When I started exploring place branding, it quickly became evident that the concepts of selling, marketing and branding were often confused and used interchangeably. As a consequence, many communities experienced failed attempts at “branding” when the better solution may have been to focus on developing a more effective selling effort.
When I was working at Procter & Gamble, I never had to draw any distinctions between the three concepts. Maybe we all drank the same Kool-Aid and inherently adopted a consistent working paradigm that kept the concepts clear in our collective heads. But, out in the “real world” as I have come to call it, clarification has been necessary and extremely helpful.
Two things that are generally always true about branding – 1) it takes time and 2) it costs money. If you don’t have much time, you need more money to be successful.
Here are the working definitions I have come up with. Disclaimer: I do not hold these up as the textbook definitions. In fact, I am pretty certain most academicians will be appalled and most practicing marketers will have valid comments on the nuances. But, I will say the definitions have turned out to be useful and the economic development professionals I talk to find them very practical in helping clarify their understanding.
My Working Definitions
I focused on three variables in coming up with these definitions – 1) timeframe, 2) cost, and 3) reach. In general, here is how I thought about it.
I thought about the three activities as a continuum with fuzzy edges. Using fuzzy edges gave me an excuse to allow overlap rather than argue whether a specific tactic is wholly in one definition or another. The continuum concept felt practical because in my opinion a strong selling effort without a true marketing program can deliver results, but the inverse is not as certain. And, I believe investing in community branding without a strong selling and marketing effort to underpin it is a recipe for disaster.
Here is what I have come up with:
Brand – A promise you make about what it is like to live and work in your community. It needs to be relevant, competitive and authentic to be effective.
Selling – Helping a specific company determine if your community is a good choice for their capital investment. Selling includes retention and expansion of companies with operations in your community, and is not limited to attraction. When you are selling, you are making a promise to a specific company. More practice information you can find at Sellers Playbook.
Marketing – Managing the image of your community. This is done through an effective communications effort and the tactics associated with it. Managing image includes correcting misperceptions and ensuring an understanding of your community’s promise. It deals with the “current state” of your community, warts and all. Marketing helps create broad interest in considering your community for capital investment. It sets an expectation for what the experience will be. When you market you community, you are communicating your promise to a number of companies.
Branding – Managing your community’s identity. Identity is what you are working to transform your community into. Think of it as the “future state”. Therefore, branding includes creating a strategic plan to guide your development efforts. The plan horizon should be minimally 10-years, and will typically include strategic choices on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform. Branding also includes making certain your community promise is consistently delivered across a complex set of touch points that involve educating and keeping many of your constituents on the “same page”.
I recently read an article by Deborah Kops where she drew a distinction between marketing and branding. I like her notion of a brand being the North Star for all marketing efforts. It is very consistent with the notion of a brand being a promise and the need for you to ensure that promise remains relevant, competitive and authentic over time.
Deborah Kops describes the difference as:
“Branding is often confused with marketing. Marketing is a series of orchestrated efforts targeted specifically to distinct channels that deepen brand awareness. To say it simply, marketing is the support or the “legs” of a powerful brand. Without a brand, marketing tactics such as a cogent website written in clear business English, a sexy logo with an all-purpose tagline, speeches at conferences, pitches to analysts, an occasional whitepaper, press releases that announce a great feat such as a decent financial quarter or a new client, or springing for a booth at XYZ Global Outsourcing Conference Extraordinaire are the branding equivalent of throwing darts blindfolded. In effect, a defined brand provides a framework for marketing.”
This is all rhetoric if it doesn’t impact your thinking. Here are some of the practical and important implications I have observed where clarity of the definitions matters.
- Many communities are better served by investing in a sales campaign than a branding effort. Unless you are prepared to create a 10-year strategic plan and have adequate resources, I think your community may be better served with strengthening its sales effort than starting a branding initiative. Better lead identification and a stronger selling message might do wonders. That doesn’t mean branding is not important. It simply means your community may not be ready to do it the right way. I am very dismayed by the number of stories I hear where a community has hired an Agency to create a brand only to end up with a new logo and tagline. That is not branding!
- Many times sales/marketing campaigns get positioned as branding (or rebranding) a community. In my mind, this perpetuates the confusion. There is nothing wrong with a great sales campaign. And a great sales campaign can run for several years. But, unless the effort defines the core promise of a community and that promise drives long-term investment choices, it falls short of branding. Sales and marketing campaigns are about the heart and mind-opening creative translation of your brand promise. Most of the Agency case studies I read actually describe how they developed a kick-ass campaign for a community, but the Agency has positioned it as creating a new brand.
- A screwed up branding effort poisons the well for a minimum of 5-years. Support of community leadership is key to any branding effort. It takes a lot of political capital to get that leadership to fund the exercise. If the end product is a new logo and tagline, the leadership will be disappointed and it will be 5-years (give or take) before you can reengage them to make another investment in branding. That is why it is so important to adequately resource the work and get it right the first time. If you instead said the goal was to create a new campaign, and the campaign failed to deliver results, leadership would likely be open to investing in creating a better campaign. Most business and political leaders understand campaigns better than they do branding.
- RFPs are not written clearly so the results often fall short of expectation. When you ask an Agency to brand your community when you really want a new sales campaign, you set yourself up for a bad experience. There is an old saying that the client gets the Agency they deserve. The better direction you can provide an Agency, the more cost-effective they will be and the better ROI you will achieve. If you are not looking for a new promise that you are willing to use to drive decision making for at least a decade as an output of the exercise, then don’t contract an Agency to brand your community. If you want a compelling way to present your community promise, then contract for a sales or marketing campaign (or both if you can afford it). The Agency will give you better work and you will be less frustrated with the entire process. It is hard to make broad stroke recommendations since every community situation is unique. But, if your community is less than 100,000 people you might be best served by investing your limited budget in developing a strong sales/marketing campaign. Try collaborating with regional branding efforts that might be happening in your area to cost share rather than trying to go it alone.
Sometimes it is simpler to begin with the end in mind. If you want to create a promise statement for your community that will guide both development and communication strategy going forward then contract for that. If you want a new marketing campaign, or a new logo and tagline, contract specifically for each. Note, you will be expected to give the Agency your community promise so they can translate it creatively. If you just want a sales campaign for a specific industry, then contract for that. Just don’t lump it all under an RFP to brand your community. Keep your request simple and keep it clear. Be certain to align on what the output looks like so you are not disappointed (e.g. a marketing campaign that includes …).
What Are Your Thoughts?
I’d love the professional marketers reading this post to chime in. Your experience (even if it is not in place branding) is relevant. I’d also like to hear from economic development professionals who have had a good or bad experience with branding. This is a topic where practical experience is the most informative.
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