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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