Successfully Managing The Place Branding Exercise

Ed BurghardDefining your community’s relevant, competitive and authentic brand promise is hard work. It is a combination of science and art. You have to have a solid process, you have to do the research, and it is a huge help to have a third-party interpret the data without a preexisting bias.

Too often, communities decide to initiate a branding exercise only to end up disappointed in the results. Typically, that is either because the exercise wasn’t adequately resourced, or the Agency hired to facilitate the process did not have appropriate skills to do so.

When the exercise is done correctly, the identified brand promise guides investment choices in both the community’s communication and development plans. It sets the strategic direction for the community to pursue economic prosperity and it transcends political Administration time frames.

I thought it might be helpful to share my observations on the process with you.

6 Power Questions

Before contracting anybody to help your community with its branding exercise, it is always good to get answers to these 6 questions. Share the answers with the Agency or consultant you hire as input into the process.

  • What is the story we currently tell about our community?
  • What is the story others tell about our community?
  • What is the story we want to tell about our community?
  • What is stopping us from telling that story?
  • Who do we want to tell that story to?
  • What is the best way to tell that story?

10 Lessons From The Trenches 

Not every Agency is equally skilled at branding. In fact, many creative Agencies approach the process the same way they would in creating a communication campaign and see little-to-no difference between the two exercises. Based upon my personal, practical, experience, here are 10 things I’d suggest are worth your thought and a discussion with your community leadership.

  • Branding takes time and money. No money? Expect it to take more time.
  • Branding requires the discipline to stay on strategic message.
  • Branding is about making a promise and ensuring the capital investor experience is always consistent with it.
  • Branding is not for amateurs. Consider having the exercise facilitated by a professional. Note, most small creative agencies are very poor at branding. However, there are some exceptions.
  • If an Agency starts the conversation by talking about How to communicate instead of What to communicate, don’t hire them.
  • Branding involves management of product performance and competitiveness.
  • Product improvement in place branding often requires public policy reform.
  • You only want to do the exercise once. Remember, it requires a lot of time and a significant investment.
  • If you don’t manage your place brand, the competition will.
  • Be choiceful in selecting your strategic target. Over extending your dollars is the kiss of death.

6 Thoughts For Leaders

If you are responsible for leading your community’s branding exercise, I offer my congratulations. You are about to take a great learning journey. Here are 6 inside tips you may find improve your odds of success.

  • Seriously consider hiring a professional branding Agency. It will be money well invested. You can let them go after their work is done and hire a local creative Agency for the deployment phase.
  • Build your Marketing capability. Branding is an apprenticeship craft. In this field, gray hair and a proven track record matter.
  • Don’t allow short-term political goals usurp your branding objectives. Remember, politicians will come and go.
  • Evaluate your branding and sales activities separately, and then evaluate them together. These need to be synergistic.
  • Be prepared for criticism. Because everybody is a consumer, everybody thinks they are the world’s best marketer. You can’t stop it.
  • Make data informed and principle based decisions. Don’t let personal opinions drive direction.

What Is Your Experience? 

If you have run a community branding exercise, please share your observations on what worked well and what didn’t work so well. If you work at an Agency, please share your thoughts on how to ensure a successful outcome. The more real world experience we can draw from, the more successful we will all be.

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11 Comments so far

  1. Stacey Black

    February 27, 2012

    Hi Ed –

    Just prior to my current position in municipal economic & business development development, I was working for the branding agency contracted to provide place branding services to my now employer – I couldn’t resist the unique opportunity to gain perspective from both sides! Based on my experience, I have the following general tips for whichever department is leading the effort internally…

    a) Do some basic research on the branding process and key success factors for optimizing the results – there are lots of free white papers like this one entitled “Place Branding in Practice” (, etc. on the web and inexpensive books like Branding for Dummies which, if you don’t get hung up on the title, is actually a very helpful resource!

    b) To ensure the kind of buy-in that is crucial to launching, living and sustaining your brand, be sure to engage key stakeholders and senior leadership within the organization early on – make sure they understand why the branding exercise is important and what the objectives and expected outcomes are – keep them informed and, ideally, excited throughout the process. The last thing you want is the rest of your organization thinking that “branding” is something isolated to your EBD Dept.

    c) Remember that your new visual identity (logos, etc.), although important, is only a small component of your brand. An item that deserves weighty consideration – and the importance of which should not be underestimated – is the potential work that may be required internally to transform your organization from where it is at the time the brand strategy (platform, promise, etc.) is established to where it needs to be to actually “live” that brand. If there is any sort of gap (and usually there is!) between your brand promise and where things are today – especially in terms of culture, you’ll need to be prepared to invest the time and resources required to begin the process of closing that gap. It’s not enough to tell employees how to “live” the brand. To successfully engage them, it’s important that they experience the brand first hand within the walls of your organizations on a day to day basis.

    Sorry for the lengthy response, this is a topic I could go on about all day….. 🙂


  2. Charles A. Barreras, Jr.

    February 27, 2012

    This is one of the very things that I have been taking a look at over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve had a few thoughts that I think need to be part of the overall process.

    First, a logo has to be a major part of it. Think about all the corporate logos you’ve seen over the years, and they all have one thing in common. They’re easily identifiable. They are the point of the spear of any brand. A good logo has to be part of any branding process. On first inspection, that might seem completely obvious, but you’d be surprised at the people who don’t think of it, or who think of it late in the process.

    The second thing is, a logo should be something that makes one think of whatever it is that you’re branding. Take, as an example, the Microsoft Windows logo. It has to mesh with the strategic plan, and it has to be about the image or vision that the brand is supposed to support.

    Third, creating a brand is trying to anticipate what image or thought process comes to mind when that potential customer or tourist sees the logo, thinks about the brand, and then identifies it with the destination or venue. It is a significant marketing tool, and one that must be wielded with skill. Treat it as such.

    And finally, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Don’t limit yourself to what’s already been done, or what might be a variation of what’s already been done. Try this, do a Google Search for the term “corporate logo” and then click on the “images” tab. You’ll get thousands of images, many of which show the transitions logos have made over the years. That should give you an idea of how a logo might fit into the overall branding process.

    It may seem as if all I’ve focused on is the logo, but without a good one, the brand is missing something important. It is a component, to be sure, but it is more like a foundation stone than a building block, at least to my way of thinking. Your mileage may vary.

    There are many other components that are part of the branding process so those I’ve mentioned are just a few thoughts on one aspect, to add to the discussion.

    Hope this helps.

  3. Lynn Renee

    February 28, 2012

    Lynn Renee • Hi, all. History repeats itself: branding livestock (cattle, horses, etc) proved a quick way to figure out who owned what. That brand marked more than a critter: it carried the reputation of the ranch/outfit with it. Along with that the integrity of owners, partners, families,managers and cowhands. Arguably, the first logos?

    Funny how even then, the “unscrupulous” could add a squiggly line, half circle, whatever and suddenly add to their herd. Much like the brand confusion that gets created when one tries to “look like” someone else…or pass for someone else. Stealing customers, stealing cows…all about integrity as well as profits. Much different that earning, winning, buying customers through hard work, “smartz” and dedication.

    Any thoughts on techno-smuggling?

    Lynn Renee

  4. Lisa Davol

    February 28, 2012

    Great points, and if it is a whole community to be branded, it’s important to have stakeholders in the community – in addition to stakeholders in the org initiating the branding – be involved. In my experience, successful asset based place brands are those that just need to be articulated rather than invented.

  5. Chris Manheim

    March 1, 2012

    Manufacturing is definitely in a renaissance, but needs skilled workers. Working on behalf of the schools and, I see the needs first hand. Here’s a link to an article in today’s Chicago Tribune.–20120226,0,5801641.story.

  6. Ashley K. Long

    March 1, 2012

    Make sure to consider the creative, commercial, and legal implications of your brand. Being cognizant of the interplay between these factors will elevate your brand’s success.

  7. Ben Teague

    March 3, 2012

    This is my response to a comment left on the Linked in Economic Development 2.0
    The comment suggested that a community needs a completed marketing plan before embarking on a branding process.

    “Just a thought of asking an EDA to have a fully developed marketing plan before they pursue a brand. I would think a brand is reflective of who the community is at the core. I think communities should have an idea of their greater brand before they even start a marketing plan.”

    I would also disagree that a logo is a major part of a place branding effort. I would suggest that a logo in the very very tip of an iceberg. I would think of policy, clusters of competency, culture etc…before a logo as a representation of my community brand.

  8. Andy Hill

    March 7, 2012

    Managing the brand expectation versus the brand reality

  9. […] I’m often asked about how you determine what the right promise is. After all, a product, company or community can promise many things. How do you figure out what the right thing to promise is? […]

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