A branding project to unite a network of small towns - from Osage to Akeley and Itasca State Park to Menahga and everything in between - rolled out last week.

After a 10-month process, a single, inclusive brand was developed: Heartland Lakes.

Civic Brand, a Dallas-based branding and marketing agency, was hired to help with the project.

Over the course of three week-long trips, Civic Brand shot video footage in summer, winter and fall. They met with community and business leaders to identify assets. The resulting 30-minute branding documentary was screened Thursday.

Ryan Short, Civic Brand founder, said, "While we're introducing a new name in the Heartland Lakes, we're not introducing something that's completely foreign or pulled out of thin air. The Heartland is something that's very much ingrained in the community."

Even the communities that aren't directly on the Heartland Trail share the same values as Heartland Lakes, Short said. "As we did our research, we kept finding all these instances of 'the Heartland' being used," such as the Heartland 100, the Heartland Snowmobile Race, the Heartland Table cooking show.

It became clear, said Molly Luther, a local business owner and member of the branding steering committee, that the numerous small towns did not feel included in the phrase "Park Rapids lakes area." "Heartland Lakes," on the other hand, is more unifying. "It seems like a healthy direction to have gone in. We're really able to unite all the small towns and make people feel included and proud of the area we're in," she said.

The roll out of the Heartland Lakes brand is a long-term strategy that consists of multiple phases.

"So this is phase one," explained Park Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Butch De La Hunt. "This identifies what they believe is the brand that encompasses our region based on our brand principals. Some of the collateral that's now the next phase is going to be the live-work site. We're working on that now."

The Heartland Lakes brand is intended to not only differentiate the area from other lake communities, but also help the area compete for new residents, businesses, investment and visitors.

The brand principles, or shared values, identified for Heartland Lakes are "strong, proud people," "family and tradition," "intentional," "access to the outdoors" and "pristine waters."

The Heartland Lakes logo may be incorporated into websites, apparel, etc. "We'd like to see people just start embracing it," De La Hunt said.

There is a "branding book," outlining how the Heartland Lakes brand may be used. "There's specific things you need to know, so if they want to use the brand we're encouraging it. They can reach out to the Chamber and we'll give them details," he said. "Over time, there'll probably be a brand licensing requirement."

The Chamber, the City of Park Rapids, Hubbard County, a Blandin grant, the Park Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Park Rapids Downtown Business Association are some of the current funding sponsors, he noted. "As we move forward, we'll just keep adding additional funding and partners."

Civic Brand is continuing to film various locations and community leaders to develop each community's portal on www.heartlandlakes.com. Itineraries are offered on the website. A booking and lodging portal is an option, De La Hunt said.

The branding documentary will be shown again at 5:15 p.m., 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Thursday, June 21 at Pioneer Park. It is also posted at heartlandlakes.com/video.

"Heartland Lakes" can be followed on Facebook and Instagram (@heartlandlakes). The hashtag of #heartlandlakes can be used when sharing photos.