What is Place Branding?

Lately, I have been reading a lot of discussions in LinkedIn Groups that are attempting to define brand and branding. Often, half the challenge of master a subject is to have a common understanding of the lexicon. I have authored on this topic in the past, but thought it might be helpful to reprise the subject.

In economic development, I have indeed found a significant degree of confusion around, and misrepresentation of, what a brand is and what branding entails. Over the years, I have developed and teach a fairly simple way to think about the concepts.

My Working Definition

I define a brand as “a promise”. In the case of capital investment, it sets an expectation for what a CEO will experience if starting, expanding or relocating company operations to your community, region, state, or nation.

There are three success characteristics of great brands (promises).

  • Relevancy – The promise is meaningful to the CEO. You are offering something to help the business be even more successful than it might be otherwise. Typically this means you are promising something the business currently does not have, but wants.
  • Competitiveness – The promise focuses on a point of positive difference versus competitive location alternatives. It can be something the competition can’t deliver, something the competition offers but your location delivers more of, or something the competition offers but your location delivers it in a better way.
  • Authenticity – Your location can consistently deliver the promise over time. It is neither puffery nor a misrepresentation of the facts.

Most of us have been taught since childhood that with any promise, the only two choices are to 1) keep it or 2) break it. While conceptually easy, consistently keeping your community’s promise is challenging because the competition is constantly changing and so many people are involved in the delivery process.

Branding is about three things.

  1. Proactively managing the promise to ensure all three of the success characteristics remain valid over time (community development).
  2. Communicating the promise in a way that ensures awareness of, interest in, desire for and stimulates action among decision makers to invest their capital in your community.
  3. Ensuring consistent delivery of the promise at the relevant touch points to positively influence the capital investment decision outcome.

In my definition, marketing is an activity of branding. Marketing focuses on communicating the promise and its benefits to a strategic target set of potential capital investors.

Selling is also an activity of branding. Selling focuses on communicating the benefit of your community’s promise to a specific person within your strategic target in a way that allows the person to understand and ideally experience it before making a capital investment decision.

What I have found is that most economic development professionals, elected officials and many business leaders often define a brand as simply a logo and tag line or a promotional campaign.

This misperception is highly problematic because the results of a community branding effort with simply a logo and tag line or promotional campaign as the outcome is typically not sufficient to deliver what is really expected – capital attraction, expansion and retention that leads to job growth and prosperity.

When this is the case, money gets spent with Creative Agencies, new letterhead, envelopes and signage carrying the logo and tag line are deployed, and ultimately there is no change in the number of capital investment deals competed for. Then somebody on the Leadership team reads an article claiming the principles of product and corporate branding cannot be applied to branding places. The article rationalizes the collective failure and everybody involved vows never to waste money on branding their community again.

The problem is not that place branding doesn’t work. The problem is a lack of understanding of what a brand and branding really is.  And, as a direct consequence, the right tool gets implemented poorly with predictable negative results.

I believe, and the Strengthening Brand America Product is dedicated to teaching, the principles of product and corporate branding can indeed be effectively reapplied to the branding of places. The tactics can be different, but the fundamental principles are not. The key to success is setting the right expectation at the start of the exercise and ensuring the branding work is appropriately resourced for success.

I have found effective branding always requires two things – 1) time and 2) money. If you don’t have much time to communicate your community promise, it will take a bigger budget to achieve a level of awareness and understanding that translates into an increased number of requests for proposal to compete for.

But, does place branding really work?

I believe if the process is led and implemented correctly, it definitely does.

As a tease, consider that Ohio started a comprehensive, proactive state branding effort in 2005. Marketing the Ohio brand started in late 2005. In 2006, Ohio won the prestigious Site Selection Magazine Governor’s Cup Award. This is a national, annual recognition for the state with the most new or expanded private-sector capital projects as tracked by Conway Data Inc.’s New Plant Database. Investment in marketing the Ohio brand was continued, and Ohio repeated by winning the Governor’s Cup Award in 2007, 2008, 2009 and again in 2011.


Does the definition of brand and branding make sense based on your experience? How knowledgeable are the elected officials and business leaders in your community with what branding is all about? Has your community ever attempted a branding exercise? What made it successful, or what contributed to its failure? Looking ahead, do you envision your community’s investment in branding to decline, remain the same, or increase? Did you learn anything new from this post that you plan to leverage? If yes, what was it?

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