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Aberdeen Mayor Uses Newspaper Column to Promote His Business, Dis City Brand

The Aberdeen American News gives our mayor a weekly column. This week, Mayor Travis Schaunaman uses this fine public service opportunity to promote economic development… his own:

Mayor Travis Schaunaman, column in Aberdeen American News, 2019.08.17.
Mayor Travis Schaunaman, column in Aberdeen American News, 2019.08.17.

The Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau[,] and Aberdeen Downtown Association—three of the entities that handle Aberdeen’s marketing—have created a task force to rebrand the city. I’m excited that my company, Production Monkeys, along with McQuillen Creative Group, have been given the opportunity to pitch ideas for a rebranded logo and slogan.

…Over the next few weeks I will be hard at work developing designs that better represent the city [link added, Mayor Travis Schaunaman, “City’s New Logo Should Reflect Forward-Focused Mindset,” Aberdeen American News, 2019.08.17].

Aberdeen's current logo, target of Mayor Schaunaman's scorn
Aberdeen’s current logo, target of Mayor Schaunaman’s scorn

Mayor Schaunaman uses his column to pitch his own critique of the current logo and his artistic intent, saying the quill pen in the current logo is a “relic.”

Pause there: check the logo again. It doesn’t actually show a quill, an old feather pen. The logo shows the tip of a fountain pen, which is still the design used for the fanciest writing instruments and symbolizes high quality production.

Schaunaman further dismisses the current design for having been “designed by a company with no roots or connection to Aberdeen,” which critique I’m happy to endorse but which apparently didn’t stop Aberdeen’s marketers from choosing that logo above whatever competing designs were submitted a decade ago.


Production Monkeys website... Hmm... a paper airplane and a CD... aren't those relics, too, in a modern office?
Production Monkeys website… Hmm… a paper airplane and a CD… aren’t those relics, too, in a modern office?

Whatever the merits of the critique, Schaunaman is using a mayoral privilege, free space in the newspaper, which usually costs businesses hundreds of dollars, to advertise his business and rally support for his bid for a contract with entities that depend on the city for financial support. In most places, we’d call that a conflict of interest. But in Schaunaman’s Trumpistan, I guess we just call that perks of the job.

I do appreciate Mayor Schaunaman’s magnanimity in giving his competitor second billing as he pitches his own proposal to the entire community, for free, in a space usually reserved for addressing parking and dog ordinances and other matters of city government. Since Mayor Schaunaman feels discussion of the philosophy behind bidders’ proposals for city branding warrants such open discussion (and I’m with him on that! I welcome public discussion of who we are as a community and what represents us best!), perhaps he will yield next Saturday’s column to McQuillen Creative Group (which uses a quill in its logo—but you wouldn’t have been thinking of that double entendre, would you, Mr. Production Monkeys?) and give Troy and his team a chance to pitch their Aberdeen branding ideas to the taxpayers?

McQuillen Creative Group website... hmmm... another quill....
McQuillen Creative Group website… hmmm… another quill….

But before we spend money on either ad agency, we should consider whether Aberdeen’s logo needs replacing in the first place. I’m tempted to say that we shouldn’t spend a penny on any new logo until every pothole in this town is filled, but without getting into cross-policy comparisons and prioritizations, let’s focus on the merits of the logo itself.

When we first visited Aberdeen five Januaries ago to see if we should move here, I saw the logo on the promotional materials that greeted us and thought, “Write Your Story, and a pen—that kinda fits me.” It struck me as better than Madison’s sailboat and “Discover the Unexpected” (which, good grief, they’re still using): Madison’s “Discover” implies a somewhat passive approach, just seeing what’s already in the community and liking it, while Aberdeen’s “Write”, followed immediately by “your”, invites a more active, participatory approach, urging newcomers to build what they want, to add to the community. I’ve been writing my story (and yours, and all of South Dakota’s) here in Aberdeen for over four years, and it’s working out pretty well.

And even though I do all of my writing on a computer, I think a quill still represents the idea of writing, of human creativity, better than any icon of a computer or an Apple Pencil or other electronic tablet stylus.

Aberdeen "Write Your Story" logo redrawn with Apple Pencil
See? Not as good.

So as a newcomer who got a positive first impression from Aberdeen’s branding, and impression that genuinely helped me turn to my wife and say, “Yeah, take the job; I can live here” (and to be clear, that was advice, not permission), I question whether we need to spend any money replacing a brand that seems to do its job at least as well as any logo I see on either advertiser’s website… including that of our profit-minded mayor.


  1. Porter Lansing 2019-08-17 11:52

    This is the first view I’ve had of Aberdeen’s logo. I give it a 10. Cool and Classy. Why would it need to be replaced? Or, why would it need to have taxpayer money spent, to have it replaced? The only people who’d be tired of seeing it are people who already live in Aberdeen and those eyes aren’t the target audience.

  2. Adam 2019-08-17 13:37

    As long as Aberdeen doesn’t pay more than $500 for a new logo, then Aberdeen won’t be getting ripped off.

    However, I struggle to find it within me to support such a thing. After all, the current logo still looks pretty fresh to me and the Mayor’s push appears VERY self-centered.

  3. Donald Pay 2019-08-17 13:49

    The current logo is fantastic. Why would you change that?

  4. Debbo 2019-08-17 17:54

    Maybe the new logo Mr. Mayor has in mind is a check written to his business. I’m sure he sees a real need for that logo.

    Or perhaps his idea for a logo is an image of a red planet and the words, “At least it’s not Mars.”

  5. Scott 2019-08-17 17:59

    Do these logo’s and themes really have any impact to people? We have traveled over 2500 miles this summer and I can honestly say I never paid attention to any of those banners we saw. Now I can tell you about communities that had run down homes and poor streets.

    Just today I heard some people complaining about Dakota St east of the Fair grounds. Now I know that is a county road, but it was city development that likely is destroying this road. The city could have put it best foot forward and fixed this street ahead of the fair. Now that would be a way of improving visitors image of Aberdeen. This week and next is the cities time to shine with all the fair and car show visitors and new college students. And as usual, Aberdeen stumbled big time.

  6. Debbo 2019-08-17 20:18

    Scott, what college is in Huron? Does it use the old Huron College campus?

  7. Heckifino 2019-08-18 08:40

    I have to agree with Scott. The first thing I look at when traveling through a town are the state of their streets. The streets (and gutters if they have them) tell me, at least in my opinion whether the city leaders have pride in their town. I never look at logos or catchy sayings for towns.

    When traveling through Yankton I was impressed
    With their concrete road on a major thoroughfare (not a state highway). I thought to myself this town does it right for people traveling in for sporting events or vacations.

    Sioux Falls does a great job in the winter of clearing snow and ice from the roads and making them safe to travel on. A different sort of pride but still involves roads.

    Watertown has some of the worst roads (and properties) greeting visitors traveling to LATI and the civic arena from HWY 212. The road is pot hole heaven, parts don’t have curb and gutter, no sidewalks (do all students in Watertown drive to school) and some properties that well, are less than attractive.

    Then we have Madison where it’s faster to travel on a good high end bike than it is to travel by car. The 20 mph speed limit throughout town traveling to DSU drives me nuts.

    So, my advice is to not spend money on logos and catchy phrases, especially when one already works
    but put that money into the streets.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 08:58

    Scott, I’m with you: standing more vividly in my memory of our job-interview visit to Aberdeen in January 2015 was all the water standing in the streets during that January thaw. I thought, “Man, this town is flat, and water doesn’t move. That’s got to be hard on streets.” And indeed, there are lots of rough rides around town. Good infrastructure will make a more important impression than a logo or banner any time.

    I mention my anecdotal experience with the logo only to note that even I, as someone who is deeply suspicious and dismissive of any marketing effort, had a good first impression of Aberdeen’s branding. I’d love to see real independent data measuring the impact of that logo (because, seriously, who would move for a bad job and a good town logo?).

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 09:01

    Adam and Debbo see exactly the answer to Donald’s question: the only people who think we need to replace the logo would be people like Mayor Schaunaman who stand to make money on replacing the logo.

    You know, the American flag is 240 years old. I’ve been told by a variety of graphically informed professionals that the Stars and Stripes is a terrible design, too busy to incorporate effectively in good presentations. Perhaps we should take bids to redesign that outdated and inferior branding?

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 09:17

    Troy McQuillen penned an article in the July 2019 Aberdeen Magazine speaking favorably of the “Write Your Story” branding:

    For the last decade, Aberdeen has been using the advertising slogan Write your Story in Aberdeen. It’s meant to entice folks to come here and make memories or add another chapter to their life story. It encourages locals to make their mark on the city and live the life they desire. It symbolizes opportunity [Troy McQuillen, “Aberdeen The Hub City,” Aberdeen Magazine, 2019.07.02].

    McQuillen suggest coupling “Write Your Story” with Aberdeen’s long-standing nickname, which he says is not a mere marketing line but an essential part of the city’s identity:

    The Hub City name is an essential, core competency of Aberdeen’s existence. Aberdeen was born of absolutely nothing. Our town’s foundation was a vast, green field of grass without trees and a watery slough, and it was platted by the railroad exactly like thousands of others. Hub City is synonymous with the diverse industry our pioneers invented to create a livelihood for themselves here. Being a hub city motivated them to build their city, make it their own, and then convince others to like it.

    …Thinking about all the pioneers who built a life here, who left a legacy, and who wrote their own story, our current slogan, Write your Story, seems very fitting to motivate a generation to engage in our city. I think it has even more potential. If we asked Mr. [1880s mapmaker Walter P.] Butler what he thinks of the slogan, perhaps he’d reply, “How about, Write your Story – In the Hub City?” [McQuillen, 2019.07.02]

    McQuillen is not an elected official. He pays for his own columns in his own Aberdeen Magazine.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 09:49

    The City of Aberdeen’s conflict-of-interest policy, adopted in spring 2017, includes these standards of conduct for city officials:

    Council members shall not take action to:

    …(e) Grant any special consideration, treatment or advantage to any citizen, individual, business organization, or group beyond that which is normally available to every other citizen, individual, business organization, or group;

    (f) Use their elected position to secure special advantages, privileges, or exemptions for themselves or others;

    (g) Engage in any conduct which may be directly prejudicial to the government of the city, which reflects discredit or dishonor on the government of the city, or which causes the city substantial monetary damage, or the commission of a criminal act;[Aberdeen conflict-of-interest policy]

    That same ordinance makes all complaints to the city’s board of ethics confidential unless the board decides probable cause exists and calls a public hearing:

    9. Complaint Procedure

    …(b) All complaints, subsequent filings and proceedings of the board shall remain confidential unless otherwise provided herein. The accused may choose to waive confidentiality and make the complaint public. Upon suchelection by the accused, any subsequent filings and proceedings with the board become public. If the accused chooses to waive confidentiality, then the board has the right to make a public statement limited to that information as reasonably necessary to mitigate any adverse publicity resulting from a public statement by the accused.

    …(d)The board’s report to the city council shall be a public record, but all filings and proceedings prior to the report shall remain confidential unless the accused had elected to make the complaint public. Until a time as the board issues its report to the city council or the accused elects to make the complaint public, no complainant, board member, nor any person who has access to any confidential information related to the functions or activities of the board shall divulge that information to any person who is not authorized to have it [Aberdeen COIP, 2017].

    If an ethics complaint goes to the City Council, any decision and order is public.

    Section 3.2.a.1 indicates that a council member (including the mayor) found guilty of violating the above quoted provisions could face public reprimand and up to a $500 fine. The wording of this section and cross-referenced sections does not convince me that the mayor could be removed from office for violating the conflict-of-interest policy in the way Mayor Schaunaman appears to be doing with this newspaper column.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 09:55

    The Aberdeen Board of Ethics complaint form has not been updated since 2017: they pre-printed the oath date at the bottom as 2017, thus requiring that an individual wanting to file an ethics complaint against Mayor Schaunaman’s violation of conflict of interest rules would have to scratch out that date for the notary.

  13. Donald Pay 2019-08-18 12:10

    As Cory has said, stuff like logos and mission statements are marketing, so spending money on that sort of thing is “government waste” to me, even though I’m a liberal. Normally, I look at logos, lift up a butt cheek and say what I really think, “pffffft.” (Now there’s an idea for a logo for my next campaign.) But I saw that logo and didn’t lift a butt cheek. And that means that logo is good, damn good.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 13:15

    Donald’s reaction is just like mine! For all the fuss cities make over branding and rebranding, most of their logos and slogans are obvious, inauthentic crap. For a logo to not make Donald and me roll our eyes takes some real effort. Aberdeen came up with a logo and tag line that, on first encounter didn’t make me roll my eyes. I could actually see some good in it. Don’t gamble, Aberdeen, on finding something better, especially when the only signal you’re getting that the current logo is obsolete comes from a guy (your mayor) who stands to make money by producing a new one.

  15. Scott 2019-08-18 17:49

    I was talking with some people this morning about this topic. We tried to think of the slogans and logos of places like Sioux Falls, Watertown, Pierre or Huron. We could not come up with anything. Money well spent if people do not know what those slogans and logos of the major cities in the area are.

    Another way to put this, nobody cares about catch phrases, slogans or logos! Save taxpayer money mayor!!

  16. Debbo 2019-08-18 17:56

    Once upon a time I knew 3 slogans –
    1. Star of the West
    2. Hub City
    3. SD’s Rising Star

    Apparently Aberdeen’s is sorta in use. I don’t know about the other two, but I thought they were fitting, which is probably why they stuck in my mind. Does anyone know which were the two “stars”?

  17. Porter Lansing 2019-08-18 18:38

    Star of the West is Rapid City and South Dakota’s Rising Star is Watertown.

  18. Debbo 2019-08-18 18:44

    Ding, ding, ding!
    Do they still use those? Seems like RC changed to something non-memorable and crappy.

  19. Porter Lansing 2019-08-18 19:04

    Watertown just built a sign with that logo on it. No idea what it means.

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-18 19:21

    Watertown’s slogan used to be “The City on the Go.” Mirth ensued, along the lines of “Is your refrigerator running?” But I remember it.

    Debbo, McQuillen’s article argues that “Hub City” isn’t the typical branding slogan, the kind of artifical focus-groped crapola that consultants get paid big money to dream up and overrationalize for their suckers—er, clients. “Hub City” came from something a guy put on a map, possibly before the word “marketing” existed as a common term. The term, says McQuillen, grew organically, arising from actual geography and economic characteristics. When I talk to folks elsewhere about Aberdeen, I find myself often referring to that nickname and saying, “And you know, it really is a hub city,” and then proceeding to explain our centrality to the economic and cultural life of eighty-plus thousand people in a lumpy oval stretching from Mobridge to Ellendale to Sisseton to Redfield.

    A city’s economy, culture, and opportunities speak for themselves. Calling ourselves Turdsville wouldn’t change the fact that we have great community theater, dance classes for kids, and more local grocery choices than you’ll find anywhere within a three-hour drive. Branding ourselves as Valhalla with Free Beer! won’t change the fact that we currently have a mayor who uses his public office to boost his own brand and divert taxpayer dollars (because that’s what pays for Aberdeen’s marketing) into his own pocket.

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