Helen, GA: Place Branding or Development

There is a fake Germanesque town in Northern Georgia, called Helen. After hearing about the city, I had to check it out for myself. I mean, when somebody tells you that there is an Alpine town in the South(ern part of the US), you have to see it.

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One of the side streets in Helen, GA

My trip to Helen was also a part of my field research for my ‘Place Branding and Development in Exurban Environments’. Therefore, I was not planning to blog on my observations. But Helen is currently facing flash flood risks. I believe the city became a great case to discuss the difficulties of balancing place branding and development.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume place branding is what you do to attract outsiders, mainly tourists, to your city while place development is what you do to satisfy the needs of your residents. If you invest all your resources on the former, you will end up with a Disney World-ish city where one can buy all types of memorabilia but cannot find any household items. If you choose the development aspect, you might end up with a well-functioning city that nobody wants to visit, which creates budgetary concerns. In 2017, American domestic tourist spending was valued at $718.4 billion, creating nearly 9 million jobs. Common sense (as well as various scholars including Andrea Insch and Magdalena Florek) dictates that we should balance place branding and development.

Helen is an incredible exception to this wisdom though. The decision to brand the city as an Alpine town was a necessity. Helen became a settlement during the Trail of Tears during which Native Americans were forced out of their lands and replaced by white settlers. Until 1960s, the city did ‘okay’ through its timber industry and gold miners. After depleting these natural resources, people started to abandon the region. Here is how the Chamber of Commerce tells the rest of the story (emphasis added):

Helen’s evolution into an alpine village began in 1968 when a group of local business men met to discuss ways to revitalize their town. They approached a nearby artist friend, who had been stationed in Germany. He sketched the buildings, added gingerbread trim, details and colors to the buildings, giving an alpine look to the entire town. In January of 1969, business owners and local carpenters began turning ideas into reality and all downtown stores were renovated. Faces of buildings were painted with scenes of Bavaria and North Georgia, mirroring the migration of early settlers.

And this is the city we ended up with:

 

After a rainy weekend, Chattahoochee River started giving visitors less of a “let’s go tubing” vibe and a little bit more “maybe they should have invested more on infrastructure”.

Is it possible to balance between place branding and development in emergency cases such as Helen? The short answer is yes, it is. Even if a city decides to completely revamp itself and use tourism as its main industry, it is possible to do so while acknowledging the needs and expectations of locals.

The longer answer requires a dive into the role of environment and sustainable tourism – Helen is in driving distance to metro Atlanta, as well as bordering cities in three states. It has access to a great market. Yet, Helen is also a city that had to reinvent itself once after its economy almost collapsed because it was not diversified. Currently, it is banking on beer-loving tourists and hikers (as Helen is close to a few state parks). This particular strategy is equally unsustainable.

In short – branding is good, especially if you have access to a solid market. But if branding does not go hand-in-hand with development, local governments will find themselves in trouble.

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Creating a Different DMO for Place Branding

This semester’s COM 490 Transmedia Storytelling (or Capstone) course has finally reached its more concrete marketing part. We started reading Anne Zeiser’s Transmedia Marketing book. I should admit that the book is ancient in digital media terms. It was published in 2012 – or few digital eons ago. Yet, its take on marketing and promotion is solid. The first few chapters where Zeiser lays down the conceptual frameworks made me reconsider how one can re-organize a destination management organization (DMO) into one that can implement a transmedia marketing campaign.

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Newport News Tourism Organizational Chart

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Don’t brand, create a world!

This year, I am teaching a course entitled “Transmedia Storytelling” at Reinhardt University. It is basically our capstone course (or senior seminar or however you would like to call it). When my overly-ambitous self gets ridiculously excited about academic ventures, I end up doing not-so-smart things… In this episode of “getting myself overworked”, I promised my students that I will do all the assignments with them. Basically, over the next few months, I will write four reflection blog posts and create a transmedia storytelling campaign for a client of my choice (it will be a place branding campaign for Waleska, GA – a city most famous for being home to Reinhardt University, and also for me.)

The first reading I assigned was Mark Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds. I wanted to encourage my students to think about marketing (or strategic communication) as a way to create a fictional world. I want to expand a little bit more on why I chose this particular reading and connect it with my own project.

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Our first homepage for Turkayfe.org – A website dedicated to telling Turkey’s story

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Concrete Jungle: The Urbanization Fad

“In this Concrete Jungle
We make our homes in city walls
You know we gotta run so wild
To keep up with this life style” Au/Ra – Concrete Jungle

This post is one of my initial attempts to structure my thoughts and (mostly anecdotal) observations about urbanizations into a research plan.

I have been writing about city branding – or in other words how cities see themselves, portray themselves, and are perceived by others – for the better part of the last decade. During the last two years, I started experimenting with the idea of focusing on the attempts of smaller towns that project an urban identity. After accepting a job in Waleska, GA – a town of less than 900 people – and moving to Woodstock, GA – the lively urban center in Cherokee County as it houses around 25,000 people and 20 restaurants/bars -, I am even more excited about the project.

I have one burning question – why do we want to live in this concrete jungle? Why are we so obsessed with cities? More importantly, why do smaller (or exurban or suburban) places act like urban centers?

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Downtown Woodstock, its residents, and one of the few sidewalks in the entire region.

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Who Cites Whom in Place Branding?

In my quest to blog regularly for the Place Brand Observer, I published my fourth post where I pose a structural question within the field of place branding. Who do we cite? Which are some of the more important works? Are there any groupings based on co-citation similarities?

For this purpose, I went to the Web of Science database and downloaded bibliographic information on all articles that had “place branding”, “city branding”, “country branding” or “nation branding” as their topic.

If you are interested in learning more, you can read the full blog post on the Place Brand Observer.

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