Armando Martinez works the line processing lettuce at Taylor Farms. (Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

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Of the various types of branding, the most powerful ones are based on beliefs and values, which connect with an audience on a deep, emotional level. But how do you settle on a brand identity and convey it to various audiences?

The small California town of Gonzales found its brand identity organically, tapping into sentiment that coalesced around a phrase that was not originally intended to serve as the city’s overall brand. 

Today, residents and businesses know and understand “The Gonzales Way” and rally around it. Others who seek to do business with Gonzales discover its meaning and importance as they work with the city.

The Gonzales Way has become a phrase that defines the city in a positive, forward-looking way, suggesting that this is a place that understands who it is and what kind of place it wants to be, and also knows how to get there. That is a powerful message and it has helped propel the city forward to achievement on such fronts as economic development, youth engagement, health outcomes, sustainability, and universal internet access. What Gonzales has accomplished would be remarkable for any city, but it is particularly noteworthy for a small, rural town of fewer than 9,000 residents.

How Gonzales found its brand identity is an instructive tale about the importance of listening to an audience, being nimble enough to change and adapt to feedback, and to give creative ideas room to grow. It is a story about discovering one’s brand identity from within rather than imposing it based on outside analysis and then using this discovered brand to help unite one audience (Gonzales residents) and communicate with another (entities that do business with the city).

“It was about really listening to what the community was telling us and discovering a way of expressing the essence of our community,” said Gonzales City Manager René Mendez. “It was not about going through a branding process. It was about not being afraid or hesitant to embrace what the community was telling us.”

First, a little background. Gonzales is a rural city situated in the heart of the fertile Salinas Valley. Its economy is closely tied to the regional agriculture industry, as is its population. Like many of the small, rural towns of central California, Gonzales faces challenges stemming from its lower-income population and its isolation from the larger, dynamic cities of the state. 

Gonzales has for years had a clear vision of its future as a safe and comfortable community where its citizens enjoy many of the same advantages of other urban parts of the state. But it did not at first know how to get there. Casting about for economic advantage, Gonzales at one point tried to portray itself as a center of the Monterey County wine industry, trying to leverage the fact that so much of the surrounding agriculture industry was based in wine grape growing and winemaking. This conventional branding exercise didn’t yield a brand that resounded with the community, and as a result, over the last 10 years, it was deemphasized.

At the same time, Gonzales was actively seeking solutions to its many challenges through progressive policies and partnerships with those who could help. It systematically advanced goals in four broad categories: economic development, environmental responsibility, health access, and youth development. The city enjoyed so much success luring new employers to town that it ranked for several years as the city with the fastest-growing tax base in the region.

As part of the Wings of Knowledge program, Veronica Rodriguez, Leslie Hernandez, Maria Lopez, and Andres Hernandez (left to right) work on engineering projects on Gonzales farms. (Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

Its environmental initiatives made it a recognized leader in sustainability giving its economic development efforts a green overlay. In health, it went from having fewer doctors and dentists per capita than the rural average to having more than the urban average with the opening of two new, fully staffed clinics, including one that specifically caters to the local farmworker population. And on youth development, the city government, often working in conjunction with the schools, came up with a series of programs to expand opportunities for local youth from grade school through high school, including a Youth Council whose members were non-voting participants in the Gonzales City Council and have the power to bring proposals to the council. 

The city’s accomplishments were impressive enough to earn Gonzales a Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Prize in 2019. But others had begun to notice that Gonzales was onto something. Companies scouting locations for food processing facilities noted the ability of the city to process applications quickly without sacrificing standards. They began spreading the word about Gonzales as a good place to do business. 

“Taylor Farms operates processing plants in 18 communities across North America,” Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms said. Gonzales is by far our favorite. The staff of the City of Gonzales are the most welcoming, optimistic, expedient, and solution-oriented team with whom we partner.  Gonzales is a healthy and vibrant community and we look forward to expanding our operations there.”

Health advocates also noted how effectively Gonzales had expanded its health care access, including the significant financial backing of one of its new clinics by the owner of one of its new produce processing facilities. The two giant wind turbines built with city backing spoke to the city’s commitment to sustainability. In short, people inside and outside Gonzales began to talk about this little city as a special place. And that idea soon found its expression in the phrase, “The Gonzales Way.” 

The phrase itself was not conceived as the city’s overall brand. Instead, it had been coined as part of its youth development efforts, used to summarize the local commitment to youth. The phrase was part of a youth initiative to show love, care and connection. As the city’s youth development efforts began seeing success, the city interviewed several community advocates and civic leaders about why people in Gonzales rally around youth and support them. A similar answer kept coming up: “It’s just what we do. It’s the Gonzales Way.”

That phrase became part of the youth engagement efforts and soon caught on with local officials and residents, who began talking about a broader “Gonzales Way” of doing things. It became the way people talked about how the city moved with focus and determination, of not giving up and of not being willing to accept the limitations of its small size and rural location. When the city landed a second clinic, it was “The Gonzales Way.” When the city built a second wind turbine, it was “The Gonzales Way.” When new businesses showed up or existing businesses expanded, it was “The Gonzales Way.” By the time the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation team arrived to consider Gonzales for an award, it found evidence of the “The Gonzales Way” everywhere. The essay by the Foundation to mark the award was headlined, “The ‘Gonzales Way’: A Can-Do Spirit of Collaboration.”

In effect, the city had developed a powerful brand without going through the branding process. There were no marketing consultants with brainstorming sessions and focus groups. There was just a simple, generic phrase initially used to help describe efforts in youth development that had caught on and become the unifying brand. The Gonzales Way became a shorthand way to define the city’s character, with connotations broad enough to encompass almost everything the city had done and hoped to do. In a way, the phrase was itself emblematic of how the city works: collaboratively, creatively, and nimbly. 

The phrase now helps the city rally its residents and explain to outsiders what makes the city special. Its development shows how brand identity can bubble up organically, and how effective such a genuine brand can be in connecting with an audience.

Irwin Speizer is a California-based communications consultant and freelance journalist. He wrote this article with the support of the city of Gonzales, California, a town of about 8,500 residents in the heart of the Salinas Valley.