Northern Promises – Place Branding and the Economy

March 28, 2014
Propelling social change and economic prosperity using place branding as a lever.

Place branding is the new reality that contributes significantly to the economic engine of a town or region. But there is more at stake.

I was enjoying a little light reading the other day – Investing in Place: Economic Renewal in Northern British Columbia. This well-researched piece lays out the foundations for renewing northern British Columbia’s rural and small-town economies. The writers, Markey, Halseth, and Manson speak to historical policies and economic strategies of the past but argue that the future lies in building a pragmatic and innovative vision for development. It is a path that requires one to acknowledge both the opportunities and the challenges posed by resource development in concert with global and technological change.

Because I am a cynical optimist (I’ll leave that one for another story), it got me to thinking about the incredible opportunities that the majority of towns and regions have to grow far beyond their current reality.

With the political will and knowledge to move beyond their current reality, many under-performing places can maximize their resources and investment by propelling social change with the lever of place branding.

Place branding is the new reality that contributes significantly to the economic engine of a town or region. But there is more at stake. Viability is predicated on building brand equity and the capacity of local government and the community to embrace creativity and respond to social change. Place branding has become a vital element of product development – from wine to watches – and competition for market share. It is also necessary to attract and retain the talent, skills and services required to sustain the local workforce. Social well-being has become an increasingly important factor in sustainability.

For example, consider France and Switzerland. What comes to mind when matching these places to products? France has aggressively pursued place-branding trademarks for its wines, while Switzerland has a long-standing reputation for its accurate timekeeping technology and chocolate. But there is a lot more to these country brands than their products, driven by a long history of social and cultural tendencies that make these places destinations and places to do business.

Closer to home, the Peace River region in British Columbia is well ahead in developing a Peace Country brand for regional agricultural products, while Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and Mission have collaborated to develop the True North Fraser brand. The reality in Northern British Columbia includes the pace of resources development, currently spurred on by 29 billion dollars of proposed investment in key sectors such as forestry, mining, liquid natural gas (LNG), tourism and transportation. But savvy leaders understand that creating sustainable communities is deeper than economics. It is an organic, cultural and social issue.

Markey, Halseth, and Manson discuss the ascendancy of ‘place’ within the context of rural development which appears in a variety of ongoing rural research themes including postproductivism – relying less on primary resource production in favour of more diversified economic activities. There are four critical capacity pillars required: human, community, economic, and physical infrastructure. Not to get bogged down with lexical semantics, this basically means you need the right combination of people living in a place where they can make a living and enjoy freedom of movement and access to services that contribute to health and well-being. In other words, a town must have the essential services to support a growing community such as hospitals, stores, food services, transportation, schools and recreational.

Beyond this baseline is the need to feed the cultural appetite of the community and appeal to the creative and innovative tendencies of people.

Throughout history, towns that have emerged from the development of natural resources or from strategic geographic placement (waterways, defensible positions and today with LNG and tourism) at some point evolve into more sophisticated entities that form into cultural and creative hubs. Seems simple, right? The problem is that many towns, regions and even large cities don’t leverage these basic assets or do not manage their cultural assets in the same way they consider their physical infrastructure.

In my opinion, all of these activities and pillars can mutually support each other through place branding strategies, with the intention of promoting capital investment and attracting people to live, work and play. It is all about maintaining and fostering flexibility to meet opportunities in a rapidly and continually changing global economy.

Towns that have vision and the capacity to plan will do a better job managing growth and competing for highly skilled workers and professionals looking beyond a paycheck and towards more aspirational goals, like family and quality of life.

In today’s job market, people are considering lifestyle, safety and what the community may offer one’s family. Entertainment and well-being come into play, and art, design and culture are growing in stature in the decision making process as to where one means to settle. A great example of such transformation from a resource-based economy to one of diversification that embraces art and design among other professional services, is Nelson, BC.  Nelson with its heritage, amenities and embracing the arts and culture, has become a mecca for the creative industries. By no means a one-trick-pony, this diversity and vision will help ensure the town and region will remain competitive and economically viable. A one-time gold mining and forestry town, today Nelson serves as the busy centre of West Kootenay government, arts, tourism, commerce, small manufacturing and home-based business.

The kind of diversity that Nelson exhibits has become necessary for any modern town or region, and because of the complex social nature of a local culture, it is increasingly important to adopt an authentic place branding approach. This translates to being in touch with local beliefs, traditions and physical characteristics, while also fostering flexibility to meet opportunities in a rapidly and continually changing global economy. Towns and regions need to adapt and look outwards while staying in touch with local values and traditions. It is a balance that needs to be considered strategically with proper planning and community engagement.

Towns that view investments in infrastructure, balanced with the cultural needs of a growing community, are more likely to succeed over the long term and enhance the regional adaptive capacity.

The small town of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, BC with the most aged population in the province (in 2011 the percentage of the population aged 65 and over in Qualicum Beach was 47.2%, compared with a national percentage of 14.8%) is taking the long view with its high-tech think tank, looking to nurture a younger demographic. Development policy of government that fails to recognize these kinds of opportunities make a passive but, nevertheless, strong contribution to rural decline.

For example, a recent phenomenon has emerged where British Columbia’s coastal region is under siege by seemingly unbalanced transportation policies. Roads, bridges and ferries that service inland cars and trucks receive a disproportionate amount of government financing. Interestingly, provincial government messaging refers to such inland road and ferry services as ‘investments’, while coastal ferry services are referred to as ‘expenses.’ Whether or not this is a deliberate position is unclear, but it underlines an important element in place branding: action speaks louder than words. Place branding is not just about dressing something up a certain way, it's about understanding the underlying realities – communities need to follow through on intentions.

Ironically, BC coastal communities that significantly contribute to the entire  transportation infrastructure and provincial tax base have suffered decreased services and increased fares over the past decade. As ridership continues to decline, the logic applied to BC Ferries is to further increase the cost and reduce capacity, which economists would generally agree is an assured death spiral. Tourism and related investments have declined far beyond the 'savings' enjoyed by the ferry service, while inland ferries, roads and bridges paid for in large part by coastal communities get a free ride.

Consistency and clarity of message coupled with truth and action is critical in place branding.

Bringing this back to place branding, for a region that puts a great deal of stock in tourism like British Columbia, it is important to communicate by action that the regional transportation system supports the sector. Perhaps in spite of best of intentions, the government’s own investment and tourism marketing appears counter-intuitive. Place branding experts help to negotiate these complex communication waters, working with government and communities to clarify messaging, maximize resources, and develop sustainable and authentic brands that serve the public interest.

As the rural regions continue to emerge as an economic powerhouse throughout North America, and the towns that support it evolve and grow, it is increasingly important that a authentic sense of place emerges. Place branding will not only contribute significantly to bringing people and resources together to support economic growth, but in the right hands and with the right intentions, it will contribute to positive social change and well-being.

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