Emotion – The Secret Tool For Economic Development

Ed Head ShotIf your community does not have an emotional benefit in your brand promise, you are going to lose.

I appreciate that many “old school” economic development professionals will disagree.  Instead of leveraging an emotional benefit, they prefer to focus on traditional quantitative numbers requested in RFPs and cash incentives to succeed.  They will tell you emotion has no role in a rational decision like selecting a location to live or invest capital.

Yet, over the years I have been involved in this field, countless seasoned veteran economic developers have told me stories of how their community lost deals because the decision maker had an emotional connection with the winning location (e.g. graduated from college in the state or town).

The fact is – in economic development the decision is emotion based and subsequently justified with rational reasons.  This economic development professionals who “get it” will be successful.  Those who don’t will increasingly talk about the “good old days”, or as the “boss” calls them – “the glory days”.

What is an Emotional Benefit? You can think of it as the emotional payoff received from using or associating with your community. Some people also call it the “End Benefit;” i.e. the higher order benefit derived from the functional benefit of living and working in your community. In my opinion, every location in the U.S. should have enabling the American Dream as their emotional benefit. People want to live and work in a community that helps them achieve their American Dream.

Why does your community need an Emotional (or End) Benefit?

  • Psychology research indicates emotional reactions to brands play an important role in how people make choices between options. Additionally, it’s been shown there are two types of information processing happening in the brain, emotional and rational. Most people use both systems in decision-making. Typically people justify an emotional reaction with a rational explanation.
  • Many locations (e.g. New York City, London, Paris) have been enormously successful using an emotional selling message.
  • As location distinctiveness and community marketing becomes more and more common, creating an association with an emotional benefit like how your community uniquely delivers the American Dream can be a very effective method for regaining distinctiveness and establishing a connection you can leverage to attract skilled residents and capital investment.

Tips for creating and emotional benefit for your location:

  1. In developing emotional benefits, it’s often helpful to start from an understanding of your current residents perception of the degree to which they are achieving their American Dream. Xavier University has created the only statistically validated description of the American Dream. From their quantitative research study, Xavier University has discovered the American Dream is comprised of 35 unique dimensions. These data can be tabulated on a community level and compared to identify barriers to your residents achieving their American Dream. These barriers represent opportunities for meaningful improvement. To find out if data is available for your community simply email me (eburghard@me.com). I will let you know if there is a sufficient number of survey respondents collected from your community by the study to reliably report results.
  2. You need to have a strong link between your location assets, infrastructure, public policies and/or programs to explain how your community uniquely enables achievement of the American Dream. Selling just an emotional benefit without a link to a reason to believe will not work. People still need to know the HOW behind it to accept what you say.
  3. Stating an emotional benefit in words often does not work. Often, a direct statement of an emotional benefit will fall flat. While people can tell you how they feel when they hear an idea or see a picture, most people do not want to be told how they should feel. Just saying your community enables the American Dream will likely not work simply because you are telling them rather than them telling you.
  4. Visuals and stories are the “language” of emotions. People “think” emotionally in visual images and emotionally react to stories they can relate to. Therefore, visuals and stories are often useful tools for communicating an important emotional message to consumers.
  5. It is difficult to develop a compelling emotional benefit without in-depth understanding of your residents.   To convince someone your really understand them, it helps if you really do understand them. Therefore, an in-depth understanding of your resident perceptions on the degree to which they are achieving their American Dream versus relevant competitive locations; and, the drivers of those differences is necessary for you to understand the impact your community makes (and can make) in their lives.
  6. Just as with product benefits, HOW your community enables achievement of the American Dream should be distinctive versus other locations in your competitive set, otherwise your location will come across as very “me too.” It often helps to focus on communicating a particular aspect (or dimension) of the American Dream that residents feel your community excels at delivering. For example, when I worked on the Ohio brand we decided to focus on communicating that Ohio provides the perfect balance between achieving personal and professional aspirations. This is a restatement of part of the American Dream that Ohio residents felt the state consistently delivered well. The reason to believe the promise was Ohio’s unique combination of mid-sized cities connected by a world-class transportation system that made it easy to commute between home and work so you had more time to get your life in balance. As evidence of impact, it is important to note Ohio won Site Selection’s Governor’s Cup five times in the six years we communicated this message.


I wrote about the topic of emotion in economic development.  I encourage you to check out the post.  In it is a link to a FREE ebook on the subject I still feel is worth reading.  I decided to reprise the topic because it is important and because I want to encourage every economic development professional in the U.S. to explore Xavier University’s research.  As I talk about the American Dream across our Nation, one consistent observation is economic development professionals do not understand how the residents in their community really feel.  Frankly, I believe it is mission critical that you do.



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