Economic development professionals are often skeptical about the reapplication of product and corporate branding principles in the world of place branding. My first exposure to place branding was in 2005, when then Governor Taft asked P&G for help in branding the state of Ohio. As a Harley Procter Marketer, this seemed to me a great assignment to better understand how to brand a conceptual product. I grabbed the opportunity with enthusiasm. However, the degree of push back I received from the professional community was surprising.
The consistent counsel was that branding a state was not like branding soap. My standard response was that branding pharmaceuticals was not the same as branding soap either, but even though the tactics were different, the principles were consistent. As I studied place branding, it was comforting to discover both Drs. Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller (both considered global thought leaders in product and corporate branding) had authored on the subject. Their publications confirmed my hypothesis and I opted to significantly discount the well-meaning advice of economic developers who predicted the failure of the Ohio branding initiative.
We defined “Balance Without Compromise – The ability to achieve both professional and personal aspirations without having to sacrifice one for the other” as the core brand promise for Ohio. The first national campaign to communicate that promise was launched in late 2005. Ohio then went on the win the annual Site Selection Governor’s Cup award (for the most capital investment deals in the nation over a minimum size) in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011. Is this proof positive that a well conceived place branding effort works? No. But, I don’t believe it is coincidental either.
I was able to review a number of community branding efforts from 2005 – 2011. Looking back over that time, my observations suggest that while there are a lot of different reasons a place brand effort fails, three tend to consistently rise to the top of the list.
My Observations – Three Reasons For Failure
I am going to explain each reason in the context of place branding, but you can easily substitute the word product, or service, or company in its stead. I will also be focusing on the community (town, city), but the explanation is appropriate for region, state and nation as well.
Undifferentiated brand promise (or complete lack of one). This is the starting point for any branding initiative. It is critical to understand what your community promise is and why it is important to your target audience. The promise must be relevant, competitive and authentic. Defining your brand promise is hard work, and often it is best to use a branding agency to help you be successful. You need to not only discover what your brand promise is, but you also need to articulate it in a way that is understandable to anybody involved in your branding process. If you skip this step (and many communities do), your branding effort will not succeed. At best, you will have a narrowly focused marketing or sales campaign. At worst, you will have invested in a logo and tagline that has no sustainability and likely offers minimal ROI potential. A proper branding effort will result in a documented and compelling brand promise that should guide your community development decisions for decades. Typically, the agency will also translate the brand promise into a set of visuals and provide you with a set of brand guidelines on their use. All of this is critical information to inform the creation of sales and marketing campaigns. Investing in a branding initiative without having a well-articulated brand promise is like trying to steer a ship without a rudder.
Lack of strategic discipline in deployment. One of the big differences between branding in the private sector versus the public sector is the degree to which politics play a role. In the public sector, everybody has an opinion about how to best position your community. As a consequence, the brand promise is often at risk of being disconnected from the tactical sales and marketing/communication plans. This is obviously problematic. In fact, your brand promise should be the foundation for both of these plans as well as your community’s 15 – 20 year development plan. You might enjoy reading this free eBook on developing a strategic plan for a community. It is authored in the context of communities impacted by the shale energy industry, but the process is applicable for all communities. Click HERE.
The purpose of your 15-20 year plan is to define how you will ensure your community’s brand promise remains authentic over time and define which infrastructure investments will make the promise even more impactful, which assets you need to create and which public policies you will need to reform. If your community’s long-term strategic plan is not built upon your community brand promise, then you have work to do to synchronize the two.
You should be able to easily explain how every element of your promotional investment helps communicate or leverages your community’s brand promise. If you review the components of your tactical deployment and cannot draw a clear connection, then your messaging is not synergistic and the probability of differentiating your community dramatically diminished.
One phrase A.G. Lafley (former CEO of P&G) was found of saying is that a great strategy without excellence in execution was worthless. In my experience he was absolutely correct. Lack of discipline in execution is one of the quickest ways to kill a branding initiative.
Inadequate resourcing. I was once asked by an economic development professional in a small community if it made sense to invest limited resources in a branding initiative. My counsel was to consider investing a targeted sales campaign. If you can’t support a quality branding exercise, in my humble opinion it is better not to initiate one. I have seen communities make promises about the impact a branding exercise will have and then under resource the effort. The inevitable result is that both the economic development organization’s Board and private sector leadership lose faith in branding as a strategy and the team involved. This “poisons the well” until the memory fades or the situation becomes desperate enough that adequate funding is found for a second try.
In my mind, it is far better to invest the limited funding in an effective sales campaign. Success will build confidence within the community leadership and you will be able to build upon the work when you have the resources to invest in a branding initiative.
The criticism I have receive for this advice is that without a brand promise success is unlikely.
In my experience this is simply not true. It is often much easier to identify the reason why a company in a specific industry would consider your community as a location for capital investment. This insight can form the basis for a strong sales campaign with the potential for a positive ROI. The positioning may not make sense for another industry, nor does it necessarily serve as a guide to build a 15-20 year community development plan around. But, it can help attract capital investment. And, in my opinion this is a far smarter investment than under resourcing a branding initiative and by doing so dooming it to failure.
An analogy I’d offer is Six Sigma. We can all agree that a Six Sigma certified organization typically has created an inherent competitive advantage. But, not every company decides to invest in Six Sigma qualification. Why? The reason is the cost is judged to outweigh the potential benefits. And no company pursues Six Sigma certification on a shoestring and a prayer. Yet, many companies that are not Six sigma certified are successful. Pursuit of Six Sigma certification is a strategic choice. Branding is also a strategic choice that needs to be weighed carefully.
I encourage you to view branding as a strategic choice to accomplish an objective. As a consequence, it needs to make sense for your situation. Branding takes time and it costs money. It also requires a skill set that may not be readily available in your organization and will require you to use outside consultants to be successful. Branding is also not a silver bullet, no more than any strategy you might consider to achieve your objectives. In my opinion, you should invest in a branding initiative only when you are serious about doing the exercise right, have the funding to support it (by default leadership alignment), and have a long-term perspective.
What are Your Thoughts?
I am guessing my perspective may be a bit controversial, so I wholeheartedly welcome counter points of view. Have you been part of a failed branding exercise? Were any of the three conditions noted above a causative factor? What additional causes have you observed?
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