I have often been asked, what does it take to win in place branding? Is there a secret formula that can be applied? Are there some things I can concentrate on doing really well that will help my community be more successful?
Like many other things, the answer is a qualified NO. Place branding (or branding in general) is hard work. It takes a good value proposition, adequate resources, time, discipline, strong leadership and patience to succeed.
But, since the question begs a better answer, here are a few things you should consider that won’t necessarily guarantee success, but will certainly enhance the probability of it.
Know Who To Talk With
You need to develop strong prime prospect choices and insights based on an understanding of how they make capital decisions. I wrote a post on defining your WHO target that provides a set of “power questions” to ask yourself in order to ensure you have identified a target audience that has a higher than normal probability of needing/wanting what your community has to offer and is worth investing in communicating with.
Shotgun, or “all comers” approaches are both inefficient and typically ineffective. The approach fosters forgettable messaging and positions your community as good for everybody, but not right for anybody. The more discerning you are in your targeting, the easier it is to identify unique insights to build compelling messaging from. The more general you are, the higher the likelihood you will fall back on the generic 3-L approach of positioning your community on Location, Labor and Life Quality. This kind of undifferentiated is not compelling and will have little to no impact on how your community is perceived.
Have Something Worth Saying
Everybody advises this, but most community leaders find it a real challenge. They have a hard time differentiating their community from others. There are three primary reasons why –
- Your community may in fact not be competitive. If this is genuinely the case, my counsel has been and is to work on creating a point of difference worth talking about. Thinking you can fix this problem by capturing the attention of capital investors is fundamentally flawed. Even if your marketing effort is successful beyond your wildest dreams, the only thing it will accomplish is to have more companies evaluate and conclude that there is nothing special about your community. In consumer packaged goods terms, great marketing cannot make up for a bad product. You need to first fix the product.
- You may be overly focused of identifying a unique benefit for locating in your community. Dr. Kevin Lane Keller’s points-of-difference (POD) and points-of-parity (POP) model suggests your community’s uniqueness may lie in how it delivers the desired benefit rather than the end-benefit itself. Every community tends to be unique in its activity system to deliver a desired benefit. This is worth looking closely at when creating a value proposition. For example, most communities can legitimately claim employees can obtain quality medical care. How many communities though can claim it is delivered through the Cleveland Clinic?
- You do not understand the capital investment decision well enough to have identified actionable insights. While it is true, virtually all companies need the 3-Ls, there are significant differences in what companies feel are mandatory for long-term success. Companies, which rely on high-speed, high-capacity Internet connectivity, will place that as a more important criterion in their investment decision process than companies that require a multi-modal transportation system might. The key is to understand your target audiences investment decision process as well as possible so you can differentiate the “must haves” from the “nice to haves”.
Say It Well
Even if you have a compelling story to tell a potential capital investor, if you tell it poorly it will never be heard. Your community’s message needs to be translated into a heart and mind opening campaign that is media neutral. I have written several posts on story telling that might be helpful to you –
To support telling a great story, you need a well-conceived and integrated communication plan. This plan identifies your tactical choices (e.g. website, trade shows, magazine advertising, public relations, etc.) for where you will tell your story. Key is to ensure you are telling it through channels your target audience uses to obtain information to help them decide which communities to include in their request for proposal short list. If your target audience doesn’t read a particular magazine, it doesn’t matter that the advertising space is offered to you at a 50% discount. It is still throwing good money down a hole.
Invest in Making Your Story Even Stronger
Be sure you have a long-term strategic plan in place to guide economic development in your community. The Plan should identify how you will create an even more compelling competitive advantage by further leveraging your point-of-difference. This is going to look like investing in infrastructure, creating new supporting assets, or public policy reforms that make the promised benefit easier to be realized. If you invest in improving the story, you always have news you can share that keeps your community’s story interesting.
Is there a silver bullet to help you better brand your community? NO, it unfortunately comes down to hard work. But, the good news is that it is possible if you approach the challenge in a strategic manner. A real challenge, not identified above, is the impact of public leadership change. For community branding, I think every community regardless of size should have a minimum 10-year strategic plan in place to guide their economic development. The challenge is that political timeframes tend to be measured in 4-year increments, so plans from one Administration have a hard time surviving the transition to a new Administration (even if it is the same political party). The solution, in my opinion, is for the private sector business leaders to lead the strategic planning process in communities. These leaders are used to long time horizon plans and have a vested interest in seeing choices on assets creation, infrastructure investment and public policy reform executed as planned. If you are an economic development professional, it is a good test to evaluate how deeply involved private sector leaders are in the strategic planning, review and deployment process. Lack of leadership involvement greatly increases the risk of failure.
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