USA Today Talks About Place Branding

There is an old saying I learned early in my career – “Features tell and Benefits sell”. It is one of those Mad Men type concepts that sticks with you and comes to mind periodically as a reminder to see your community through the eyes of others rather then just your own.

Recently, USA Today ran an article about place branding for tourist attraction that reflexively reminded me of the saying. The article was titled “Seeking tourists, states try to recast their image”.

Overall, it was great to see the topic of place branding covered in the national media. I think it is an important subject (but, I am obviously biased), and the more we can learn how to effectively reapply the principles of successful product and corporate branding to the branding of places, the stronger Brand America will become as a consequence.

To ensure full value from the article, I thought I’d take a moment to offer my thoughts on a couple of editorial points the author made.

  • “Sometimes a crisis demands a new brand.” I don’t share this point of view. I believe a brand is a promise. It needs to be relevant, competitive and authentic. Your community’s brand is the promise of what will be experienced if somebody selects your location over another either to live and work or simply to visit. A strong brand protects a community from the downside risk of a crisis. Johnson & Johnson made a significant investment to create the Tylonel brand as a trusted product. The strength of the Tylonel brand helped Johnson & Johnson work through the crisis of malicious tampering. Toyota has taken it on the chin recently with allegations of poor design quality. But, Toyota has invested years in establishing their brand as a reliable, high-quality product. The strength of their brand is helping the company weather the storm, and most recently the data is reaffirming the authenticity of Toyota’s brand promise. These are just two examples of a brand being a shield against adversity. I would say a weak brand is never acceptable and a crisis will simply serve to highlight its deficiency. If your community brand is weak, don’t wait for a crisis to demand a new brand. Work to identify a strong brand now. Make certain to focus your community promise on the benefit(s) of selecting your community. For additional perspective read this.
  • “Everybody except people from New 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 perceived. It is very important to know what both your target and citizens are saying about your community. You need to see it through their eyes to understand the misperceptions that might exist in their minds. Then you need to decide which, if any, are strategically important enough to invest in correcting. On the other hand, you want to listen to your citizens to define your community’s identity; the real essence of what makes your location a desirable place to live, work and/or visit. Your citizens know what the authentic experience is, strangers don’t.  Your job is to listen hard, interpret, and articulate it in a heart and mind opening way.
  • “It’s a waste of tax dollars.” Unquestionably, poor community branding is certainly a waste of both public and private investment. And, unfortunately, there is a lot of poor community branding being practiced. These communities are definitely not getting an acceptable ROI. But, does place branding work? Actually, yes it does if done correctly. And, it actually requires very few incremental new jobs to payout the investment. To prove the point to yourself, I encourage you to have your favorite economist estimate the number of incremental jobs to achieve break-even for every $1 million of promotional spend. I bet you will be amazed at how low the hurdle is.

  • “Sometimes a successful branding campaign is the product of simple persistence.” Reach and frequency are both important aspects of a successful campaign. But, if the story you tell about your community is not relevant, competitive and authentic, it doesn’t matter how loud or consistently you tell it. Your message will fall on deaf ears. Great campaigns are created around a unique insight that comes from a deep understanding of your target audience needs, wants and desires. If you have an ineffective campaign, don’t keep investing with the hope that repetition will make it magically better. If you ever consider doing so, remember Forest Gump’s advice“Stupid is as stupid does”. I would encourage you instead to stop investing immediately and fix your campaign.

One thing I really liked about the article was the focus on importance of emotion in community branding. People decide with their heart and rationalize the decision with their brain. Great community brands strike the heartstrings of your citizens and people outside your community. Great brands are aspirational and make a promise that people want.

“I get goose bumps, I started to cry.”

“It stops me in my tracks. I remember when I was a kid. It makes me want to go back.”

“It started as an ad campaign and became a rallying cry for the state we love.”

It’s been my experience, when you capture the authentic brand essence, real magic can happen. By arousing the heart, you waken a lot of emotions that can translate into a desire to invest in your community. Kevin Roberts (CEO Saatchi & Saatchi, a global branding agency) describes brands that get it really right as Lovemarks.

In my opinion, if you effectively brand your community, you will discover that more people get goose bumps when they hear your story. You will also easily pay out the financial investment by generating incremental jobs and improving economic prosperity.

To learn more about how to effectively brand your community, visit the HOW TO EXECUTE section of this website.

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