Branding Aboriginal Communities

The power of the story could make aboriginal communities grow and prosper.

The power of the story could make aboriginal communities grow and prosper.

I found out this week that I’m going to be a speaker, on the subject of branding as an economic development tool, at the CANDO conference for aboriginal economic development officers in September. My company works with real estate developers all over the world to brand and promote communities, and the lessons we’ve learned abroad can be transferred to aboriginal communities here at home. Let’s not forget that the best resort development land in Canada, and arguably in North  America is aboriginal land. If aboriginal communities embrace basic branding concepts and start to tell the world about all the great things they’ve got going on, it will make property development partnerships and all kinds of other economic and cultural development initiatives easier.  

Branding is storytelling, and aboriginal cultures have always respected the power of story. There’s a connection here between culture and commerce that makes a lot of sense.

While I’m not going to pretend that the answers are that easy, that branding alone can make up for the centuries of oppression and legislated economic imbalance, reputation is reality in this hyper-connected plugged-in world of ours so a solid brand reputation can’t hurt. One significant problem facing aboriginal communities is that the version of their story that is portrayed in the mass media is very one-sided. We hear about blockades and abuse and alcoholism. But we don’t hear about the progress, the victories and the great leaps forward that are being orchestrated by aboriginal communities all over the country.

Full disclosure is necessary here. My family only recently uncovered our well-hidden Metis heritage, and I’m connecting my professional life to my personal quest to understand my own DNA more completely. My company has joined the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business, and I’m helping them with several initiatives. I’m presenting to the aforementioned CANDO conference, and I’m actively pursuing connections with aboriginal communities. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot in the last few years. My perceptions have been fundamentally changed.

Recently I had an opportunity to spend a week with a large aboriginal community, where I was able to listen to dozens of members of the community talk about their past, present and future as a nation. I met elders, chiefs, administrators, teachers, youth, linguists, children, grannies, moms, dads, university grads, and storytellers. It was an amazing privilege. It was, at moments, intensely sad, and at other times incredibly joyful and impressive. No one denied the problems they face as a nation. But the overall net impression I received was one of hope, self-determination, persistence, and vision. That is decidedly not the brand story that I had been exposed to in the world outside this nation at all.

Canada, and pretty much every other country around the world, has entire departments of people that manage the national brand. It’s no accident that we feel the way we do about England (History! Culture! Royals!) or France (Cheese! Wine! Little Charming Villages!) or Bahamas (Beaches! Smiling Locals! Seafood Feasts!) Aboriginal communities would do well to distill their national story into tangible benefits, and work to get THAT version of the story told in the community, regional and national media.

Based on my admittedly limited experience with a handful of aboriginal communities, First Nations brands would likely be far more meaningful than those examples listed above. In fact, they’d be about persistence, innovation, growth, culture, family, heritage, history, respect, nature and community: in short, all the things that the non-aboriginal community is looking for right now, and that aboriginal communities have always had. Taken to the next logical step, if what we (non-aboriginals) are looking for is what they (aboriginals) have, wouldn’t it make sense that we’d want to be part of that?  And wouldn’t that be a radical change in perception; to have non-aboriginals WANT to be part of the aboriginal brand?

Why go to all this trouble? Why create and tell national stories at all?

High on the agenda for every aboriginal community in Canada is the issue of economic development and economic self-reliance. Partnerships and alliances with real estate developers, resort developers, tourism operators and resource/industrial concerns will push this objective forward. If telling their national story can make it easier for these alliances to form, it will help aboriginal communities grow and prosper. Prosperous, growing communities have the resources to address problems, and attract/encourage the professionals and educated citizenry required to make all aspects of life richer and more meaningful. Branding can be one more brick in a solid foundation on which aboriginal communities can build a strong and independent future.