What is Waterloo?

Very few people in the business community would debate the value of marketing or branding organizations. Unknowingly, people compare or rank organizations such as Coke and Pepsi or Nike and Reebok against one another.

Regardless of your personal experiences with these large brands, you likely have an image of their products, their customer experience and, to a certain extent, the organizational culture. Each of these corporations has done an amazing job crafting its own identity.

Our community needs to take the same approach in crafting our local image and brand. Our local attributes are exceptional and they make our community outstanding, but we need to increase the awareness of these attributes.

As someone who is not a lifelong resident of the region, I had very little sense what it meant to live here before I arrived. I had no sense of the communities’ history, nor did I realize the strong qualities of our community. It was almost like the region was void of a specific identity.

It’s not until you live here that you realize that throughout Waterloo, our innovative and entrepreneurial attributes entwine with the post-secondary institutions in the community. In fact, higher-education is an essential component of our community, where moves, shifts, and new initiatives by the universities and college create ripples within the community.

Local post-secondary numbers are staggering. This September, more than 15,000 first-year students began college or university at Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier, and the University of Waterloo. That brings the local student population to more than 45,000. Many of these students are new to the region, province and even the country.

But what’s their impression of Waterloo before they arrive? Do people outside the region have a sense of what it will be like to call Waterloo home? Do their community experiences meet their expectations? Or is their main impression of the community that they are only 100 kilometres west of Toronto?

Each year, the thousands of new students coming into the community and the thousands of graduates leaving post-secondary institutes hold the key to crafting a local identity. Their expectations and experiences will identify what led them to choose to attend school here and live in the community. We might even find out what makes them leave the region after graduation.

In addition to a renowned education sector, we have a world-class technology sector, a vibrant manufacturing community, a large insurance sector, and a hardworking blue-collar community. It’s this diversity of our local community and economy that has allowed for immense success when compared to other municipalities.

Our community has a rich history of barn-raising — literally and figuratively — and a spirit of collaboration. Once you live here you learn these community characteristics, but we need to tell our story to others outside the region.

We compete for individuals and business with the likes of Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton, London, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary within Canada — all municipalities with strong identities. Although those communities might have strong identities, I feel our community attributes outweigh anything those municipalities have to offer.

In mid-November, the City of Waterloo was awarded an IBM Smart City Challenge grant. This grant will help reposition our community with a specific focus on changing the conversation surrounding the Northdale neighbourhood — a neighbourhood that is home to thousands of students. This initiative is exactly what is needed to increase the awareness of the community.

The IBM team will arrive in 2013 to analyze data, solicit input and review the Northdale vision and plan. In changing these conversations, we can rally behind this image to attract business, residents and even students.

Waterloo is more than just one neighbourhood, but by leveraging this IBM grant, we can build a community image that engages residents and attracts community investments.

I, for one, am excited to see IBM work with the City of Waterloo to bring this action plan to life and have our community attributes become more identifiable to a larger audience.

Waterloo has every ingredient to become a world-renowned community — we just need to start telling our story.

This post was part of my Waterloo Region Record Community Editorial submissions. I wanted to explore the image of Waterloo and what it means to live within the community. There are so many amazing things going on within the community, but many are not aware of these attributes from outside the region. By using University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University students as a resources, we can identify their community experiences and expectations – all essential to creating an image for our community.


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