Place Branding: A Primer

November 14, 2014
Despite being around for decades, Place Branding is still a bit of a new term to many.

Does a place really need a brand? The truth is, the same things that matter to organizations – like growth, sustainability and competitive edge – matter to communities too. And where these factors exist, the need to differentiate exists.

So, my town/city/destination/community needs a logo? Well, sort of. It actually needs a brand. In fact, many would say that a place already has a brand. We define a brand as the sum total of thoughts, feelings and expectations that people have about something. There are many elements that influence a brand, which I’ll go into more detail about below. But yes, a logo might be one of them.

Isn’t branding for corporations and products? My city is not a widget. No, it’s not a widget. But somewhere in someone’s mind (probably many people’s), there are perceptions held about your place. So the real question is: are you taking conscious measures to contribute to what they feel?

OK, I get it – we need a brand. To attract more tourists, right? That could be one reason. Like any brand, a Place Brand has to be rooted in your goals and objectives. What your goals and objectives are determines what kind of brand is right for you. But tourism is certainly not the only driver. Here are some of the most common types of place brand:

  1. Destination: This is the “tourism brand”, designed to attract visitors. This is a very common form for a brand to take, as the economic benefits of more visitors, coupled with direct competition, create an obvious need to stand out from competing attractions, cities and regions.
  2. Economic Development: This form of brand is designed to bring business relocation, expansion and investment to a place. Not only do favourable business conditions contribute to a brand such as this, but having a desirable place to live makes it easier for businesses to attract employees.
  3. Community: Not all brands are for outsiders. A community brand can boost pride and potentially encourage patronage of local businesses. This is commonly seen in neighbourhoods in larger cities, where business improvement districts hope to keep locals from heading across town or to the malls to spend their time and money.
  4. Regional: Regional brands develop out of what a region is good at: Think of going to the Okanagan for the wine, to Nepal for the trekking or to the Carolinas for the golf. Here, the activity, food or pastime defines a region – one which may not be constrained by the specific boundaries of a city or province.
  5. Commercial cluster: Some places are defined by a common commercial interest – business parks and residential or commercial developments, for example. Though connected in this manner, they are still places, not organizations, and they need to be handled this way.
  6. Overarching: Just like it says, the overarching place brand covers all the bases. In smaller towns a limited budget forces a Place Branding initiative to be multi-purpose, and the challenge is pleasing all stakeholders with one concept. With proper stakeholder engagement and execution it can be done, but deep Place Branding experience and design expertise is still critical.

Okay, I'm in. But how is a logo going to take care of all that?

It's not. While visual identity is crucial, there is much more involved. Think of your brand as a promise to be fulfilled. Your brand consists of two parts, both equally essential: a stated promise (your brand communications) and the experience itself. A specialized Place Branding firm will help you align the two.

  1. Experience: Positive experiences with a place can take many forms. For example, beautiful and welcoming public spaces or well-run events and community programs have an impact. Even something as simple as a positive experience with city hall plays a role in defining that sum of thoughts, feelings and expectations that live in your audience’s minds. An experienced Place Branding firm will be able to advise on a place’s attributes and challenges, and help to develop strategies to mitigate issues and leverage strengths.
  2. Brand Communications: This is where brand strategy becomes apparent. You need communications and design that support these experiences and establish appropriate expectations. For those who have not yet experienced the soul of your city, this is your best introduction. And your visual identity is so much more than a logo: it’s a beautiful and usable website, street signs that are clear and concise but with character, and documents that help people interact with you.

But I still get a logo, right? 
Yes.  :)

So it's just like regular branding! In many ways, yes - but there are key differences:

Building consensus is essential. Unlike a consumer brand, your stakeholders see this is a part of their identity. If they're not consulted, or made to feel part of the process, they will push back. Not to mention local businesses, associations and organizations, without whose support, the brand will never get off the ground.

Leadership isn’t always just a CEO. Political leaders come and go – you can't let them own this. Plus, in spite of many strengths and best of intentions, they rarely have a background in marketing, design and communications. For a Place Brand to make it through the process, you will need to establish leadership and achieve buy-in publically so the brand is sustainable.

Longevity is critical: Unlike a consumer brand, if things aren't working, you can't just discontinue a product. And re-launching the brand is a big endeavour (see consensus building above), so you can’t tie the brand to any current trends. Your Place Brand needs to stand the test of time.

So, hopefully at this point, you have an idea of what Place Pranding is. Now, if you want to get started, great! But before you dive in you need to plan. Branding is, by its very nature, a strategic endeavour; so diving in without looking could be dangerous! A few things to consider:

  1. Have a budget! There are a lot of ways that a branding agency can help with your project. But without clear parameters, a Place Branding firm will have a difficult time properly managing resources. The best course of action is to simply select an expert Place Branding firm you want to work with and negotiate a fee that works. While the RFP process is inherently flawed and wastes taxpayer resources and time, if you must compare competing proposals you must establish the budget so that you are comparing apples to apples and not wasting everyone’s time.
  2. Give it time: Consensus building is about listening. And it takes time to let all the voices be heard. Good place branding is like anthropology, digging deep to find what lives at the heart of your community.
  3. Build a committee: Stakeholder engagement isn’t just about asking questions at the beginning and showing them the finished work at the end. You will need to select a group to be a part of the process. First, identify the stakeholder groups, then build the committee, using people who represent all these groups – but not at the expense of building a great team. You need the right people: people who appreciate the value of the work, and who are on board with the mission.
  4. Have a brand manager: Once this launches, you will need someone to nurture it. In the weeks after a brand launch, people are genuinely eager to contribute and to work with the brand – but they will have questions. The brand manager makes sure that all that good intention leads to good results.
  5. You need a champion at the top: Yes, your communications team will likely do most of the heavy lifting, but top level civic leadership must be the torch bearer.
  6. Having guidelines and inspiring examples of documents and templates that are accessible to staff and (media/designers…) make it easy for people to develop consistent communications. This document and supporting tools also saves substantial sums of money, time and resources and as such, supports the brand and helps to build brand champions.

So, I think I get it – a place brand is kind of like a balanced budget: fair, equitable and truthful. You hit the nail on the head. While “the corporation” is only beholden to their shareholders for the bottom line and profits, a Place Brand must hit the quadruple sustainability bottom line: economic, social, environmental and cultural. Good civic leaders and managers, or those responsible for destination marketing, know that Place Branding is an intentional endeavor with wide reaching implications throughout an organization. Place Branding can be an enriching experience, can bring a community together and can be a source of pride for generations.

You might even get a new logo.

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