rebranding a city

Rebranding a City Starts With Wayfinding—Here’s Why

Published on: August 15, 2019

Every municipality wants to attract new visitors, inspire fresh investment, and experience economic growth⁠—and a growing number of cities are using rebranding strategies to reach those goals. Rebranding a city is a layered process that can take anywhere from five to twenty years to complete. But by investing in a refreshed look and feel for your city today, you can compete with this newly branded “product” and succeed in the placemaking market. 

Wayfinding is only one of many considerations that factor into the transformation of a municipality, but environmental branding through effective wayfinding is one of the most important elements of effective placemaking. Gateway, directional, and identification signs are often the first contact a visitor has with your city. They’re crucial touchpoints for brand awareness. 

More importantly, a signage program is a cost-effective way for cities to announce their new character. With a branded wayfinding program in hand, you can fully reinvigorate your home without needing to invest in an expensive extensive advertising campaign. That’s why effective city rebranding often starts⁠—and ends⁠—with branded wayfinding signage. 

3 Major Benefits of Improving Wayfinding During a City Rebrand

If your planning department is already developing the infrastructure, commerce, and special interest features of your city, it’s time to consider including an updated wayfinding program in your plans. The process of rebranding a city may take a long time to complete. But as soon as you get new signs in the ground, you’ll start noticing three major benefits: 

1. Wayfinding signs highlight your city’s best amenities. 

Most municipal rebrands aren’t actually city-wide⁠—often, they’re targeted to improve the character of individual neighborhoods, shopping destinations, or business centers. New amenities are a crucial part of the rebranding process for districts like these. Whether your economic development department has invested in shiny new corporate complexes, mixed-use retail, or residential green space, the goal is to increase traffic and attract visitors. These investments need to be highlighted, and urban wayfinding signs provide the perfect solution. 

rebranding a municipality

The city of San Leandro experienced the impact of improved wayfinding when they launched initiatives to attract traffic to their vibrant downtown commercial district. The neighborhood in question lies strategically between two major highways⁠—I-880 and I-580⁠—but managed to go unseen by passers-by as the surrounding area developed. Branded gateway and directional signs for both vehicles and pedestrians help funnel traffic through the district and infuse downtown with new life. In San Leandro, highlighting the downtown business district with a new wayfinding program led to increased awareness, improved community, and significant economic growth.     

2. Updated signs revive your city’s pre-existing image. 

In many cases, municipalities choose to rebrand because of dissatisfaction with their existing image. You know your city’s image no longer serves its purpose when you’re stuck with outdated brand messaging or are failing to attract new business. An updated wayfinding program can help revive your city’s image in the eyes of residents and businesses alike. 

Before the North Bayshore district in Mountain View, CA was redesigned as a ‘complete neighborhood,’ the area was seen as a 9-to-5 business center. Employees drove in by the thousands to work during the day and made a mass exodus every evening. Mountain View rebranded this neighborhood with sparkling amenities, residential property, and entertainment opportunities that would surround and support corporate operations. 

rebranding a city

Wayfinding signs are a crucial part of this district’s master plan. The signage program will announce this neighborhood’s new image and immediately attract visitors to see what else is new in the area. Thanks to improved urban branding and a killer set of perks, this neighborhood will ditch its old reputation and be known as a contemporary live-and-work paradise.      

3. Wayfinding signs differentiate your city from the surrounding area.

In the age of urban sprawl, it’s never been more crucial to differentiate your municipality from others like it. Each city⁠—or even each neighborhood⁠—faces the growing need to present itself as unique, special, and desirable. Differentiation is the only way to attract tourists, local visitors, tenants, and residents. But due to how quickly metro areas are expanding, it’s never been harder to set a clear dividing line between your city and the seemingly-identical suburb next door. Wayfinding signs can help. 

The County of Santa Clara faced a unique opportunity three years ago when they decided to design, test, and implement a new city wayfinding system. The program was designed around three major focus points: 

The resulting signage program helps differentiate the municipality from surrounding areas, especially with the inclusion of a comprehensive set of sign standards that will be used consistently across all County-owned property. These signs differentiate Santa Clara as a place that’s more accessible, more interesting, and more special in the eyes of the diverse local community. 

Rebranding a City With Pride 

At the end of the day, every city rebranding project has two distinct end goals. First, municipalities aim to attract new traffic, investment, and residency. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, cities are trying to instill a renewed sense of pride in the hearts of those who call it home. That’s the power of branded placemaking. With careful attention to detail and a keen eye for design, you can use urban wayfinding signage to rebrand in a way that inspires both locals and visitors to stick around for the long term. 

Of course, city rebranding takes years to complete and involves a seemingly endless array of stakeholders. Wayfinding is just one of the many improvements that need to be made in order to transform a city. Because of this complexity, it’s wise to partner with a signage consultant who has extensive experience in civic projects. 

The right team can help you manage stakeholder expectations, secure variances and approvals, and streamline the design and implementation process to help cut costs and shorten timelines. Backed by the right partnership, you’ll be left with a fresh wayfinding program that not only improves navigation, but also helps solidify and communicate the new character of your city for years to come. 


GNU Group is a signage design and implementation firm that specializes in urban rebranding and wayfinding projects. Our clients rely on our proprietary Sign Profile Analysis™ tool to determine accurate program costs and make informed decisions on how to allocate signage budgets before a project even begins. Connect with our team to start your own site audit and begin the process of rebranding your city through improved wayfinding.