Branding Richmond 

Two entities design symbols that say "Richmond."

click to enlarge art37_jetbluevalentine100x.jpg

Nonetheless, JetBlue, which began flying in and out of Richmond this spring, selected these structures — as well as the starkly modernistic Federal Reserve Bank — as visual signifiers in a strikingly handsome print advertisement that's appeared in local publications. "Dear Richmond," the ad reads, "We're happy to be here. Daily nonstop flights to Boston & New York. Sincerely, JetBlue Airways."

Prior to unveiling its Richmond ad, JetBlue had established a memorable visual identity program by featuring landmarks in ads promoting service to other cities — the Chrysler Building symbolizing New York City, a lighthouse signifying Boston and the Texas Capitol dome conjuring Austin.

A few weeks after JetBlue's Richmond ads appeared, another branding campaign was introduced here. The Valentine Richmond History Center, the venerable museum and research center that occupies half a city block in Court End, ditched its severe, sans-serif "V" and circular script motifs for a mark with considerably more flourish.

The new logo also plays up the words "Richmond History Center" in an effort to distance itself gently from the Valentine family name (Mann S. Valentine founded the museum in the late 1890s, and his kin have been prime movers there to varying degrees ever since). The perennial problem is that too many people expect hearts and cupids to be on display. Most people who have seen the history center's new iconographic symbol find it difficult to decipher and not particularly representative (it is, but more about that later).

What is fascinating about both the JetBlue and Richmond History Center branding campaigns is that each takes specific physical objects and renders them in a fresh and bold way.

St. Louis may have its arch and Seattle its space needle, but in Richmond — a city that is on the verge of celebrating 400 years of European and African settlement, and struggles continually for what its "image" might be — it is interesting to examine what JetBlue and the History Center have chosen as signifier for travelers, visitors and locals.

"Our creative team visited Richmond for a number of days," says Kristina Lenz by telephone, an account director who works on the JetBlue account at JWT, a prominent ad agency in New York City. "We went down there, looked around and talked to people. The question we asked is, 'What is the most iconic thing about Richmond?'"

"There is something intuitive about it, too," she says of the process. "What we came up with — and the entire campaign — was a collaborative effort." Lenz said it was helpful that a member of the agency's creative team was a Richmonder.

The result of their efforts is an ad with a lot of motion, three-dimensional depth and, yes, much blue. In an illustration, a jet plane swoops upward to form a dramatic arc. This arc is echoed by the rounded colonnade of the Jefferson Davis monument on Monument Avenue. The monument's signature, heroic column projects upward and is rendered parallel to the boxy Federal Reserve Bank (one of the few remaining skyscrapers designed by Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the former World Trade Center). The Manchester Bridge, depicted from the southern river bank, sweeps outward in the illustration to create a sense of motion. A sign attached to a streetlight proclaims "Monument Av" [sic]. The airline's signature blue polka dots are placed strategically to create a subliminal festive note.

While the collage is Richmond-specific, it reinforces JetBlue's overall graphic campaign. "The idea for the campaign was initially inspired by the old travel posters," JWT's Lenz says.

At The Valentine Richmond History Center, the challenge in developing a new logo was not as far-reaching and ambitious, but was taken no less seriously.

Rather than pick an image or series of images from its collection of thousands of objects and a million-plus photographs, the designer, Dale Edmondson of Richmond-based Edmondson Art Direction interpreted an architectural feature.

The logo is an illustration of the "palette" staircase in the Wickham House, the 1812 landmark designed by Boston architect Alexander Parris.

"We laid down on the hall floor and looked up," says William Martin, executive director of the History Center. "We liked the way it was ascending, going up."

Edmondson adds: "It was also a metaphor of a flowing river. It was kinetic and moving. It is not of a set time, but moving, moving with the population the center serves."

"We kept it abstract," Martin notes.

Indeed. None of the half-dozen people to whom Style showed the logo recognized the image as a staircase. Some thought it was a question mark. Another thought it might be a tornado. But this is OK. Most branding specialists agree that it is not what is depicted in a logo so much as clarity and consistency in how it is used.

The new, fluid image does connect with the former logo — the color red. Martin says that the logo works well on scores of applications — from business cards to brochures to outdoor signage. And the image and crimson differentiate the history center from the plethora of signage, rendered in black and golden yellow, at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, which surrounds the History Center.

As Richmonders and tourists become familiar with the new Richmond History Center logo, JetBlue's branding continues in other markets. "Our creative team will be visiting two new markets for us — Nashville and Houston — just like it did for Richmond," JWT's Lenz says.

What icons will JetBlue choose for these cities? The smart money says the Grand Ole Opry and something Space Age to salute the Johnson Space Center. But maybe not. Who knew that the Manchester Bridge's concrete piers symbolized Richmond? S

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