Honesty is the Best (Place Branding) Policy

April 26, 2014
A story about telling the truth so don’t have to remember anything – and other reasons why 'keeping it real' empowers your place brand.

If you think it's hard to get your staff to reinforce a place brand that they don't connect with, try it with the people that aren’t on your payroll.

We strive for a lot of things when creating a place brand: memorable, unique, clear and compelling. But if you read about this stuff like I do, some other words come up time and time again: authentic, honest and real. And why shouldn't they? This is a place brand. This is about community, pride and belonging. If it's not real it's not true, and no one wants to live a lie.

Yet dishonesty happens in places all the time, usually when civic leaders take a top-down approach to their marketing and communications. It’s not even necessarily intentional. The kind of processes and consideration a place branding professional would employ doesn’t even enter the equation. The result is often an ambitious tag line and a logo. How does this happen? Everyone has a reason. Consulting your community is time-consuming. The truth isn't always as exciting as the 'other' idea you had. A ‘window dressing’ solution seems cheaper and easier. The reality is that the cost is all too high.

Whatever the reason, I'm not here to make a moral argument against inauthenticity. I'm saying it's bad business. And here's why.

Your communications team

"If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”  —Mark Twain

This is great life advice – but it’s great place branding advice too. Most communications teams I see (like the rest of us, and like the in-house team I was once a part of) are busy, with tight budgets and a heavy workload. The day-to-day work of reinforcing a brand promise is hard work. It requires consistency, attention to detail and strategic thinking. All that work gets a lot harder when the brand is not something that your team has completely embraced.

Every time someone has to vet a tweet through two levels of approval to make sure it’s “on brand”, your brand loses a little bit of its soul. Better to know the truth intrinsically, be able to speak to the values and beliefs of your community, and ensure everyone understands the culture of your place. For your communications team, a false brand makes being a great brand a lot more work.

The rest of your team

Most buzz words stink, but here’s an exception: Brand Promise. I love that one, because it’s a great reminder of what your brand communications strategy really is: a promise to be heard and kept at every level of your organization. The council, the executive, administrative staff, volunteers…everyone at an organization reinforces your brand. For most of these people, memorizing the brand promise is not part of their job description – but delivering on it is. When we step in to help a place give shape to their brand, these people count on the communications people to deliver something that they don’t have to learn – but rather, something that they understand is their job to deliver on.

For your staff, a false brand is like re-writing their job descriptions while they’re on vacation. Involving your team in the brand development process can pay dividends both in terms of getting real input and in developing brand champions.

Your community

If you think it's hard to get your staff to reinforce a brand that they don't connect with, try it with the people that aren’t on your payroll. For members of your community, this isn’t the brand of an organization that they happen to pay taxes to – it's a reflection of who they are. Far from a transactional relationship, many of them have spent their lives contributing to what the community is. Needless to say, they’re invested. They’re more like shareholders than customers. Take a product brand in a direction that your customers don’t like, and watch sales drop – do the same with a community, and you’ll see petitions on the sidewalks. I’ve seen it.

For a community, a false brand is a soul wrenching experience, and civic leaders will pay for it. Involving the community and providing opportunities for real contribution is the best kind of crowd-sourcing and will add equity to your brand in the long-term.

The long and winding road

Your brand is not a single product to be delivered. We don't show up, create it, leave you with it and the job is over. We come in, dig deep, reveal it, clarify it and try to set you on a long-term course to live it every day. And if what we dig up isn't real, then you're going to have a tough time doing that. It's hard to live a lie. We've seen what it did to Don Draper.

A place brand done well is real, authentic and already exists if you dig deep and do the work. Plan ahead and get your stakeholders invested. Don't get caught up in a lie by taking the cheap and easy route. Keep it honest. It’s just good business.

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