Winnipeg wants would-be tourists and residents to know that it’s for ‘real’

It’s variously been dubbed “Winterpeg,” “Little Chicago,” and the “Slurpee Capital of the World.” Winnipeg even once (in)famously appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, which bestowed upon it the far less charitable slogan “We were born here, what’s your excuse?”

But riding a wave of increased civic pride and investment, Manitoba’s capital city recently unveiled a new slogan that it’s presenting to tourists as well as potential business partners and residents, “Winnipeg: Made From What’s Real.” It’s part of an extensive place branding exercise that includes a new city logo and a marketing campaign built around a 30-second TV/online spot, “A Love Letter to Winnipeg.”

The slogan is accompanied by a new logo that looks like a stylized “W/M,” but was specially designed to be interpreted in a number of ways—from a gear that reflects the city’s history as a transportation and manufacturing hub, to a snowflake because, well, it’s in a prairie province known for its snowfall.

“One of the things that really attracted us to the logo was the fact it can be interpreted in so many different ways,” said Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, the organization that oversees both Tourism Winnipeg and the city’s business development arm, YES! Winnipeg. “I love the fact that people can bring their personal experiences to this. It underlines the message that it’s real to them.”

The accompanying text uses a font that nods to the so-called “ghost signs”—faded, hand-painted advertisements that were painted on the sides of buildings from the late 1800s through to the 1960s—that can be found throughout the city’s Exchange District and downtown. “We wanted a mark that was distinct, visually interesting and, quite frankly, cool,” said Peter George, CEO of local agency McKim.Sherpa, the creative lead on the project. “It’s a really interesting mark and it’s got a lot of meaning behind it.”

McKim.Sherpa worked with Travel Manitoba and Economic Development Winnipeg, the organization that houses both Tourism Winnipeg and the city’s business development arm, Yes Winnipeg.

“[Place brands] are becoming much more ubiquitous and everybody wants one, because they’re competing so hard on the tourism and economic development front,” said George. “Tourism in bigger cities with much more brand recognition generates billions of dollars a year, and certainly the smaller cities like Winnipeg want their piece of the pie, too. Everybody’s looking at it as a way to increase tourism and resident pride, as well as economic development.”

Travel Manitoba president and CEO Colin Ferguson traces the place branding exercise’s origins back about five years, when the region of Clear Lake, a tourist area about three hours northwest of Winnipeg, approached his organization for help developing a brand identity.

It had a destination marketing program in place, but no brand attached, said Ferguson. The organization developed the “Clear Lake Country” branding for the tourist region. “After we finished the project, we thought ‘If this works in Clear Lake, it will work in numerous markets.”

While McKim.Sherpa wasn’t involved in the Clear Lake branding, the agency was brought  on to work with Travel Manitoba to develop place brands for numerous small markets throughout the province, including the towns of Flin Flon, Gimli, Thompson, and Dauphin.

Their efforts eventually caught the eye of Economic Development Winnipeg’s president and CEO Dayna Spiring, who enlisted McKim.Sherpa for the new Winnipeg brand in 2018.

The rebranding is intended to reflect both the city’s continued evolution, which saw it named one of the world’s greatest places by Time magazine in 2021, as well as inherent values like authenticity, creativity, innovation and industriousness.

“The one thing we’ve discovered over the last several years is how much the face of Winnipeg has changed,” said Spiring. “If you haven’t been to Winnipeg in the past five years, you probably haven’t been to Winnipeg.”

It was the city’s evolution that led Spiring and her team to start seriously thinking about how to attract both increased tourism and investment back in 2018. “It really became clear that we could benefit from a place brand and a foundation on which to tell stories both from an economic development and tourism perspective,” she said.

The branding launched with a video spot that references those changes. Set against a backdrop of images that represent the city, from coffee shops and clubs, to cultural institutions, it features a voiceover stating “I’ve been noticing you more lately. Feels like there’s something different since the last time I really looked. Every time I see you, I discover something fresh. Something unexpected.”

The work was actually completed in 2020, but the city held off on unveiling it when the pandemic hit. “I didn’t want it to be something tied to resiliency around the pandemic,” Spiring explained. “What we’re doing here is so much more than that.”

“Made From What’s Real” is the result of an extensive public consultation process involving more than 700 people, including representatives from the city’s business, tourist and community organizations. “We wanted to have something that Winnipegers themselves could believe in, could relate to, and feel there was some truth to it,” said George.

“We needed to get Winnipegers to buy in,” added Spiring “If they don’t see themselves in this new place brand, we’re not going to be successful. We know that a brand isn’t something that gains that traction overnight. You’ve got to build it and earn it, and you’ve got to start telling stories through the eyes of the brand before people are able to see themselves in it or take ownership of it.”

Chris Powell