Authenticity – A Critical Element of Place Branding

In my presentation “Baldknobbers & Branding”, I suggest there are three pillars to a successful place brand – relevance, competitiveness and authenticity.

I recently read a summary of the book “Personality Not included” authored by Rohit Bhargava. It is a fascinating read on why companies lose their authenticity and how they get it back. Here are my thoughts on how to reapply Rohit’s principles so you can ensure your community promise retains its authenticity.

  1. Define a credible heritage. All places have a history and a unique character. Sharing the history of your place in a way that helps potential capital investors understand how your community culture evolved is a very powerful way to begin making an emotional connection. It helps the capital investor see your location through a different lens and encourages the evaluation to move beyond the financial and asset presentation of the RFP submission. It is important that a capital investor creates a “feel” for your community and a sense of how it can connect with their company culture. With few exceptions, at the end of the evaluation process, the capital investor will generally have 2 – 3 location options that adequately meet the minimum decision criteria of what good looks like for their project. One of the differentiating intangibles is the “sense of place” a capital investor develops for your location. Telling the story of your place helps provide important context for the capital investor to understand the culture of your community and its citizens, and create that “sense of place”. Consider identifying the credible storytellers in your community and finding a practical way to involve them in your place selling process. The richness and memorability of their stories will help you differentiate your community. These are the types of engagements that create both powerful impressions and emotional connections.
  2. Demonstrate passion and belief. Passion for your place cannot be faked. Potential capital investors can easily recognize disingenuous rhetoric. You, and the people you involve in your selling process, must believe in your community as a great place to work and live. You should be objective and forthcoming about shortcomings versus a capital investors project criteria, but not apologetic. Your non-verbal cues often speak louder than your words and will leave an imprint on how the capital investor thinks about your community. To foster a strong sense of passion it is important to constantly communicate with the people in your selling process so they are aware of the positive news in your community. Otherwise their impressions will be shaped by your local media and may not be as balanced as you would like. If you assess the attitude of the people in your process as “glass half empty”, then you have to find a way to change it to “glass half full”. As the saying goes, your attitude will determine your altitude.
  3. Foster individuals instead of people. Authentic brands have individuals working for them who are passionate for and believe in the brand. You need to ensure that everybody working to promote your location believes deeply in it and wears their passion on their sleeve. If a potential capital investor feels the people promoting your community are not personally passionate about it, then they will see no reason to be passionate about it either. Find the individuals who have both the skills and passion needed to represent your place and enroll them in your process. If you have people currently involved who are not evangelistic about your community, then just maybe (as Jim Collins might say), you have the wrong people on the bus.
  4. Have motives beyond financial. Your community is not a smart investment choice for every capital project, and sometimes losing a potential deal is really a win. Sound economic development is about creating a long-term partnership so both the community and company can grow and prosper together. It should be a partnership, and not a landlord – tenant relationship. Stephen Covey talks about creating win:win solutions. But, he also suggests that “no agreement” is an acceptable outcome. If there is not a good fit between the company and your community, “no agreement” can be a blessing in disguise. Forcing a bad match with excessive incentive dollars will only mask the fact it is not a good fit. Despite winning the deal, you will have created a lose:lose outcome. It will only be a matter of time before the company management reaches the same conclusion and decides to relocate. Then the community suffers from loss of both revenue and jobs. It is better to recognize a bad fit early in the process and celebrate a “no agreement” outcome. You should be highly selective in deciding which companies you invite to join your community. And, you should do everything possible to become a strong, supportive partner with those that do.

Authenticity requires a community to be self-aware and have a realistic self-image. It is about consistently being principle driven and investing in building strong public:private partnerships. It is about recognizing that creating the future for your community is a team sport requiring strong and productive collaboration across a number of mission critical constituencies. It means you must “walk the talk”.

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9 Comments so far

  1. Scott Bain

    December 15, 2009

    I have read this article and I easily come away with ‘passion cannot be faked’. Selling an idea or potential can many times come across as rhetoric if your not Authentic in a business relationship.
    Another suitable article worth mentioning comes from on how a new style of management – trust and transparency trumps ambition and vision. While the latter is still essential, the workplace wants authentic leadership.

  2. Nic

    December 15, 2009

    He’s some thinking on this subject:

    And here’s another place rendering the walk:

    Well wishes all

  3. Peter Lanc F.C.I.P.D.

    December 15, 2009

    Authenticity as De Pree would put it is a matter of the heart. So as a result we need to dig deep into the heart and soul and that bottomless pit called “character” We also need to keep our promises and walk the talk.

  4. Daniel Lyons

    December 15, 2009

    Hi Ed, completely agree that authenticity is coming of age, but…

    I would urge that we try to see the call for authenticity more broadly, both as a call from customers to companies, and as a call from employees to their employers. A call from both to do one simple thing… to do what you say you will do.

    When the start point is the “power of authenticity” in the way you describe, we need to be careful, as it could sound too much like the old way of doing things dressed up in a new coat, simply replacing the adjectives or nouns with words like “authentic” instead of “leader”, or “greenest” instead of “fastest”…

    What do you think?!…

  5. Peter Lanc F.C.I.P.D.

    December 15, 2009

    Where have all the “courageous visionaries gone” When many work on process and systems are we missing the real need to change behavior and culture. What about the esprit de corps? Is that not the way to turn an economy around?

  6. Ron Stack

    December 15, 2009

    Very good post.

    We recently posted on similar subject on Zavee Thinking.

  7. Todd

    December 17, 2009

    Love the post Ed – one thing in particular really stands out to me, whether you’re talking about people representing a city or leaders representing a company: passion. Here’s a controversial statement – people with passion for what they do are more important for your organization (or city) than people with amazing skills at their job. Here’s why – when people have passion, others feel – quite literally – the authenticity. Emotions become the basis of connection more than simple logic. When people feel emotionally connected to you and what you do, they will move mountains for you – even when doing so might be logically very difficult. That’s why most successful change agents have lots of genuine passion. The moral of the story for organizations is to find and leverage your honest zealots! For you as an individual it means you must keep searching until you find a good enough “fit” that allows you to experience honest passion. Your readers can always find more on these soft side topics at Thanks for the post – keep up the good work!

  8. Rohit

    December 26, 2009

    Hi Ed,
    Thanks for mentioning my book and for this great post. I completely agree with you about the importance for authenticity when it comes to places and your thoughts on strengthening Brand America are spot on. I also loved your post exploring whether place branding works (I believe, like you, that it does). Here’s to hoping we see more adoption of these principles across the country to help America prepare for the future and good luck in your mission to help individual locations to do just that.

    All the best,

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