Community Branding Explained

Often, half the challenge of master a subject is to have a common understanding of the lexicon. In economic development, there appears to be a significant degree of confusion around and misrepresentation of what a brand is and what branding entails. For the purposes of this book, the following definitions apply.

Brand

A brand is a promise. In the case of capital investment, it sets an expectation for what a CEO will experience if starting, expanding or relocating company operations to your community, region, state, or nation.

There are three success characteristics of great brands (promises).

  • Relevancy – The promise is meaningful to the CEO. You are offering something to help the business be even more successful than it might be otherwise. Typically this means you are rpomising something the business currently does not have, but wants.
  • Competitiveness – The promise focuses on a point of positive difference versus competitive location alternatives. It can be something the competition can’t deliver, something the competition offers but your location delivers more of, or something the competition offers but your location delivers it in a better way.
  • Authenticity – Your location can consistently deliver the promise. It is neither puffery or a misrepresentation of the facts.

As with any promise, the only two choices are to 1) keep it or 2) break it. While conceptually easy, consistently keeping a promise is challenging because the competition is constantly changing.

Branding

Branding is a strategic exercise focusing on three things.

  • Proactively managing the promise to ensure all three success characteristics remain valid.
  • Communicating the promise in a way that ensures awareness of, interest in, desire for and stimulates action to invest capital.
  • Ensuring consistent delivery of the promise at the relevant touch points to influence the capital investment decision outcome.

Marketing

Marketing is an activity of branding. Marketing focuses on communicating the promise and its benefits to a strategic target set of potential capital investors.

Selling

Sales is also an activity of branding. Sales focuses on communicating the promise to a specific person within the strategic target in a way that allows the person to understand and ideally experience the benefit of the promise before making a capital investment decision.

A Brand is not a Logo and Tagline

In my experience, economic development professionals, elected officials and many business leaders often define a brand as a logo and tag line. This misperception is highly problematic because the results of a community branding effort focused on creating a new logo and tag line is not sufficient to deliver what is really expected – capital/resident attraction, expansion and retention that leads to prosperity. The result is highly predictable.  Money is spent with Creative Agencies, for new letterhead, envelopes and signage carrying the new logo and tag line.  Everybody is excited and waits for improved results.  But, there ends up being no change in community’s economic fundamentals despite the money spent. Then somebody on the Leadership team reads an article that claims the principles of product and corporate branding cannot be applied to branding places. The article rationalizes the failure and everybody involved vows never to waste money on branding again.

The problem is not the decision to adopt place branding as a strategy.  The problem is a lack of understanding of what a brand and branding really is.  It is not an exercise to create a new logo and tagline.  That never works.

Can place branding work?

I am absolutely convinced the principles of product and corporate branding can be effectively reapplied to the branding of places. The tactics are certainly different, but the fundamental principles are not. The key to success is setting the right expectation at the start and ensuring the branding work is appropriately resourced for success.

Branding always requires two things – time and money. If you don’t have much time to communicate your place promise, it will take money to achieve a level of awareness and understanding that translates into measurable success.

In the U.S., I think the category promise for every community is to better enable residents to achieve their American Dream.  That is the promise all strategic decisions should be guided by.  Communities then differentiate on the unique set of assets, infrastructure and public policies/programs that deliver the category promise.  Typically, the point of difference will be on one or more interrelated dimensions of the American Dream where the community has a distinct competitive advantage.

What makes me so strong in my conviction?  I had first hand experience in leading the branding for Ohio.   We started started a comprehensive, proactive state branding effort in 2005. Marketing the Ohio brand started in late 2005. In 2006, Ohio won the prestigious Site Selection Magazine Governor’s Cup Award (a national, annual recognition for the state with the most new or expanded private-sector capital projects as tracked by Conway Data Inc.’s New Plant Database). Investment in marketing the Ohio brand was continued, and Ohio repeated by winning the Governor’s Cup Award in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.  In 2012, the state dramatically reduced investment in branding and has not won the Governor’s Cup since.  While these observational data do not rise to the confidence level of validated cause and effect, it is my belief the results are more than simply coincidental.

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