British Columbia·Metro Matters

City of Burnaby wants a better brand than just being next to Vancouver

The biggest development under construction in Burnaby doesn't seem to want anyone to know it's actually in Burnaby.

Tourism agency admits the biggest challenge is getting people outside the region to know it exists

Burnaby's Brentwood area is growing rapidly, part of an overall trend in the city to concentrate population growth along SkyTrain lines (Justin McElroy/CBC)

The biggest development under construction in Burnaby doesn't seem to want anyone to know it's actually in Burnaby.

"The Amazing Brentwood" opens its first sold-out condominium tower later this year, with a renovated Brentwood Mall and two other sold-out residential towers under construction, and eight more planned. 

It's a prime example of Burnaby's strategy of concentrating growth around SkyTrain stations, with instant neighbourhoods that double as destination points unto themselves.

But it's also a prime example of how Burnaby lacks an easily identifiable brand: the project's website only mentions B.C.'s third largest city once, in small font for the location of the presentation centre, compared with slogans that say "the best of Vancouver in one amazing place" and "Welcome to Vancouver" displayed prominently on the rest of the site.

For the record, The Amazing Brentwood is two kilometres from Vancouver. 

"When you're talking to an international audience, we've talked about Metro Vancouver because that's what's known," said Darren Kwiatkowski, VP Development for Shape Properties, which is both developing and marketing The Amazing Brentwood. 

"But as we get closer in, 'Burnaby,' the 'best of Burnaby,' the 'best of Vancouver,' they're all words associated with us." 

He denied that Shape Properties consciously downplayed its municipal jurisdiction. But it's not the only situation where Burnaby's proximity to Vancouver creates a certain cognitive dissonance for marketers. 

'What is Burnaby?'

"I sort of understand where they're coming from," admitted Chris Peters, executive director of Tourism Burnaby. 

With his job directly tied to convincing people from afar to visit Burnaby, he faces the inherent identity challenges everyday. 

The Amazing Brentwood's website prominently mentions Vancouver several times, but only notes the project is in Burnaby once. (The Amazing Brentwood )

"It is a little bit challenging for Burnaby when we're on a global stage," Peters said. "People haven't heard of it, even within our own country. Quite often people will ask me how far is the flight from Vancouver to Burnaby?

"The biggest weakness really is 'What is Burnaby?' What is there to do there, and having people understand that there is an experience to be had there that's different from Vancouver, or the North Shore, or Richmond or the Fraser Valley." 

To that end, Peters says Tourism Burnaby will be rebranding later this year, highlighting the sort of weekend-long tour guides and Instagrammable opportunities that are in vogue with smaller municipalities in the region.

At the same time, Peters said a lot of Burnaby's tourism opportunities will continue to come from people on business trips, sports tournaments looking for affordable fields and people seeking more affordable hotels than in downtown Vancouver.

"I'm gonna be honest with you, I don't think a lot of people are going to discover Burnaby and say 'You know what, let's cancel the trip to Disneyland. I got to take my family to Burnaby for a week this year." 

Does any of this matter? 

Still, Burnaby's new mayor sees a new opportunity to champion the city as something more than the Mississauga to Vancouver's Toronto.

"I think we have been very reluctant to promote ourselves as a city as much as we should have. And we're certainly going to change that narrative in the future. We're going to start boasting that Burnaby is a great city .. and breakaway from that Vancouver trajectory," said Mike Hurley. 

Hurley also said he would talk with Shape Properties about more branding for Burnaby on its development  something Kwiatkowski could be amenable to, given his enthusiasm for the city's overall transformation. 

"They've done a fantastic job of kind of planning sustainable growth. That strategy of identifying town centres which protect single-family neighborhoods ... has really resulted in a really livable community,"  Kwiatkowski said.

And it's likely many in Burnaby would agree with him, which leads us to the key question: should Burnaby residents be concerned with how the rest of Metro Vancouver perceives them anyway?

Even when The Amazing Brentwood is completed, the majority of residents will continue to live in single-family neighbourhoods with great parks, community centres, and relatively low property taxes.

It may not be amazing — but it certainly is ideal.

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

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