Interview with Ed Roach – Corporate Branding Expert
Ed Roach is an author and a corporate branding expert. He is also a prolific blogger and extremely generous with his knowledge. I was first exposed to Ed when I found his website. I loved his quote "After 25 years, I am still excited about helping companies discover what differentiates them." Since then, I have come to respect Ed’s depth of marketing mastery and practical experience. I knew Ed’s insight would provide a valuable perspective for any economic development professional thinking about initiating or in the process of managing a place branding effort. I think after you read the interview you will agree with me that Ed is an outstanding source of place branding knowledge. And best of all, like me Ed is a Mac guy!
- Question: I am often asked by small communities that have limited budgets if place branding is a strategic tactic that should be explored to help accelerate job growth and economic vitality. Based on your experience, what perspective would you offer?
I guess first off, I’d have to correct their calling place branding a "strategic tactic," as this implies that it is a short-term application. I recognize that place branding carries with it a certain amount of politics, and that said, there is a pre-disposition to finding a quick fix to a very complex problem. The attitude is a symptom of a keen misunderstanding of just what their brand is. They are essentially equating branding with advertising, in that all they have to do is implement a basic strategy and appreciate measurable results in a speedy time frame. They don’t recognize that their brand is essentially their reputation. If that reputation is a negative one, it must be determined what the negatives are and address the root of the problem first, before trying to change perceptions. You can’t advertise the problems away – you have to walk the talk.
Communities will have to understand their existing brands first BEFORE they can hope to develop a stronger more powerful brand to carry them into their foreseeable future. This involves brand research that will flag brand issues and reveal elements that must be addressed as part of the continuing solution. They should hire a branding professional to facilitate this effort. This is ideal as these individuals have a creative instinct and a proven process that will yield an effective strategy. Failing that, if a community has very little resources to finance the process, then they might consider hiring a professional to provide them with an outline to follow – so that they might do it themselves. Later, bring the consultant back in at pre-determined points to draw out solutions.
Their branding team should determine what the goals are and how the solutions will be gaged to validate their successes and reveal their shortcomings. Communities have to understand that branding is a long-term, ongoing, all encompassing process involving all stake holders. Much of the effort is keeping everyone on-brand and living the values, personality and message consistently.
- Question: Not every place branding exercise is a success. Failure results in a loss of public and private sector leadership confidence that place branding is worth investing in. What are the most common reasons you see for such failures?
I would suggest that one of the key reasons a branding process might fail is a lack of buy-in from stake holders. If the branding team isn’t built properly (size and structure), it will actually run into a brick wall at the roll-out stage. A strategy to building an effective team is to involve the wrenches among your stake holders. These are individuals who, while seen as leaders or people with strong opinions, are the ones who throw monkey wrenches into otherwise, valuable exercises (after the fact), sabotaging team efforts. Including them in the process, makes them part of the solution. They stop being wrenches and become vocal advocates for the new brand positioning.
Other reasons for failure are weak points of differentiation – more slogans than effective positioning and a lack of will to change negative root causes of a tired brand.
- Question: Ed, you have a lot of experience in managing processes to deliver brand differentiation. Would you recommend a small community attempt the exercise by themselves or should they hire a branding professional? What are the pros and cons of each approach?
Because it is a process, a community could definitely go it alone if they choose to. Of course, they would need documentation of a process to follow. Their branding team could form a sub-committee to handle this task or just pay a branding professional who is willing to share with them a path to follow, saving them a great deal of research.
As I suggested earlier, the team would be wise to get professional help at key junctions in the process to shore up efforts and help the team dig out that very important positioning strategy. One other thing to consider is having an "independent" facilitator involved to get to the root of issues quickly and without prejudice. I can’t honestly recommend that a community go it entirely alone. An honest mix of do-it-yourself and professional assistance would certainly work and provide reasonable savings that would allow small communities to enjoy the benefits of focusing their brands.
The only con would be if a community did it entirely alone, I believe they would overlook crucial opportunities that an experienced facilitator would bring to the table.
- Question: In your opinion, how important is it for economic development professionals to better understand place branding as a strategic option?
If economic development professionals were to understand that their community’s brand is their reputation in the world, and if that reputation is a barrier to meeting their economic goals, then fundamental causes will have to occur in order for their brand perception to change. It is not hard to understand the economic pitfalls of luring potential investors to a community whose promotional efforts are at odds with its reality. Putting lipstick on a pig will never bring home the bacon.
Place branding addresses the pitfalls head-on and develops solutions that exploit positive and marketable points of differentiation. All based on investing in a "new and improved" reality.
- Question: Given your broad exposure, what communities seem to be doing the best job of applying place branding for economic growth? I recognize you can’t list them all, so how about a couple cases you’ve been impressed by and why?
There are a couple of cases that have caught my attention. One I like was facilitated by the Derrick Daye at The Blake Project for Bangkok, Thailand.
Bangkok, Thailand has for many years now been the "go to" location for clothing manufacturing. Apparently, it is a well-known fact among the world’s fashionista, that Bangkok is the source location for most of the top fashion houses. Where Milan is the fashion capital for design, Bangkok is taking itself forward as the "Fashion Capital" for manufacturing. Derrick explains that this is the positioning of the economic development segment of the Bangkok brand. Knowing their market was fashion houses, and wanting to grow that industry even more, Bangkok took a leadership role, by branding itself as the Fashion Capital. To it’s demographic, this boast was not only credible but deserving.
Another bold branding effort is for Detroit. The D.
Detroit, Michigan has over its history faced many challenges. Perceptions are hard to break, and Detroit has more than its share of negatives that it is working hard to dispel. The brand strategy was developed and rolled out to all stake holders including tourism, economic development, and the business community generally. Centered around an industrial icon depicting a metalized "D" on a brushed metal plaque. The D’s aim is create a positive tone and feeling about Detroit. The theme was rolled out first into the community to get an early buy-in. Living so close to Detroit, I felt that the D did represent Detroit: cars, culture, gaming, music and sport. I also saw it as a symbol of strength. Detroit is a culturally diverse, urban, and edgy community – a brand to be proud of.
Both cities appear to have embraced their brand and are putting infrastructure in place to reinforce the positive attributes of it. Challenges will come and go, but a strong positive brand will help communities weather the storms and revitalize their economic engines.