Kelowna is no longer a city. Neither is the Okanagan Valley a community these days, it would seem. The concept of Kelowna and the Okanagan as livable communities has been hijacked by the jackals of the Public Relations and Communications industries.
In turn, local Business Bobs and Bettys, even candidates running for local city councils, seem to ape the stifling vernacular of their corporate marketing gurus. They all want the same thing for our Okanagan communities; but it’s not a place fit to live in for me and many others. It’s shiny and clean, it’s slick and it’s mean, it’s that Most Holy of corporate Grails: it’s the “Brand.”
“Branding,” as far as marketing concepts go, is great, if you’re a business offering a unique product or service. Branding is a way to distinguish a business from others in the pack of hyenas baying for our daily bread.
When I think guitars, I think Fender and Gibson, Larrivee and Martin. All of these companies have, over the years, produced exciting offerings to musician-types like myself and many others. Their names have become synonymous with producing signature sounds that enliven my world. They are brands, in other words, that I have come to trust because of what they deliver time after time.
So too in the world of shoes and fashion. Over the years I have come to feel comfortable in products offered by Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Johnson & Murphy, Florsheim and many others too tiresome to mention. But I always remember that these products are products, stuff I outfit my meagre frame with, stuff to give shape to an otherwise ungainly bag of skin and bones.
None of these things define me, however. As the seasons change, so too do my tastes and desires. There is not a brand out there that can anticipate where I might be headed in a few months down the road, no matter how in depth a company’s analyses might be in attempting to do just that.
Perhaps what disturbs me the most about the branding of the place where I live is the fact that it will always be the obvious, the most banal aspects of life here, that are trumpeted as the most important aspects of Brand Kelowna.
Yeah, yeah, the place is definitely beautiful, there are gorgeous benches chock full of vineyards that seem to undulate under the warm caress of autumnal drafts descending downwards from slopes verdant with the explosion of nature all around. There’s the blue-sliver of the lake that slices through the Valley like a living snake slashing away at the Valley bottom.
But none of these obvious attractions for Albertans awash in petrobucks really get to the heart of the matter, the things that make Kelowna a community and not a freaking brand. The corporate marketers never really seem to get it right; because they never seem to want to concentrate on the human qualities that make a place unique: its people.
The corporate branders don’t know squat about the iconoclastic and unique Cipes Family, for example. These guys propagate the Valley and beyond with some of the most beautiful children you’ll ever see, not to mention the outstanding wines produced on their sustainable acreage atop one of the most beautiful vistas the Valley has to offer.
The branders don’t care to know about Jerome, a pal of mine these last twenty years who is one of the most brilliant minds I have encountered, but whose demeanor and mild personality disorder might be off-putting to those unable to see how hip the cat is.
The branders don’t have eyes to see always-in-a-rush Pat presiding over The Mad Mango in downtown Kelowna, a gal who has remembered my name lo these many years as she picks up the phone to take my order for yet another smashing sampling of her incomparable Laksa soup. She always asks about Wendy and Sean, our son, one of the many economic migrants to provinces richer than our own.
They also don’t know gentle Miho at Ume Sushi on Harvey Avenue, whose beautiful smile and delightful laugh can (with apologies to The Mary Tyler Moore Show) suddenly make a day seem worthwhile.
No, the marketers of Brand Kelowna know nothing about these people and many more besides who make Kelowna a place worth living in.
So, dear reader, if you’re feeling a little hijacked by the exhalations of the marketers, if you’re not just a little sickened by the packaging of our town and its commodification aimed at the lowest common but wealthiest denominator, I beg of you all: STOP talking about Kelowna, or anywhere else for that matter, as a freaking brand. Re-humanize yourselves. Because, at the end of the day, we have only each other.
Oh, and one more thing: remember these thoughts at the ballot box in twenty-four days’ time. Any candidate who insists on aping the admen ain’t no friend of ours.
— Having lost his 2,500 volume library in the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Jeffrey is beginning to fill the void by writing his own. Reach him at jeff.loewen(at)gmail.com