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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4 Comments so far

  1. Kevin O'Meara

    August 13, 2010


    Australia is a case study of tourism branding. Their most successful campaigns were driven by Paul Hogan. It was all about the ‘benefits’ of being in Australia, the lucky country. Hanging out with your mate Paul at his barbie enjoying the Aussie way of life while eating shrimp. Now they’ve moved the focus to features (outback, beach). Even Croc Dundee had to tell them they are getting it wrong.

  2. Susan P.

    August 14, 2010

    Hello Kevin,

    ‘Hoges’ campaign was run in 1984 and I agree it has been the most enduring and the most financially advantageous. The ROI was most positive!

    We’re had other campaigns since of course as you indicate The most notable two would be the “Where the Bloody Hell are You?” in 2006. A largely blown 180 million dollar campaign. Pilloried overseas and unpopular at home. Australians, in the main, disassociated with it.

    There’s also been the ‘Best Job in the World’. I’m not sure of the figures on this but I suspect it led to a positive growth in that region but perhaps not for Australia overall:

    This is an excellent overview of the structure of that campaign and of the platforms selected to run it:

    I think we’ve lost our way in terms of branding our country and need to use smart technology better PLUS get within the unique vibrancy of our national life. I’ve put a concept re this to a production company here actually. It’s frustrating to see campaigns largely recycling the same features over and over across 25 + years. The Best Job however was worthwhile to run because it did show the wildfire impact of media. This said, that has to be tempered with the fact that the employment conditions for the successful applicant was Rolls Royce standard. 🙂

  3. Susan P.

    August 14, 2010


    Another great article from you. Some comments…

    The issue of the new brand (your first bullet point). I’d like to offer some observations from my work over the past month or so.

    Many businesses are rushing into social media without a) a quick and clever analysis of their brand, as it stands, across the media/platforms where they currently exist online (and off).

    Quite often, there are critical issues of brand inconsistency. This can take various forms; literal on page ‘look’, discord re tone of presentation, confusing messages about strategic alliances, literal non-activity and so on.

    Some issues simply paint the business as not being very smart OR alert e.g. you look at a Twitter page and think…”no-one in the company ever looks at what this staff member is saying on the company Twitter page?!!!”

    So, once again, a brand review can save a lot and ensure strategies developed to expand online engagement move out seamlessly from said brand.

    The other issue I see are businesses having fallen behind the times in their online offering. Ten years ago they launched into a form of community site and whilst the structure might have made sense then, it doesn’t now, and may be both unnecessarily heavy and showing no real verve. Most online consumers/clients want to see ‘savvy’.

    You’re right Ed, it’s not always about ‘new brand’ at all but about a more common-sense redistribution and re-energising of what you already have.

    Love the distinction between brand image and brand identity!

    Your comments under tax dollars I absolutely agree with as already indicated.

    “Simple persistence” is interesting. One issue I often need to deal with, is explaining to execs just how much time is really required when working in social media.

    An analogy…we move into a new neighbourhood, or, we start a new job…and the wise thing to do – in order to forge longer term strong alliances – is to be pleasant and amenable but to not ask for too much too fast, or to presume too quickly and so on.

    In a similar light, building a strong community of brand followers and fans and developing strong social media brand engagement, takes time. Of course, some of you are in brands that are already much loved and…blessed you are! 🙂 Still, once again, an external commentary can be valuable.

    One question I would ask Ed, in terms of ‘brand America’ – have you asked what Americans themselves are saying about America?

    An important question I believe because, for the average person, the highest engagement with brand America is via TV and film and then the array of US folk on your Twitter follow or who you engage with on a specialist community etc. What are Americans telling ‘us’? There are simple Twitter tools etc to determine that of course.

    And then, what are outsiders saying about America?

  4. Michael S. Brown

    August 24, 2010

    This is an important topic, and I wanted to thank you for opening up the discussion. I’ve been involved for some time in talks about “place branding” for Columbus, Ohio. Based on these efforts and a recent story in the NY Times, we’ve seen a lot of local discussion on how to avoid major pitfalls and over the relevance of doing this work.

    Successful branding is simple, true and repeated for years to be meaningful. It is not a single slogan and it cannot be everything to everyone. Successful city branding requires many entities to share in the overall themes, but deliver them in diverse ways, some subtle, some overt.

    Having an image and telling a story does matter. Our City of Columbus stands ready to move into a higher level of economic competition, and we must make the most of upcoming opportunities like the Bicentennial in 2012 and Columbus 2020 business plan.

    Image affects businesses looking for recruits. It affects the Chamber when they try to bring in new companies. It affects travel and tourism (hospitality and leisure are 10% of the local economy, affecting some 62,000 jobs). It affects colleges and research facilities ability to get the best minds. It affects our ability to keep creative people building their lives and careers (or art, music, code, food, company, etc.). It impacts our civic pride and residents’ desire to get engaged in making Columbus a better place.

    Experience Columbus, our destination marketer, is on a mission – to make it easy and fun for thousands of visitors, fans, tourists and conventioneers to connect to Columbus’ hotels, events, arts, restaurants and services. We sell 400,000 hotel rooms a year and touch hundreds of thousands more people on visits. We are often talking to large groups planning 3-10 years in advance of a major conference or event, but also do tourism marketing to regional and national outlets. Many of the national story placements you read about Columbus neighborhoods or restaurants (or ice cream, an area in which we excell) are the result of the reporters Experience Columbus brings to town each year for tours. We are one part of the overall story-telling machine, and that’s why we are so interested in finding new and authentic ways of carrying forward the city’s image, through our Bicentennial in 2012 and beyond. We love the music and arts scene, we love our foodie adventurers, we love the folks bringing edgier energy to the urban heart of the city, but they are only one part of the whole Destination Columbus package.

    One of the toughest facts of it all is that, to be successful, we really need is for people to quit being so modest, believe in the thing they love about Columbus and then share it. A solid image can flow from word of mouth, based on what we already know is true and good about the community. As that may take some time, we must keep pushing for entities like the Chamber and Experience Columbus to have pieces of the story to promote to audiences who bring economic action to town. There are hundreds of groups we could be pitching with a focused message and larger budget – that fills hotel beds, sells tickets to events and shows, packs restaurants and boosts retail sales.

    This image and branding work benefits everyone. It helps us even more if residents, colleges and companies are proud and promoting similar, authentic themes about our city.

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