Right Tool For The Right Job


You contract with a Place Branding Agency to help you determine the best way to position your community with CEOs so you can attract more capital investment opportunities. They recommend you invest in qualitative concept research and develop three positioning statements to evaluate. One concept positions your community as having a highly skilled labor pool, another as business-friendly (defined as low tax rate and reasonable regulations), and the third positions your community as a location in close proximity to major markets. With your approval, the Agency conducts interviews with 50 executives from a random set of companies that do not have operations in your community. The outcome of the research suggests none of the concepts are particularly differentiating. However a couple of executive comments suggest executives tend to gravitate toward looking at locations where “the action is”. The Agency has presented the findings of the research to you and they are now recommending you position your community as a location where “innovation is happening”.


Reject the Agency’s recommendation! If you accept it you will walk down a path that will cost significant dollars and fail to deliver the results you are looking for. On the other hand, the Agency will be pleased because you are spending that money with them. And, the Agency knows at the end of the exercise they will provide you with an advertising campaign that plays to your community leadership’s ego so everybody feels good. Unfortunately, if you are accountable for attracting capital investment you know that feeling good and delivering real results are not necessarily the same thing.

The fundamental issue in the above scenario (which I see played out far more often than it should be) is that the community’s brand promise is not clearly understood. The right course of action is to take two steps back and ensure you have a clearly articulated brand promise that is relevant, competitive and authentic.

Brand Promise Market Research

Determining your community’s brand promise is not as difficult as it may seem at first (or as complex as an Agency would want you to believe).

It starts with a clear understanding of the decision criteria for making a capital investment. This helps you focus on how your community addresses the key decision drivers. Your community offers so many things that focusing on the most important to drive investment consideration is absolutely critical to the exercise.

Then you need to talk with the executives who know your community the best. These are the executives who actually do business from your community. In the consumer package goods world, this cohort would be described as your “heavy users”. These are the executives who are in the best position to tell you why doing business in your community makes sense. They are also in a position to tell you how to strengthen the attractiveness of your community for capital investment if you are genuinely willing to listen. In my opinion, it is a mistake to ask executives who do not do business from your community for their opinion. They have no real basis to form an opinion from. What you can learn from these executives is 1) their ideal location choice characteristics, and 2) the perceived shortcomings of their current business location.

In my experience, the biggest challenge is that you may not like what you hear. Typically, the reasons for continuing to do business from your location are not that compelling to an executive looking to make a capital investment. Community leaders don’t like that type of “hard truth”, and economic development professionals don’t like being the messenger who gets shot. But, for the vast majority of communities this is indeed the reality.

To be clear, boring does not mean doomed. It simply means your community has work to create a development plan that will make it competitive. You have what I refer to as identity work. You need to decide what your community promise can be and then work aggressively to make it a reality. This is tough, transformational work. But, it is the real pathway to success.

Communication Concept Market Research

Determining how to communicate your community promise is the real purpose of the market research you contracted the Agency to do. The RFP should have read – “To determine the most compelling way to communicate our community’s brand promise for the purpose of convincing executives in targeted industries to consider our community for the short list of locations taken into due diligence.”

Note, the exercise is all about communicating your community’s promise. At Procter & Gamble we would say it is about finding the creative positioning of the promise that opens the minds and hearts of your target to hearing your message.

If you go back to the Situation, you’ll note that there was no clear articulation of the community’s brand promise. Essentially, the Agency engaged in an exercise of asking executives – “What do you want to hear?” The danger of this type of exercise is 1) it may not be what your community can authentically and 2) it may not actually drive their investment behavior. For example, executives may tell you they like dynamic locations with a track record of innovation. But, when they really look to invest they want a location where the business climate is highly predictable and competition for their employees is manageable.

In my opinion, the only thing you should try to conclude from communication concept research is whether the concept communicates your community promise in a mind and heart opening way or not. If yes, proceed with enthusiasm. If no, then go back and develop new concepts based on insights into the meaningful benefits of your community promise.

If you are left questioning the relevance or competitiveness of your community’s brand promise, then take two steps back and authorize quantitative brand promise research. Your community’s brand promise is too important to simply let an Agency manipulate it based on qualitative feedback from executives who do not know what living and working in your community really means. Before you consider making any major changes in direction based on qualitative research findings, read what the experts from the Qualitative Research Consultants Association say about how qualitative research should be used.


I appreciate that understanding the differences between brand promise and communication concept market research can get confusing. Particularly since the research tools used in both can be similar. But, the goals are different and should never be confused. Results from communication concept market research (based on my observations the most frequently contracted by economic development professionals) should never be used to make a change in a community’s brand promise. If concerns are identified in the potential relevance or competitiveness of your community’s promise, then engage in a bona fide brand promise market research study to better understand and resolve the concerns. If your Agency tells you they are one in the same, read this article by Ipsos and then hire a new, smarter Agency.

It is my experience that the vast majority of communities do not have a clearly articulated brand promise and this is the root cause of why their investment in promotion fails. It is also my hypothesis that many communities will not feel good about what their current authentic brand promise is. They will find it uninspiring and likely non-competitive. But that argues for a strong development plan to be put in place to get back into the game rather than trying to communicate an inauthentic message. Once the plan is in place and the community leadership demonstrably supportive, then you communicate the vision of what your community is working to promise and how getting in on the ground floor of this renaissance will help a company be even more successful.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Have you ever been faced with a challenge like the one described in the above Situation? What was the outcome? Does your community have a clearly articulated brand promise? Is it written down and does it guide the development of your communication messages? What advice do you have for any colleague trying to interpret qualitative concept research results?

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