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San Jose Identity Quest – The story behind the logo


For many years, one of the challenges faced by OED’s business development team has been the need to explain San Jose before we could present the advantages of our city as a place to live, work and do business. Considering that it’s the 10th largest city in the United States, San Jose doesn’t evoke a strong mental image. The name of any of the other of the 10 largest cities elicits an immediate impression, for instance, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas. Even down to #39 (Atlanta) or #49 (New Orleans), you can easily access a clear image of the place, its buildings, climate, and even atmosphere. But not for San Jose.

Encouraged by then-Vice Mayor Herrera, OED started to work on defining and communicating the identity of San Jose, in order to be able to market it more effectively. In 2016, the City Council put up $125,000 that was matched by the Knight Foundation for a two-year identity development effort. After a national search, OED contracted with Native Digital, a branding and marketing firm.

With Native’s help,  we conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 San Joseans, from CEOs to craft brewers, and from muralists to philanthropists. The research phase also included competitive analysis of other cities’ , online keyword research and a review of the communications OED was using to reach its key audiences.

The research showed that San Jose is about a mindset – an attitude towards possibility, change, iteration. The city is seen as a place to grow, where new ideas can take root, and where bold vision gets expressed, and where people can shape the city itself. A series of “mantras” or sayings captured what the research had uncovered, phrases that evoke the San Jose mindset. We tested these sayings by seeing which were the most popular on T-shirts and stickers. The winners were “Make Your Mark,” “Start Something” and “Never Finished.” Native developed a suggested identity mark that combines “street” and “corporate” looks, along with the sweep of the Valley, a hint of history and a subtle salute to the city’s heritage in the form of an accent over the “E” in San Jose.

The graphics and logo were enthusiastically accepted as we gradually dispersed them throughout San Jose’s art, entertainment spots  and neighborhood scenes, via stickers of the logo and mantras placed in coffee shops, art galleries and bike stores. We shared a sticker or two with people in meetings. We printed up t-shirts, and gave them to people if they promised to wear them in cool places. We printed the mark on a flag, and a local developer asked to fly it over one of the Downtown buildings he was rehabilitating. We gave the design to our Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services department who were commissioning a paint job on a storage container in Plaza de Cesar Chavez. A coffee shop was offering custom images imprinted on the foam of coffee drinks, and the San Jose markshowed up as one of the options.

We are very excited with the acceptance the design has received, and are now moving to make it a more official part of the Office of Economic Development’s external branding. You have seen it in the new design of our monthly newsletter, SJ Economy News, and it will be part of the OED pages as the City transitions to a redesigned website. Team San Jose, our partner for travel and tourism marketing of the city, is transitioning its name to “Visit San Jose” and has adopted the branding guidelines for its new website, www.sanjose.org.

Our real “coming out” event was the Mercury News column by Sal Pizarro earlier in August, pegged to the news that a local brewer got a tattoo of the logo on his calf.  The tweet that started it all was from Jake McCluskey.

Then Sam Liccardo’s staff challenged him to get the tattoo, and the news media went to town on the story. ABC7News did an in-depth piece, and even the San Francisco Chronicle got in on the act.

We are thrilled with the positive reviews, of course. However, for the record, this is not meant to be a new City seal. We see it as a mark for the community – for the chefs, the artists, the programmers, the CEOs, and all people who think that San Jose is cool, and who take pride in finding a place where they can make their mark and start something.