This article was originally published by Biz Voice in 2007 as an article in their Expert Series. I thought it might be worth reprising and updating the article to reflect what I have learned in the four years following. Surprisingly, the tenets are pretty timeless and just as true today as when I originally authored them. But, I have gained perspective since I wrote the original article, so I have updated the explanations underpinning the tips. I hope you find this rewrite helpful in your journey to identifying your community’s authentic brand promise.
I started the article off with a definition of place branding. At the time I remember being intrigued with the idea that a sub-set of branding existed to describe what I was trying to accomplish in branding the state of Ohio. I defined place branding as a strategy to position a location (or “place”) so it can effectively compete for capital investment. Since 2007, I have come to understand that there are actually a number of terms that are used in the industry to describe place branding. It is sometimes called nation branding, city branding, Regional branding, community branding or destination branding (not an exhaustive list). This is important if you are looking to use Google to learn more about the subject. I now find that I search all the listed terms to ensure I don’t miss something important. The definition I used in 2007 is still valid today. However, now I differentiate between place marketing and place branding. I describe place marketing as managing the image of a place. It focuses on “what is true today”. I describe place branding as managing the desired identity of a place. It focuses on “what needs to be true tomorrow”. As a consequence, when I lecture on place branding, in addition to marketing I also speak about long term strategic planning focused on place improvement (asset creation, infrastructure investment, public policy reform).
7 Tips For Success
My guess is you will find this list consistent with your experience. But sometimes, a reminder of what matters can be helpful in assigning the appropriate priorities to your workload, or illuminating a missing link you simply forgot to include.
Create a Team of Trusted Advisors
You can certainly hire consultants to help guide you through a branding process. Now that I am one, I feel obligated to state the obvious. If you select the right consultant and have an appropriate budget, this can be a very smart way to go. It will dramatically increase the odds that your place branding exercise will be a success. Hire the wrong one, and you end up with a logo and tagline for your money. That is like buying a new pair of golf gloves and expecting to shave strokes off your score. Inevitably you will be disappointed and your community leadership will lose faith in your abilities. But, many times you simply do not have the budget to hire the quality of consultant required to help you define your place brand. Don’t give up. Instead, reach out to the private companies in your community and recruit an advisory team of Corporate Marketing Officers or proven successful brand managers. It won’t take them long to align on a process and the results will be well worth the extra time you’ll invest in managing the team. In addition, you may get a head start in aligning your private sector leadership since the Advisory Team will have instant credibility within the Companies they represent.
Enroll Business Community thought Leaders as Ambassadors
Market research consistently reaffirms the importance of peer perspective when a CEO is trying to develop a short list of location options to take into the due diligence phase. My own experience suggests most of the executives in your community will be interested in helping as long as they know what help looks like. Enroll them early in your place branding process and keep them informed along the way. Use them as a sounding board when you are at one of many decision points in the process and having an executive perspective is important to making the right choice. You can also use their knowledge of the broader private sector leadership in your community to identify CEOs that may need additional convincing that the process outcome is worth supporting.
Focus on a Few Industries and Do the Job Well
A brand is a promise. It sets an expectation of an experience. It needs to be relevant, competitive and authentic. But it can’t be everything plus the proverbial kitchen sink. If it is, it will not be differentiating or meaningful. Starting too broadly is often a recipe for disaster. You end up with a promise that represents the group consensus (what I often call the least common denominator solution). Nobody in your community will be upset with the promise. But, nobody will be inspired either. And if it doesn’t inspire the leadership already doing business in your community, it certainly won’t inspire CEOs you are trying to attract to your community. Narrow your focus to the strategic target of industries that currently represent the majority of employment and economic contribution to your community, and include one emerging industry you really feel has the potential to be a future driver of your local economy. Make certain the brand inspires that set of CEOs and does not alienate the remainder. You will find, if it is really right for that strategic target it will generally be right enough for the balance of industries in your community. This is a case where narrowing the target helps simplify the process and increase your odds of success.
Get to Know Industry Experts in the Business Community
Once you’ve identified the industries you are going to focus on, go talk to the executives in those companies. Learn everything you can about what they find uniquely valuable about doing business from your community. Learn what they see attractive in other communities not available in yours. Also, learn about the future trends that either represents business growth opportunity for the company or a threat to continued success. Equally important, learn their language. This will be exceptionally valuable when it comes time to communicate your community brand promise.
Translate Location Assets Into Business Benefits
There is an old saying “features tell and benefits sell”. Yet, most economic development communication is still feature focused. How many times have you read or heard the competition say – “Our community is within a days drive of 60% of the population”? Maybe you have even said it yourself. Proximity to customers is a feature. The benefit is lower total delivered cost of goods, which in turn will improve unit margin. If you assume the executive will automatically translate the feature into a benefit, you will be wrong more often than right. It isn’t an issue of whether the executive is capable of translating it. It is an issue of whether the executive is willing to work that hard at doing your job for you. Most are unwilling and the translation simply doesn’t happen. As a fun challenge, take a random sell sheet used in your organization and highlight the main claims. Are they written in feature or benefit language?
Partner With Other Communities to be More Competitive
Regional partnerships are not just a nice thing to do. Regional partnerships can be smart business. Whenever you can amortize costs across a base of collaborators without sacrificing your brand competitiveness, it only makes sense to do so. Co-branding and co-promotion are common practices in the private sector because combined both partners make more profit than they would alone. In economic development, there are a number of tactics where going alone isn’t necessary and collaboration is not only more efficient, but also more effective. Trade shows are a great example. Why bare the cost of attendance and exhibiting alone? Consider a collaborative approach to creating attention and interest in your Region. Share that cost and then reinvest the budget savings in becoming even more competitive in converting leads (e.g. underwrite more site visits).
Provide Adequate Support for the Project
Branding takes time and cost money. Doing it poorly erodes the trust of your private and public sector leadership in your ability and poisons the well for another attempt until the bad memories fade. My best counsel is that if you don’t have the funding or time to do the exercise well, postpone starting it. Your community and your Organization will be better served if you invest your limited budget in creating a competitively superior sales effort.
Picking the right consultant is key to the success of any branding effort. In my professional opinion there is a wide range of quality in the market and sometimes it is hard to judge good from bad. Always take the time to create a short list to consider inviting to respond to an RFP. It is okay to have an open call for proposals, but definitely invite a short list to participate as well. Thoroughly vet anybody you are seriously considering to award the project to. Ultimately, it is your credibility and the trust relationship you have with your community leadership that are on the line. Talk to previous clients and ask specifically 1) how the consultant handled conflict and 2) what the results to date have been. Branding is as much an art as it is a science. This is a field where expertise and experience matters. Great brand builders have learned their craft by going through a hands-on apprenticeship. They have learned from both successes and failures. You don’t want to be the next failure in their education. If you are about to engage in a place branding process and would like my input on consultants you should be aware of, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). In the spirit of full disclosure, I commit to you the list will be short and will not include my name.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Have you had a positive or negative experience you can share? Any tips you picked up along the way? Any recommendations of consultants you have used to facilitate your community’s branding process that you felt did a great job (if yes, please include a link to their website in your comment)?
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