The (un)branding of Qualicum Beach

It’s been said that all anyone has is their good name, the reputation by which they are known to the outside world. In marketing terms, that’s known as a person’s brand but it applies to communities as well.

Qualicum Beach has always had an outstanding brand but, lately, QB has been losing both its name and its long-standing, enviable reputation due in part to neglect and to dubious branding efforts by the Town and by the external groups to which our municipal government has chosen to delegate (or abdicate) the responsibility for managing Qualicum Beach’s brand reputation. The result has been a diminishment of Qualicum Beach’s reputation over the last several years that could have lasting significant repercussions for the Town as a whole, not just the tourism sector.

The Vancouver Island Visitor Guide published by Black Press Media lists our area as “Parksville & Qualicum,” omitting “Beach” from our name. This publication gushes about Parksville’s “incredible beaches” but says nothing about QB’s beaches.

Many QB residents participated in a community branding survey conducted in April 2021 by the Town of Qualicum Beach in partnership with the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce. According to the announcement from these “partners,” Qualicum Beach’s “new brand” was supposed to be “ready to launch July 2021.” However, the Qualicum Beach branding initiative appears to still be stuck in the “community consulting” phase, signaling that this project may be in a terminal holding position.

So what’s the hold-up? One reason appears to be that, instead of producing a Qualicum Beach branding strategy, the Town and the QB Chamber of Commerce have been bolstering the brand image of other communities and astonishingly, in some cases, taking actions that neglect and diminish QB’s image and reputation.

We will take a closer look at the QB branding project in Part 2 of this series. In Part 1, we examine actions taken by the Town and by external groups that are eroding Qualicum Beach’s brand identity.

About branding and why it matters

A brand is not just a logo, a slogan, and glossy marketing materials. Branding is how we present ourselves to the world.

The objective of branding is to be widely recognized as something specific and desirable, above and apart from all others (places, restaurants, shoes, services…). Branding done well can result in a thriving community; done poorly it can cost jobs, increase our taxes, reduce the quality of life enjoyed by residents, and so on.

For example, you wouldn’t want to buy a run-down house with a weed infested yard to live in if you had a choice, would you? Simply put, a good brand strategy can, ultimately, make the difference between whether or not someone chooses to raise their children in the community, to open a business in Town, to retire here or to work here. It pays dividends to sharpen and polish our image, but the Town of Qualicum Beach has dropped that ball lately.

Why is the QB Chamber of Commerce, spending their time and our money, branding Oceanside?

Last year, at the behest of some businesses and residents, Second Opinion QB reported on the absence of hanging baskets and large concrete planters in the downtown shopping area and the general unkempt state of the Town (weeds, garbage, roads not having been swept after winter). After our article was published, the Town restored some of these community amenities, but not to previous levels. For example, about two dozen fully planted large concrete street planters remain sitting at the Public Works yard — for the second year in a row — when they could have been used to enhance the Town. Instead the Town chose to deploy (apparently scarce) staff resources to remove countless benches around Town. Does that make sense?

There are two things to know about branding.

First, the key to a successful brand is differentiation, i.e., to stand out from the crowd. Qualicum Beach has achieved a clear advantage where differentiation is concerned. QB is unique. Second, branding is all about consistency and repetition (of an image/name/sound/reputation). Repeat a specific name, image, or description often enough, especially a distinctive one, and you will achieve brand recognition. Repetition begets recognition.

What has been our brand to date? The most frequently heard first-time visitor comments are about our spectacular natural setting and genuine small town ambiance unmarred by the ubiquitous commercial strip of big box and other chain stores that blights other communities. Arguably, Qualicum Beach’s distinctive image is our most valued, and envied, lifestyle and economic asset.

QB’s diminishing image and reputation

Over the last few years, QB’s image has been neglected, eroded or subsumed in the wake of branding efforts undertaken with our tax dollars, favouring other communities and regions. We present just a random sampling of a few of the ineffective and damaging efforts led by the Town of Qualicum Beach that have a detrimental impact on QB’s brand identity.

Look it up!

Suppose you’d never heard of Qualicum Beach, BC but are told about it from a friend who thinks you’d like to visit or live here. This is before you find a helpful, trustworthy online source of information, or have a glossy brochure in your hand, so you do an online search for Qualicum Beach. What pops up? Wikipedia, of course, the world’s go-to source of basic information about… everything.

Wikipedia: Our Town’s Wikipedia page is not only one of the primary suggested sites to check for information about Qualicum Beach, its opening summary paragraph is also the feature listing on the upper right column of the search page listings. It’s highly visible — hooray! Then we take a closer look and wince. Woefully out of date, Qualicum Beach’s Wiki page is deadly dull and highly inaccurate. It doesn’t even mention our beaches. A child could do better.

Opening summary for Qualicum Beach on Wikipedia.

On our Wikipedia page, Qualicum Beach is described as being located “along the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island’s northeastern coast.” Northeastern?!

The QB Wiki page does not list any events for which QB is well known, as many other communities do. Landmarks listed include the Qualicum College (try to find that today), but there is no mention at all of other noteworthy sites such as Milner Gardens. The photo for the “E&N Railway station” displays a photo of a section of railway tracks in the bush that could be anywhere, instead of QB’s attractive heritage E&N Train Station building. The Image Gallery contains only five photos, four of which are plaques recounting the Town’s history, and one is an unappealing rock-filled “beach” shot that also could be anywhere (but is not recognizable as being in QB). We encourage you to have a look at QB’s Wiki page for yourself.

Mayor featured on Qualicum Beach’s Wikipedia page but other Town councillors not identified.

One part of Wikipedia’s Qualicum Beach page has been recently updated though, and this update appears to be unique among Wikipedia listings for BC municipalities. Under the heading, Politics and Government, is a statement that the Town “is headed by a mayor (who also represents Qualicum Beach on the governing board of the Regional District of Nanaimo) and a four-member council…  As of October 2018, the mayor is Brian Wiese and he is currently serving his first term.”

We found few municipalities on Vancouver Island that include any mention of government on their Wiki pages, and the ones that do, include the names of all councillors, not just the name of the mayor. We found no other Wikipedia municipality pages on the Island that provide a mini-resume of the current mayor. Why didn’t the person who added this update, not update the rest of the QB Wikipedia page while they were at it — or at least correct the obvious, embarrassing and detrimental errors?

In another obvious marketing blunder, QB’s Wikipedia page features a link to Parksville, prominent in the opening summary describing Qualicum Beach but Parksville’s Wikipedia page does not provide a reciprocal link to Qualicum Beach in their Wiki summary. Who is responsible for allowing QB’s image to be so poorly reflected on Wikipedia? QB’s Wiki page concludes with links to the two organizations presumably responsible for the information on this page: the Town of Qualicum Beach (which currently contracts visitor services out to Kim Burden, executive director of Parksville’s Chamber of Commerce), and the Parksvile Qualicum Beach Tourism Association (PQBTA) with which Mr. Burden is also affiliated.

Now, for a very simple but graphic illustration of the disappearance of the entity of Qualicum Beach from the public eye, let your fingers do the walking… Take a look at the rapidly disappearing presence of the Town of Qualicum Beach in the Municipalities & Regional Districts section of the Yellow Pages.

Yellow Pages 2021 – other Municipality & Regional District listings

Yellow Pages: While this venerable icon might be considered old school, the YP directory is still delivered to every home and business in the Mid-Island region of Vancouver Island. Visitors and even long-time residents still consult the Yellow Pages directory, and some seniors rely on it almost exclusively. Many people use the Yellow Pages during power outages or emergencies to quickly find the right contact information to get assistance. Our YP directory is distributed from the Malahat through Nanaimo to Port Alberni and Tofino, and as far north as Bowser. That represents a lot of eyeballs.

Here QB stands out again — like a sore thumb. Qualicum Beach used to have a full listing of Town contact information, comparable to other Vancouver Island municipalities. In 2020, the QB contact information shrank considerably and now, in the 2021 YP directory, the Town of Qualicum Beach has all but disappeared from the Yellow Pages. Compare the listing for Qualicum Beach, a community of some 10,000 people, to the YP listing for other communities. Check out Ladysmith, for example, roughly the same size as QB, or Lantzville with roughly 4,000 people, or Tofino with a population of about 2,000 people. Will QB, a town of about 10,000 people even be listed in the 2022 Yellow Pages directory?

Why has the Town reduced Qualicum Beach’s Yellow Pages listing to virtually nothing? What sort of a message does this send to all the communities across the Mid-Island, the region in which our Yellow Pages guide is distributed?

What’s in a name?
The PQB News listing of elected representatives does not print the proper name of Qualicum Beach.

What’s in a name? Everything. Repetition begets recognition, but our Town’s name is being sliced and diced so much that our name recognition is being lost. The Qualicum Beach brand has been so neglected and mismanaged that confusion now reigns.

There can be no effective repetition if our name is constantly changing or improperly referenced. This surprisingly unprofessional practice confuses locals and visitors alike, creating an unnecessary barrier between local businesses and potential customers. The resulting confusion also obstructs QB’s broader tourism and economic investment potential.

Qualicum Beach is routinely referred to in media and business publications by various names including Qualicum, Parksville Qualicum, Oceanside Parksville Qualicum, and Coombs-Qualicum. The fact that there are two Qualicums, one being Q Beach and the other being Q Bay, introduces further unnecessary confusion for visitors with potential loss of customers for some businesses.

The PQB News doesn’t even bother to use the proper name of our Town in its listing of elected representatives.

Some publications list the location of Qualicum Beach shops and restaurants incorrectly as Parksville or in Coombs-Qualicum. One issue of the Homes & Land real estate industry publication listed Qualicum Beach as “Oceanside Region – Parksville and Qualicum”.

All but one of the “Coombs/Qualicum” businesses listed above are in QB, as is De L’Ile Restaurant, incorrectly listed in Parksville.

Another issue of the same glossy real estate publication contains an article about Nanaimo that features a lovely photo of… Qualicum Beach, without any photographer or other credits to accurately identify the photo as having been taken in Qualicum Beach. The Vancouver Island Visitor Guide published by Black Press Media lists our area as “Parksville & Qualicum,” omitting “Beach” from our name. This publication gushes about Parksville’s “incredible beaches” but says nothing about QB’s beaches. Are you sensing a theme here?

Here’s a particularly prominent example of how and why the name of Qualicum Beach is being lost or obscured. Instead of using the proper name Qualicum Beach, the PQB News, self-proclaimed as the “paper of record” for this area, often publishes stories describing events or places in Qualicum Beach as being from a (non-existent) place called Parksville Qualicum Beach. It sometimes even mistakenly identifies QB shops as being located in Parksville, even though the business has paid PQB News to run ads. Sometimes PQB News stories give no community name at all, leaving readers to wonder in which community something they reported has occurred.

This same practice has now spread to several online and printed visitor guides produced by the Town and by various tourism industry and business associations, many of which receive taxpayer funding to promote our Town’s brand identity. “Run and play your way through Parksville Qualicum Beach” says the tourism industry’s Discovery Guide for our region. The Discovery Guide is published by the PQBTA in partnership with the PQB News. Parksville takes precedence in almost every section of our area’s Discovery Guide, starting with the cover where, instead of listing communities alphabetically, Parksville gets first billing, despite being in the middle of the pack, alphabetically, of community names featured in the Guide.

Leafing through the Guide, a visitor will notice the address for the Parksville Visitor Centre, but there’s no address given for the Qualicum Beach Visitor Centre. The 2019 Discovery Guide provided the addresses for both Visitor Information Centre locations. Why did the PQBTA omit the QB Visitor Information Centre address? Just another blunder, or a convenient oversight?

Perhaps this might shed a bit of light on why this important QB information is missing from the Guide. In March 2019, the then-executive director of the QB Chamber of Commerce, Anne Dodson, announced “the Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with the Town of Qualicum Beach, has formed an initial working group to investigate options for the eventual replacement of the aging and inadequate visitor information centre.” Sarah Duncan, then the new QB Chamber president was quoted in that media release saying, “We look forward to collaborating on this project to create a space that showcases Qualicum Beach while meeting the needs of our visitors.” See QB Chamber of Commerce announcement below.

Shortly thereafter, the QB Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors apparently hired Kim Burden of the Parksville Chamber to assume management of Qualicum Beach’s Chamber operations. As reported previously, the QB Chamber has refused to respond to requests from Second Opinion QB for information about the hiring of the Parksville Chamber of Commerce to manage QB’s visitor services.

Is there a plan in the shadows to get rid of the QB Visitor Information Centre entirely that the public has not been informed of?

The back of the 2021 Parksville Qualicum Beach Discovery Guide features Parksville alone, as it has in previous years, giving that community the lion’s share of promotion.

Second Opinion QB noted in our April 14, 2021 story, Chamber of Commerce erasing QB from the tourism map, that copies of the 2021 Discovery Guide were readily available in large quantities in Parksville, but only a few Discovery Guides were available in QB, and those were outdated 2020 copies. Meanwhile the Qualicum Beach Visitor Information Centre had no Discovery Guides at all, outdated or otherwise, nor even any maps on offer for visitors.

Six months later, little has changed. There were still no Discovery Guides or maps available at QB’s Visitor Info Centre on Thanksgiving weekend. However, copies of the 2021 Discovery Guide were displayed on wire racks at two downtown QB locations, Quality Foods and PharmaSave (where the Guides were stacked face down so that back cover “Walkable. Remarkable. Parksville Downtown” gave the impression that this was a Guide to downtown Parksville. Nice little trick, advertising Parksville alone on the back cover so that the Guide can double as a Parksville promo publication. Parksville has monopolized this prime marketing position in our “regional” visitor guide for years.

Meanwhile the Town and QB Chamber carry on branding… Oceanside!

At the same time as many of QB’s benches were mysteriously disappearing, the Town and the QB Chamber of Commerce were very busy making sure that our area was blanketed with… the Oceanside brand.

Matt Breedlove, local realtor and president of the QB Chamber of Commerce, writing in the October 2021 issue of yet another glossy advertising publication, Neighbours of Qualicum Beach, says “We are so proud of the Oceanside BenchMark Program.” Then, without missing a beat — and oblivious to the fact that the QB Chamber has not produced the promised Qualicum Beach branding strategy that they stated would be launched in July 2021 — he continues, “Looking forward to the future, the Branding exercise the Chamber undertook with the Town is nearing completion…”

Why is the QB Chamber of Commerce, spending their time and our money, branding Oceanside? Why has the Town allowed the QB Chamber to let the QB branding project just lapse? Who, exactly, is the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce serving?

“Someone” has added an orphan stub on Wikipedia for “Oceanside, BC.” This is not any recognized or official community, although clever wording implies that it is.

Let’s return to Wikipedia. Well, well, well, what do we have here? Someone has recently installed a listing for Oceanside, British Columbia as a “Vancouver Island community.” The Oceanside listing is very brief, just a “stub” in Wiki lingo, not a proper Wikipedia page. No wonder, it’s not actually a legitimate community. Oceanside, BC is the only listing under Wikipedia’s section for Vancouver Island Communities that is not actually an official municipal entity. As for differerentiation, choosing to identify this area as Oceanside gets an “F.” Do an online search for Oceanside and what comes up? Scores of entries for Oceanside, California, an actual established community.

Slow-moving coup?

For many years, certain special interests have wanted to take control of the swath of communities ranging from Nanoose Bay to Bowser, and call it Oceanside. Unfortunately, no one has yet asked Qualicum Beach residents and business owners if they want this.

On several occasions over the last 20 years, Courtenay tried to take over Comox and surrounding communities, but the Town of Comox and the other surrounding communities resisted. This meant that a referendum would have to pass by a majority in both municipalities in order to proceed with amalgamation. Referenda held in 1999 and in 2009 were defeated, and in 2014 a referendum attempt by the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce fizzled out. At least the proponents of those potential Courtenay-Comox amalgamation efforts were honest enough to pitch their desires to the public, out in the open.

However, they haven’t given up. In June 2021, the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce offered a non-voting “sponsorship” opportunity to the Village of Cumberland, i.e. asking for taxpayer funding. As reported in the Comox Valley Record, Cumberland Councillor Jesse Ketler expressed reservations about entering into any agreement with the Chamber of Commerce. “ ‘They’re there to serve their members. It’s a specific group of the population and not necessarily the broader population,’ she said. One concern that arose at the meeting was that the chamber had put amalgamation of local governments on the agenda during municipal elections in the past.”

This bench was positioned by the QB Chamber of Commerce and the Town in this prominent location on Memorial Avenue in Qualicum Beach for much of the summer season… advertising Oceanside.

It appears that the characters behind the shadowy Oceanside scheme may be trying to pull off a stealth amalgamation, without going through the proper democratic process of allowing residents a voice — characteristic of a slow-moving coup.

Town bears responsibiity

The increasingly frequent, casual and confused misrepresentation of our Town’s name is erasing our identity. It is preposterous to think that the mangling of our name and brand image by so many “professional” publications and organizations is just coincidence or sloppiness. Either no one is minding our community store, or someone is, but the goods they are selling are not what we think.

If our community identity and reputation are left solely in the hands of self-interested business and industry groups, then Qualicum Beach will cease to serve the interests of the community as a whole.

The Town of Qualicum Beach has been funding these detrimental, damaging self-interested initiatives without providing any demonstrable, effective oversight on behalf of the residents of Qualicum Beach, thus paving the way to brand Qualicum Beach (or rather, Qualicum) as just another area in some larger entity called Oceanside, to which our Town would be subordinate.

Stay tuned. In Part 2 we will take a closer look at the Qualicum Beach (un)branding project as it evolves.