July 30, 2021

What you need to talk about is how you’re bringing together a confluence of different cultures. – BIPOC Interviewee

Des Moines is not only the confluence of two rivers but also the confluence of different people, cultures, identities, and lifestyles. While creating a unified and connected water trail system is an important goal for the ICON Water Trails, more importantly, the project strives to bring together and connect rivers, people, and cultures.

A branding project of this nature often involves typical stakeholder groups: outdoor recreationalists, fishermen, kayakers, paddlers, environmentalists, conservationists, businesses and agricultural. For ICON, we also engaged with stakeholder groups that are unrepresented in both place-branding activities and outdoor projects: LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, Iowans with disabilities and Iowans with low incomes. The question: how could we connect these groups’ needs and wants relevant to these water trails?

Our research considered that connection is at the heart of the Iowa Confluence Water Trails in four ways:

Internal connections

A connection to one’s true self to help build self-esteem, self-actualization, mental and physical health.

Between people

A connection person-to-person to help build community.

Between people and Des Moines/water trails

A connection to Iowans (and Iowans at heart) and to Iowa itself.

Between people and practice

A connection for those who already do or want to do more in and around the rivers which, in turn, creates a sense of empowerment.

Between people and nature

A connection between ourselves and the natural world, which creates a respect, advocacy and protection for our natural environment.

But simply talking about connection or showing diverse cultures, body types, activities and motivations in ICON materials isn’t enough. Our goal is to make ICON feel welcoming to everybody. And our work engaging with underrepresented stakeholders showed the depth of that challenge:

Part of the job is how to make it welcoming. You can’t just think about the brand from a visual perspective. There is more of a question about a commitment from a leadership perspective, rather from a brand perspective. – BIPOC Interviewee

Making it “welcoming” led the branding team to incorporate “accessibility” as one of the brand attributes for ICON. That means that if a part of ICON doesn’t feel accessible, it is not true to the ICON brand. Accessibility isn’t just about making the water trails more physically accessible, but also making them feel safe physically and emotionally for all people. It means having simple signage that can be universally understood and stripped away of any elitism or jargon that can be found in traditional outdoor culture. It also means that designs and engineering for the water trails have diverse usage and cultures in mind, and input ‘baked in’ to the planning and development process. This was especially true of the branding process that led to the creation of the ICON brand.

This process is iterative and continual as we strive to fulfill the brand promise of ICON:

An accessible confluence of culture, wellness, and connection in and along clean and safe rivers offering fun, adventurous escape.

Bringing together people and cultures is at the heart of this promise and of this project.

About the Author: Jesse Alleva is a senior strategist and market researcher at Spawn Ideas based in Anchorage, Alaska. He led the qualitative and quantitative brand research that helped create the ICON brand.