Kempner: It’s not a new toothpaste. Georgia city adopts a brand name

A city is not a brand of toothpaste. But there are times when it gets treated like one.

Leaders and residents of a new Georgia city on the south side of metro Atlanta spent weeks coming up with a new name for their community of nearly 90,000 people. It was an exercise in Branding 101, with a clear feeling that money and business might be on the line.

They wanted a name that would attract employers and new residents. They sought a label that would draw the community together — or at least not pull it apart.

What the city council approved is a name that could fly as a brand of toothpaste or skin cream. Heck, it’s already a hotel brand.

After less than a year of existence, the “City of South Fulton” is about to become “Renaissance, Ga.,” assuming I spelled that correctly. The council is slated to make it official in a Dec. 12 vote.

“We need some serious prayer!!!” someone posted online after seeing the name.

Some residents are unsure if the name is supposed to be a reference to the European Renaissance that began in the 1400s or New York’s Harlem Renaissance that kicked off in the 1910s. Does the name imply the city has serious problems it needs a renaissance to fix or is it a suggestion that rebirth is already underway?

Meanwhile, the general manager of the nearby Georgia Renaissance Festival — as in smoked turkey legs and jousting knights — wondered whether visitors will confuse the two locations.

“As long as they don’t start selling turkey legs, I guess we are OK,” Dave Dorrell told me.

The festival (which actually is in Fairburn) launches in the spring for its 33rd year.

“They are going to have to train people to spell Renaissance,” Dorrell said. “That’s what we deal with all the time.”

Naming a city “Renaissance” seems forced to me, like somebody swallowed too much marketing Kool-Aid.

But coming up with a brand that seems authentic and sticks out from the crowd isn’t easy, especially now that lots of new cities have recently formed in metro Atlanta. All of them are vying for economic attention.

Going for aspirational

South Fulton city leaders held a meeting to gather input about names from residents. They recruited marketing people for help and conducted informal online polling.

I watched video of a city council meeting when they hashed through names. There were cheers when Renaissance was selected, though a local high school student has gathered more than 600 signers on a petition to have the name reconsidered.

Renaissance is aspirational, said Councilman khalid (he prefers to go by one lower-cased name). “It is the rebirth of an area that might not have gotten the consideration from the county leaders.”

It fits with his hopes of attracting more creative entrepreneurs to the area. Plus, he said, “Renaissance won because nobody hates it.”

But the community also faces bigger issues that play into the discussion, he said. “A lot of the arguments about the city name are proxy arguments about these two things: are we going to be a big city or a small town? And are we going to be a black city?”

(Just over 90 percent of Renaissance’s residents are African American. And debates about names and a new city seal raised the question of whether to highlight the city’s current racial makeup, for example including a Swahili word in the seal.)

Trouble connecting

Finding one name that works for the city looked particularly challenging because the community doesn’t really have a central core. It’s a collection of parts of Fulton County that weren’t already incorporated by others. When residents approved the city’s creation last year,  the name City of South Fulton was used merely as a sort of placeholder.

Names like Wolf Creek were associated with one section of the community but not others. Some favored the name Atlanta Heights, while others recoiled at being linked to the big city. The name South Fulton frustrated people critical of past county oversight.

As for Renaissance, there’s a local middle school that has the name. And a high school is named after Langston Hughes, a poet who was part of the African-American arts and culture boom known as the Harlem Renaissance.

But plenty of constituents don’t see much of a connection.

“The first thing they ask about is, ‘Where the hell did you get that name?’” Mayor Bill Edwards told me.

While he didn’t get a vote on the name, he told me Renaissance was one of his top choices.

“We needed something that was marketable,” he said.

Expert advice

So I called a couple marketing folks.

Renaissance is “fine but too middle of the road to generate lots of word of mouth,” said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.”

“I think of people in castles and wearing velvet,” he said. “But it also has a southern feel to it. It obviously is a long name. It has slow sounds.”

It can take time for new names to catch on, said Matt Gordon, who runs naming and writing practices in Chicago for branding company Landor Associates.

“People love to poke holes at names or make fun of them,” he said.

His advice? Announce the name and stick with it through the inevitable complaints. He pointed out that when iPad was first introduced the name was immediately ridiculed for sounding like a feminine hygiene product. That soon faded away.

Edwards, the mayor of Renaissance, views the city’s new brand as just a starting point.

“I had to ask myself, ‘What is in a name?’ It doesn’t matter if it’s Wolf Creek or Renaissance. If we don’t do right by this city and make it all that it can be, the name won’t really matter.”

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