Unlike Tacoma, he added, Federal Way has some advantages as it begins its branding process because fewer outsiders will have preconceived negative notions. It took Tacoma years of targeted campaigns to overcome some negative perceptions, he said.

Councilwoman Mary Gates, a 27-year Federal Way resident, said she looks forward to “branding” the city. She believes some of Federal Way’s mixed reputation in the Puget Sound has been formed by other suburban cities that envy the city’s success in wooing businesses and jobs.

“We’ve been highly successful as a city, and there’s probably a degree of jealousy there,” Gates said.

Overcoming the existing image might not be easy, she said, but she was wary of changing the city name, noting residents voted against a change after incorporation. New city names could be entertained, Gates said, but prudently.

“I will listen to them. I won’t throw them out,” she said before adding, “I would want to hear the whole package”

Councilman Eric Faison also said he was excited about the branding process and wanted to see as many ideas as possible get to the table – including a possible name change for the city.

“I think we need to identify and address the issues,” said Faison, eager for feedback from the consultants. “We can’t say, ‘Don’t look at this issue’ when we know it’s an issue.”

He said for a city with beautiful neighborhoods and a diverse population, the words “Federal Way” conjured more muddled images.

“I hear it’s pretty unusual for a utility district to have a nicer-sounding name than a city,” Faison said, referring to the Lakehaven Utility District.

He also liked the name of an upscale development overlooking Puget Sound.

“Marine Hills is an attractive name, and, really, Federal Way consists of a bunch of hills right off the water,” he said.

In the meantime, he’ll wait for more information and input.

“Whether or not Federal Way should have a new name,” he said, “is really a question for the future.”

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