Even before Joshua Gajownik graduated from N.C. State’s College of Design in 2004, he knew he needed to leave Raleigh.

It wasn’t the university’s fault. The award-winning design program had won him over from aerospace engineering. He had made typefaces and crafted logos, studied the theories of shapes and colors in ways he’d never imagined.

The experience earned him several job offers, from a magazine, a TV company, a hip-hop clothing line and a mid-sized design studio. All four of those opportunities were in New York City, a place he thought would be his next home. But every time he came close to signing a contract or finalizing a lease, he would decide that New York didn’t offer the life he wanted.

“I’d start looking at apartments and realize that this sucks: ‘This is what I’m paying for?’ I’d go work like crazy, get on the subway, go home and not have very much space,” Gajownik remembers. “Every time I went up there, I was ready to come back here.”

Despite other offers and personal interest in cities like Portland and San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia, the cost of living and the commute in those places prompted him and his girlfriend, Adrienne, now his wife, to return to their shared apartment in downtown Raleigh. And that’s where, several years ago, Gajownik began to notice new energy. It seemed that everyone he spoke with had plans to start a small business, whether it was a clothing line, a furniture manufacturer or a coffee shop.

“I started to feel like this could be a good place to be a freelance designer,” he remembers, “to help these people create authentic identities for their businesses that will last a long time.”

So he stayed.

That’s the sense that Raleigh wants to share, too, largely in the hope of recruiting international employers and talented people looking for a less dense but no-less-energetic place to live and work. City leaders want to spread the news that Raleigh is the home of fancy restaurants and exciting music festivals, a thriving start-up sector and rising job prospects.

But so far, the city’s attempts at branding itself have been ineffective or overlooked, a hodgepodge of laughable slogans and outdated graphics. Professional designers have even used social media to craft and suggest hypothetical new brands for the cityor to assert that such an identity is neither possible nor necessary for city growth. Last week, Raleigh officially acknowledged the problem by awarding a $104,000 contract to the marketing firm FleishmanHillard to examine how the city presents itself to the world.

“It’s about deciding what’s important to you and what you’re going to focus on,” explains Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane. “If there was somebody that could come up with a brand that could capture it all, I’d love to hear it.”

In March, Mayor McFarlane flew to Austin, Texas, where she joined a contingent of Raleigh economic developers and tech-industry representatives. They had traveled more than 1,300 miles in a city-branded RV to promote Raleigh as “a destination for talent and tech companies” at the multimedia conference South by Southwest. The six-person crew distributed literature about Raleigh, talked up its merits, met with Texas leaders and posted video updates to the city’s economic development website.

Though traditionally perceived as a city of state buildings and lawmakers in suits, Raleigh’s image is steadily shifting toward that of a newly energized Southern hub. The city seems to top a new list of superlatives every week. In 2010, The New York Times dubbed Raleigh and Durham “North Carolina’s axis of cool.” And just last month, the newspaper noted that Raleigh itself was “awash in entrepreneurial energy from homegrown clothing labels and converted art galleries to craft breweries and ambitious restaurants.”

Stories like Gajownik’s epitomize the growing pull of mid-sized cities such as Raleigh and Durham. In 2010, Gajownik called Ashley Christensen, the lauded Raleigh chef. He told her he liked what she’d done at Poole’s and understood that she was working on several new businesses. He asked for the chance to design their brands. A few weeks later, she accepted his offer.

Christensen has opened four restaurants on Wilmington Street in the last two years. Each uses one of Gajownik’s intriguing designs, whether it’s the electric circuit symbols that shape the logo for her new coffee shop, Joule, or the sign that subtly forms an arrow leading into her high-end burger joint, Chuck’s. Two months ago, Gajownik and Adrienne purchased a home just a few blocks away.

“That’s the story I tell my friends when they say they have to get the hell out of New York City,” says Gajownik. “‘You want to do that? Bring your idea down here.’ That’s the new American Dream for people my agenot buy a house and drive to work for 30 minutes, but walk or bike to work. That’s possible here.”

Such visions are the ones McFarlane and her coterie shared in Austin. What they didn’t do, McFarlane admits, is promote a centralized Raleigh brand, a specific image that quickly and efficiently distinguishes the city from the country’s other thriving mid-size markets. That’s because, to date, Raleigh doesn’t really have a brand.

“There are people that are very focused on ‘City of Innovation.’ That’s good, but every city I go to, it’s ‘Welcome to Atlanta, the city of innovation!’ As soon as the new thing comes along, it’s old,” McFarlane says. “That’s why it’s so important to figure out, at our core, what we are. What’s different from any place else?”

Raleigh is finally working on that: In November, the city manager’s office issued a nationwide call for help with its overarching branding and communications strategy. They asked companies to submit a proposal that would allow Raleigh to foster “a 21st century platform that is interactive, engaging and complements the city’s innovation brand” and “enables the city to ‘tell its story’ locally, on the national stage and beyond.”

City leaders selected FleishmanHillard, an international marketing agency with an office in Raleigh, from a pool of 11 firms that submitted bids. During the next three months, the agency will evaluate how the city communicates with its citizens and how outsiders perceive it, then recommend how to improve each of those aspects.

That sum will be paid from the city’s general fund, a collection of taxes, inspection fees and other sources of income, according to Raleigh’s operating budget manager Kirsten Larson. But for that price, FleishmanHillard will not develop a new brand that Raleigh can use to market itself. However, the move is part of a larger and more expensive proposal that the city plans to pursue, possibly as early as next year.

That is the essential next step. Nearly a quarter-century ago, the city council of Austin officially adopted “Live Music Capital of the World” as its motto, however specious that logic might have been. But they stuck with it, and Austin now claims at least three of the world’s major music festivals.

Such brands have potential long-lasting market impacts; a lack of one represents a missed opportunity. The state of North Carolina is preparing to spend $2.3 million over the next two years to shape a brand of its own.

“Reversing or correcting old perspectives of Raleigh is an important component of this initiative,” says City Council member Bonner Gaylord. “It’s one thing to have a story, and it’s another to tell that story. We just haven’t determined how we’re going to tell our story, collectively. And if we can’t articulate who we are, how can we expect anyone to want to move here?”

When David Baldwin hears the term “Raleigh branding,” he chuckles for several seconds.

“When I first moved here, I felt like the lawyers and scientists were in charge. But now, there’s so much more cultural diversity,” says Baldwin, who relocated his high-profile marketing firm, Baldwin&, from Durham to Raleigh three years ago. “I was blown away by the transformation.”

The winner of Ad Age‘s 2012 Agency of the Year for small firms, Baldwin& enhances and invents brands for companies from Burt’s Bees and CREE to BMW and Kingsford charcoal. Raleigh’s own approach, he says, is in dire need of an update.

“Raleigh gets a lot of great PR and has a lot of great stories written about it, but it doesn’t have a brand beyond being a great place to live,” Baldwin says. “The official voice of Raleigh just doesn’t know what to say.”

Last week, McFarlane delivered her State of the City address, titled “Designing the Future,” to the Raleigh Rotary Club. She defended the city’s controversial decision to focus its money and resources on revitalizing downtown and talked of continuing to grow the city’s center through good design, a word she used 16 times. But so far, those principles haven’t been used to help generate a consistent, compelling image for Raleigh itself.

With an inconsistent aesthetic, hammy slogans and unwieldy layouts, Raleigh’s attempts at official branding have been scattered at best, embarrassing at worst: The motto of the Red Hat Amphitheater, a relatively new Raleigh-owned property that brought more than 100,000 people to the city’s center last year, sports the tagline “Bringin’ the Get Down to Downtown.”

The Raleigh Arts Commission boasts the broad and unwieldy motto “Southern Capital of Arts and Culture,” while the city’s economic development wing operates the Twitter handle “@Raleigh4u” and with the slogan “Raleigh’s for You!” Those last two words are typically written in italicized cursive, shooting upward into the middle of “Raleigh” like a comet. It suggests a sign of self-affirmation in an uptight corporate office.

The city’s website flashes a slideshow of pixelated images across its homepage and uses an impenetrable architecture, in which successful navigation requires saintly patience. The city logo, perched dutifully atop the site, seems to be a dowdy relic of the early ’80s, with a diminutive oak tree ensnared by a yellow circle and a ribbon-laced laurel of boughs.

Last fall, two of Baldwin’s employees, Kellyn McGarity and Chad Temples, discussed the discrepancy between the municipal message and the buzz they felt within the city itself. They decided to take the challenge of reconciling the two as a new hobby, launching a social media experiment called Rebrand Raleigh.

Every two weeks since October, Rebrand Raleigh has turned over an Instagram account to a different designer to pursue a new graphic identity for the city. It’s an ongoing hunt for a contemporary symbol of why a place once marked by a sleepy and deserted downtown now tops so many best-of lists. There are the requisite oak leaves and bejeweled acorns, illustrated skylines and emboldened Rs. But there is also the sense that people within Raleigh are working to say something about themselves that the city itself has been unwilling or unable to do.

“There is an opportunity, right now, to talk about Raleigh as not the Capital City, which is why you see Mayor McFarlane going to Austin,” says Gajownik. He was the first non-Baldwin& designer that Rebrand asked to contribute. He looked past the state capitol and the legislative building, beyond the government towers and historic storefronts.

“That was my outlook: We’re more than the Capital City,” he says. “We’re more than our history. We should be looking forward and upward.”

Gajownik’s logo uses a squiggly canopy of oak trees to form a foundation, followed by sky-bound vertices of towering pines that ultimately end in the jagged, uneven shape of the city’s skyline. The finished result is a colorful bar graph of linear growth, with “Raleigh NC” typed cleanly beneath it. At a glance, the city’s progress is apparent.

McGarity, Rebrand Raleigh’s cofounder, moved to Raleigh from Dallas less than two years ago to take a job as a senior art director at Baldwin&. Since her arrival, she’s been most surprised by the city’s possibilities. Anyone with an ambition can readily have an impact, she says. She was Rebrand Raleigh’s first contributor, and her city logo appropriately leaps off the page as though rendered in three dimensionsa bold “R” buoyed by a sunburst and a more elegant oak-leaf laurel. It’s like watching an idea bloom.

“You can drive through downtown and only imagine what, in 10 years, it’s going to be like,” she says. “For people into stirring the pot and changing things, it’s this big opportunity for creative people and entrepreneurs to make their mark. That’s very important for the city to express.”

But a chief concern with municipal branding is the risk of exclusionthat is, by staking the city’s image on one motif, others are underrepresented.

That sort of omission gives Jarrett Carr, another College of Design graduate, pause. For Carr, cities are interesting because their parts can’t be summed in a snappy slogan. That is the implicit point of Unbrand Raleigh, a social media parody that pokes fun at Rebrand Raleigh’s idea that oak leaves and pretty letters can summarize a place.

These mocking logos feature bikes with flat tires busted on bad roads, fraternity brothers holding plastic cups and Heinekens instead of local craft beers, and a homeless person’s cardboard sign inked with an unsteady “R.” Carr started Unbrand Raleigh to show that he thinks Raleigh is too broad for a tidy marketing campaign, and to add both cynicism and levity to the quest for an identity.

McFarlane knows from experience that no single image or brand will ever reach total consensus. Someone will always feel that his or her special interest is left out.

“I don’t know that you could get eight people on the City Council to agree on it,” she says, laughing. “How do you pick any one thing? But once we talk about how we are delivering our message, it is the next step.”

McGarity insists that this is the risk of all marketingyou have to find a focus and pursue it doggedly. If Raleigh does that, she thinks, the benefits will be inevitable for the entire city.

“It takes years, and that’s very scary. It doesn’t change in two months or six months or even a year,” she says. “But the challenge is having the faith and guts to stand by a decision. Everyone’s going to have an opinion. “

This article appeared in print with the headline “Identity crisis”