Concept Development

Ed Burghard“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Ansel Adams

One of the more challenging tasks in branding is defining the brand promise. The process used to do so is called concept development.

In the context of place branding, a concept is a description of the needs your community will satisfy (the benefit), the reasons why it will satisfy those needs, and a description of any key elements that will affect the perception of your community. Investing in concept development as a means to create your community’s brand promise will increase the probability that it meets the criteria of being relevant, competitive and authentic.

Every Agency has its own approach to this exercise. But, all approaches follow a typical 5-step process.

Concept Development

Step 1 – Summarize Existing Data

It is important to have a clear understand an industry category before deciding to invest money to promote your community as a preferred location option to start or expand a business. You should collect and review both qualitative and quantitative data to determine the category capital investment potential, define the competition, assess your community’s advantages/disadvantages, and estimate what will be required to be successful. In the private sector, this information is typically captured in a written category review. It is good discipline to author such a document as it helps align community leadership on the facts. A common understanding will be critical in follow-on steps where choices need to be made.

Step 2 – Understand Needs and Develop an Insight

Successful brand promises are based on a deep understanding of the driving needs of companies in the targeted industry and how a community can uniquely address one or more of those needs. Sumit Roy, a branding expert in India, characterizes it as “finding the obvious emotional truth on which the brand is or could be based”. I think that is a great way to describe this step. Typically, both qualitative and quantitative research is used to uncover the possible insights to build a promise on. The output is a set of preliminary benefit statements, supported by the research learning.

Step 3 – Define “Where to Play” and “How to Win” Choices

Not every benefit statement is executable. Sometimes you will find it takes more resources than are available. It is important to discover this early in the process so you don’t waste taxpayer dollars along the way by carrying forward a benefit statement that is out of reach for your community. No sense wasting time on a concept you can’t afford. This step requires a high level of objectivity and candor. It must be informed by both data and experience. The best place to get the experience is to tap into the expertise of CEOs doing business in the category. With their help, you can create an industry task force to be involved in making the “Where to Play” and “How to Win” choices. The added benefit is that they will be enrolled and energized by their active involvement. The output of this step should be a document that defines the choices made and the rationale for those choices. It should also describe the activity system (assets, infrastructure, public policy) required for success. Being transparent on what is required for success is extremely important.

Step 4 – Develop Concepts

A concept is a simple promise statement that describes how companies will benefit from locating or expanding in your community. I have provided some templates to make this step easy. Perhaps the hardest part in this step is avoiding the risk of niggling every word and trying to be too comprehensive. The idea is to be as single-minded and clear as possible in stating the brand promise. Clever phrases that can be interpreted a thousand different ways are not very helpful. Nor are long lists of reasons to believe the promise is true. Clarity and succinctness is key. The output of this step is a series of “testably different” concept statements.

Step 5 – Assess Concepts

This step is all about identifying which concept has the greatest appeal to your target audience. Think of appeal as the power to arouse a sympathetic response. The most effective way of evaluating the concepts is through quantitative concept testing. Results of the research can be combined with common sense to help you select the leading promise for your community. Note, this promise will NOT appeal to everybody. In fact, you will likely draw criticism from stakeholders in your community who prefer one of the other concepts. Expect it. That is why you generated data among your target audience. The opinion that matters the most is your target audience’s opinion. They are the people you want to locate or expand their business in your community. But, also be prepared to defend and educate stakeholders on why the selected promise will work the hardest for your community. Don’t be emotional, be factual. The output of this stage is a promise statement that should feed into your community’s broader strategic plan and be used as guidance for any marketing communication efforts.


Creating an effective brand promise for your community is not “rocket science”, but it is hard work and requires strong leadership. Some stakeholders will be disappointed in your final selection because they are not squarely in your target audience or are concerned about furthering their own organization’s mission. The process has inherent risk of burning bridges if conflict is not handled deftly. But skipping this process is a recipe for disaster.

I am often asked – “Do I need to hire an Agency or consultant to help?” The answer is maybe. When I was leading the Ohio branding work, I hired a branding Agency to guide the process even though I knew what I was doing. I did so, for two reasons: 1) I wanted an objective third-party perspective to keep the process honest and 2) when the inevitable conflict arose I wanted a neutral party to facilitate resolution. It was critically important to me to strengthen the bridges between supporting organizations because of the important role they were expected to play in the execution phase. You may feel the same way I did. If you do, be aware that almost every Agency or consultant will claim an expertise in this area and the charges will vary widely. Do your due diligence and select wisely. You are likely only going to get one real shot at this process and you want whomever you hire to have a proven track record. This is not a process for the low cost supplier. Leverage your private sector leaders for advice, and potentially recruit some of their marketers to be on the selection committee. They can provide you hard won experience and help you be sure the right questions are asked in the RFP phase.

My last advice is never invest behind a mediocre promise. If the best your community can promise is parity, then put a strategic development plan in place to make your community more competitive. You need to be in a position to win. Anything short is likely a waste of taxpayer dollars.

If you have experience in concept development or testing (good or bad), please comment on this post. If you have a favorite case study that illustrates the principles, please share the URL. The better we all understand concept development, the stronger competitive position our communities will have.

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