Place Brand Identity Versus Place Brand Image

One of the challenges with branding is in understanding the terminology.  The words don’t always make sense.  Often you may ask your advertising or design Agency to do one thing and end up getting something you don’t want simply because you used the wrong term.

Identity and image are two terms that are often confused with disastrous results.

One of the best, and simplest, definitions I have found is from the Reel Life Wisdom website.  The authors define identity as who you are, and image as how you are viewed by others.

While it may sound like nothing more than semantics, to a marketer (and your advertising or design agency) the differences between the two concepts have very important strategic implications.  It is important you understand the differences so you avoid miscommunication.

Your place image is how your target audience thinks about your location.  It has to do with the associations they have stored in their brain about your community.  These associations have been established from a number of sources and may or may not be accurate.  Even image is hard to get a handle on because it depends on the target group you are talking about. For example, the image of your community among residents is highly likely to be different than the image among non-residents.  In fact, you may or may not be surprised to learn for many capital investors they have no specific image of your location.  The only association in their mind may be what the image of your state or their image of America.

Think about personal branding and this becomes even easier to imagine.  Your image among friends and family may be different than your image at work. Draw a 50-mile radius around your home, the people outside of that radius may have no image of you personally and only associate you with their perception of your town.  Fly to China.  I bet you won’t be too surprised to discover your image among Chinese citizens is defined solely on the associations they have in their mind about Americans.

Establishing your place image is primarily a sales and marketing challenge.  It is about communicating messages that shape how your location is perceived.  When you are discussing image with your agency, expect he output to typically be a place marketing and/or communications plan.

Identity is very different.  Identity is what your location really is.  It can be very different than how your location is perceived.  Identity includes the assets and regulations of your place as well as the attitudes of your residents.  Identity is all about an objective look in the mirror.

Most economic development professionals cannot get by their personal image of a location to see the true identity.  This raises challenges. If you cannot objectively assess your location as it really, then you cannot effectively create a strategic plan to improve your place identity.  An identity improvement plan will include an assessment of required public policy reform and capital investment in both infrastructure and asset creation.

Understanding and internalizing your place identity is tough work.  Again, think about it from a personal branding perspective.  How hard is it to objectively look at yourself and really see your strengths and flat spots?  Many people are never able to do this.  They believe they are better than people give them credit for.  They find so many faults in their image that they never see their true identity.  As a result, they never achieve their full personal potential.  I am certain you can think of a few people you know that are clueless of their identity.

Places are the same.  Many leaders and residents cannot objectively assess their place identity.  As a consequence, they cannot engage in a meaningful conversation on what the future place identity should be.  Without a clear vision on how to improve a place, it is extremely difficult to develop an effective strategic capital investment and legislative reform plan to achieve a location’s full economic potential.

Working on your place identity involves asset evaluation, visioning and gap analysis.  It is primarily a leadership challenge.  The output is a long-term strategic plan to guide public policy reform and capital investment.

Both image and identity are important for place branding success.  They are both an essential part of a robust place branding process.

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Category Image, Place Brand Building

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18 Comments so far

  1. Brad Snyder

    May 13, 2009

    Great post Ed, you are spot-on about the importance of distinguishing the difference between image and identity. It seems all to often that locations don’t pursue both, but rather they think slick branding will change who they are or that policy changes will magically change everyone’s perception of them.

    The majority of your example focused on a location knowing their image and not knowing their true identity. As a location brand analyst, I wonder how often the opposite is the case, where location officials know their real identity and not actually know the image others have of them?

  2. […] that may not be desirable. Instead, it is important to set a clear vision for what you want the community identity to be and take steps to ensure the vision does not change through the transformation. In this way, […]

  3. […] Sales and Marketing leverage your place image – the authentic benefits your location can deliver. The focus is on communicating “what […]

  4. […] benefit from the recent availability of skilled labor? What changes can you make to strengthen the identity of your community (asset creation, infrastructure improvement, public policy reform) so it is […]

  5. […] require persistence and patience.  But along the way you will be dramatically strengthening your community image.  You’ll also become an even better […]

  6. […] Jersey are saying what New Jersey is like. We think the people who live here should define it.” Brand image is what others think about your community. Brand identity is how you want your community to be […]

  7. […] most appropriate measure of success is a positive impact on the perception of your community and an increased willingness to learn more. You need to determine if that outcome […]

  8. […] Place Identity Versus Place Brand Image […]

  9. […]   […]

  10. Chris Manheim

    December 28, 2012

    Ed, very good question. Having helped design a couple of community image campaigns, identity and image are seen differently by the outside world and community residents.

  11. Bill Baker

    January 2, 2013

    This is a subject that I also tackled last year.

    These are terms that are often misunderstood.

    Strong brands are built on trust. There must be alignment between what the brand promises and the reality of the actual experience. If the two are out of sync the brand will not be sustainable unless there are plans – and resources – to bridge the gap. In the case of a city, if its performance is of a high standard and its image is bad or non-existent, then it has a deficient brand strategy and may need increased or more accurate communications.

    Place brand managers must constantly monitor customer satisfaction and “test drive” the services and experiences in their own city to ensure that the image matches the reality and is aligned with the promises that they are making.

  12. Ed Burghard

    January 2, 2013

    Bill – Great perspective. You consistently add value to conversations. I would encourage anybody looking to brand their community reach out to you directly for counsel.

  13. […] is all about proactively managing your community’s identity.  It is important to appreciate the difference between image and identity.  Your image is how your target audience perceives your location.  Your identity is what your […]

  14. Glenn Myatt

    January 6, 2013

    This actually opens up something of a minefield for place brand management.

    A place’s ‘brand identity’ is a fundamental strategic decision, but like all strategy demands choices and tradeoffs. This is often not recognised by place brand stakeholders who often believe their own perspectives to be the ‘truth’; even thought the reality is places are typically far more multi-dimensional than regular consumer brands.

    So as thought starters here are a few of the basic questions that need to be asked in developing identity include:

    Which aspect of a place is most important to it (e.g. tourism, investment, residency, etc).

    Which stakeholders have the most informed views on this (bearing in mind these will probably still differ)?

    Who is the key target or targets and what is the image they hold of the place? And if the target’s image is based on first hand experience – and positive – is that image more valid than some wished for brand identity?

    Further, if there are multiple targets (as is the case for a destination being marketed in several different countries) is single, common brand identity likely to be effective in appealling to all of them or is there a case for variations on a core identity or even multiple identities?

  15. Ed Burghard

    January 6, 2013

    Glenn – Great comment! Thank you for the thoughtfulness.

  16. David Andrews

    January 8, 2013

    Rajendhra well put and something that most destination marketing people forget (one or even both sides of coin). Identity is what you are – and in terms of Destinations often relates to the product (and the lack of focus on it). Image is what people perceive (and may not be reality) but you must focus on what the customer perception (and not what you think they perceive). Destination strategies often only put lip service to identity and often focus on image. The danger is of course the promise of the marketing image may not live up to the identity and the customer expectations are not met!

  17. […] Place Brand Identity Versus Place Brand Image […]

  18. […] desired identity.  You can ;earn more about these concepts by reading my blog post entitled “Place Brand Identity versus Place Brand Image”.  Understanding these terms are important to you community’s barbing […]

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