Identity Framework


There is nothing more powerful than a good brand, and good brands emerge from good stories, and good stories are what create connection, pride and loyalty to brands.

To help organizations and places build their authentic stories, we utilize the exciting and powerful identity framework — essentially the same tools that allow improvisation artists to construct compelling stories on the fly.

And we do this using your community’s, or organization’s, direct input.

There are four elements to the identity framework:

  • Characterization: The part of story told through physically tangible means.
  • Objective: A city’s, or an organization’s, motivation.
  • Relationship: Who is (and who isn’t) relating to a district or an agency?
  • Environment: The context, or the “where” of the story.

Every one of these elements are contributing to your story, whether you are a downtown, a school district, or a neighborhood. And if you don’t understand each element and what it is communicating, then you are most likely presenting an inconsistent and ineffective story to the world at large.


When constructing a brand for a place, a program, or a public sector agency, you want to think beyond the notion of a logo and a tagline and, instead, take a much wider view as you define what you are about. Your Identity is the story of your district or your organization — how it appears, what it believes in, what it was in the past, what it wants to be in the future, what it stands for, what makes it special and, ultimately, what makes people decide they want to connect with it.

Examples of where the framework has been used:

School Districts: Large geographic areas with arbitrary boundaries, such as counties, big school districts, or regional governing bodies, sometimes struggle to build strong brand associations and relatable identities. An illustration of how the Identity Framework has been used to help such an agency was a project with an innovative school district where we identified opportunities for new communication strategies, specifically within two key areas: 1) building more connection within the district so that central staff, teachers, students, and parents could act as brand evangelists for the district; and, 2) building bridges between the community at large and the school district. The latter was of particular importance for financial health, as the number of households in the community without children was projected to rise for decades to come. Having a positive brand association with those voters was going to be critical to the passage of future school bonds.

Downtowns: We work with many small- and mid-sized downtowns to quantify authentic stories, and then determine how best to leverage those stories for economic success. Downtowns are unique in that so much of their story is told through Characterization, or their physical presence, which is always presenting a story, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (whether they want it to or not). Because of this, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the tangible, and to forget about the other elements of the framework, which are really what make up the heart and soul of a successful mixed-use district. We help downtowns to quantify both the tangible and the intangible, and construct a plan in a community’s own words to build long-term relationships, to more consistently create a memorable experience, and improve sales per square foot.

Neighborhoods: Sometimes neighborhoods are comprised of disparate uses, and they struggle to create an identity that feels authentic to the broad mix of stakeholders within its borders. For example, we once used the Identity Framework to help a neighborhood that was home to heavy industrial uses, a wildlife sanctuary, a port, historic housing stock, and a large concentrate of affordable housing. We succeeded in creating stronger connections between the various entities in the district, and developed an immediately achievable list of projects that appealed to both the residential and business uses in the neighborhood to bring improvement.

Businesses: We are sometimes asked to team up with private sector businesses to assist with strategic planning using the Identity Framework process. We might be brought in to advise on everything from office location, customer experience, marketing, Web presence, communications strategy, sales tactics, and growth opportunities.


There are four techniques we use to populate an Identity Framework for a client.

  1. Workshops. In either small groups of 12, or by breaking down larger groups of up to 75 people in a lecture setting, we explain the four elements of the Identity Framework, and then ask participants an unusual series of questions from the framework that are designed to get at their unconscious and unspoken assumptions about the place or agency being studied. Because our highly structured format utilizes word association and very fast paced timing between questions, everyone contributes equally and derives ownership in the results. (This format also prevents any grandstanding by a particular participant, so that no single person can monopolize the meeting.)
  2. Small Format Group Interviews. These are conducted in groups of 2 to 4 people and are designed to target specific groups to gather more in-depth information. In a mixed-use district that is struggling, for instance, we might spend a lot of time interviewing retailers and restauranteurs. In a school district, we might focus on residents with no children, to better understand their concerns. The focus of these interviews is dependent upon the place or agency being studied and is determined in conjunction with the client.
  3. Surveys. Using anonymous online surveys, we can poll a wide cross-section of people with open ended questions from the Identity Framework about places and organizations. This format is successful in soliciting responses because it is anonymous, stakeholders can work on it at their own convenience, and because the questions are not multiple choice, which makes the surveys more difficult to game, preventing skewing of the results.
  4. Independent Research. We heavily tour and document places, video key transportation entries, and study client press coverage, existing marketing collateral, organizational structure, context, physical infrastructure, history, and general data about the area, agency, or business being studied.


Civic Identity. We have made it our mission to provide small- and mid-size cities, as well as neighborhood commercial corridors, with top-drawer identity-building expertise at an accessible price. Our core product is Civic Identity, which is constructed through interviews, research, and workshops and culminates in a mix of recommendations that can be achieved over the short-term and long-term to improve communications, connection, brand, land use decisions, and economic development policy to ensure that places are presenting a complete and cohesive story to the world.

Public Sector Education and Communications. If taxpayers feel a separation between the payment of their money and the benefit of it being spent on their behalf, then they are disconnected from the story of their own government, and the positive role it plays in their lives. As a result, it is incumbent upon government to reach out to its citizens and find new ways to educate and communicate about the innovative and important work that is completed each and every day on their constituents’ behalf. With the Identity Framework, we can identify creative ways to better communicate with citizens about the authentic successes, professional passion, and good public stewardship that are integral to the work completed on the country’s, the states’, the counties’ and the cities’ behalf.

360 Degree Public Outreach. Public process functions best when citizens are given education and resources before they are asked to engage on issues of policy about which they have no formal knowledge. When we utilize the Identity Framework for public outreach, we partner with our clients to a) tailor an information campaign for public consumption; b) design an outreach strategy using the Identity Framework that will achieve targeted outcomes; and, c) we circle back to the public when all of the work is complete to share the results in a public forum.

Department Workshopping. For large public sector entities, we can help each department brainstorm ways that they can contribute to the overall story of the agency. Having specialists within government understanding how their jobs, and their mission, function within the larger umbrella of the organization’s Identity Framework is critical to achieving goals for the agency as a whole. A metaphor for this work would be the importance of the script, or story, to all of the various professionals responsible for filming a commercial. It would be impossible for those who work in directing, props, casting, sound, lighting, and costumes to do their job to the utmost of their ability without a very clear shared idea of the story.

Visioning. For cities that struggle with issues related to revitalization, we offer a placemaking and visioning review. We select an area of existing infrastructure that is ripe for transformation, and together with a partner architect, we marry the city’s Civic Identity to architectural renderings to illustrate how and where the city can tell a dramatic new story through building improvement. We focus on the doable—how to make what you have better. There is no substitute for seeing what a retail district can look like when it becomes a place to spur new activity amongst private property owners, business associations, and residents. A picture is worth a thousand words!