In the face of increasingly intense competition, ambitious places are objectively evaluating their competitiveness and methods of optimizing their relevance and value to internal and external customers. Many of them are adopting the principles of branding to better manage their identities and how they present themselves in a global marketplace.
Over time, a successful place brand adds to its own value by generating effectiveness and efficiency in the way that it presents itself. This value is referred to as brand equity, and is its accumulated loyalty, awareness, and financial value. I like to think of it as owning a bank account in the minds of target audiences. Good news, enticing images, and positive experiences are deposits in the bank. But bad news, poor marketing, and sub-standard experiences are like withdrawals from the account. To be strong and resilient, a brand must have sufficient equity on deposit to counter negative occurrences. And bad weather, a natural disaster, scandals or bad experiences do happen, even to good places.
Many city leaders don’t understand the benefits and concepts involved in place branding (or marketing for that matter!). Some are simply uncomfortable using the term “branding,” or even “marketing,” and the city’s name in the same sentence. We have found that when city officials think in terms of their city’s image or reputation rather than its brand, they are more likely to “get it.”
While this is certainly not technically an accurate description of a brand or branding, we have found that it does enable many to better understand and support the concept and its benefits. In an effort to reframe the context for place branding, respected place branding expert Simon Anholt has coined the term, “competitive identity”.
The thoughts and associations that come to mind when your city’s name is heard or read are likely to have huge financial, political, and social value. Just think for a moment about the number of jobs, businesses, and other organizations that have a stake in its image and reputation. Unfortunately, it is a value that goes largely unrecognized and unappreciated. And perhaps most importantly, unprotected and unmanaged. It rarely gets measured, and never appears on a balance sheet or the job evaluation of a Chamber President, City Manager or Mayor. The level of esteem that a city’s name evokes has a direct impact on the health of its tourism, economic development, prestige, and respect. With so much riding on its image, doesn’t it make sense to have a plan to cultivate, manage, and protect this most valuable of city assets?
While community and civic leaders may debate and procrastinate over the issue of branding, those who actively value their city image soon recognize that developing and managing a brand identity is not an option – it’s essential!
What Are the Benefits of Place Branding?
Cities of all sizes often labor over the decision to develop a brand strategy. For small cities it is increasingly becoming a matter of whether they can afford not to embrace the concept if they want to be better organized and be more distinctive and competitive. If the city is allocating funds to marketing programs without consistently clarifying what the city stands for, what it does best, and why it matters to customers, then it is risking (and possibly wasting) public funds. No matter the city’s size, a formalized brand strategy can define and manage its competitive identity and channel the energies and resources of partners to orchestrate the best results from their combined investments, however limited.
A place that has a healthy and respected reputation makes it easier to be selected in any competitive setting because the city is seen in a positive light and having qualities and benefits that are good to be associated with. It can be a catalyst for leaders, businesses, and citizens opening doors, being welcomed in the “right circles,” gaining seats on the “right” committees, attracting awards and grants, winning bids to host events, and attracting conferences and major events.
Is it Time for a Brand Strategy?
A well-conceived brand strategy can provide increased competitiveness, effectiveness and efficiency in how the city is presented by various city agencies. It sets the guidelines for how the city should be communicated and the delivery of experiences for target audiences.
If there is a gap between the reality of the city and the expectations and perceptions held by outsiders, then a strategy is needed to bridge this gap. Regardless of whether people hold an overly positive or negative image, the city must address the situation since both of these scenarios can cause problems. An overly positive image can lead to disappointment, while a negative one will lead prospects to spend their time and money elsewhere and possibly perpetuate negative word of mouth.
When individual tactical decisions are driving marketing programs, it’s time for the intervention and strategic discipline of a brand strategy to coordinate those disparate activities and make the most of scarce resources. The materials used in your city’s marketing portfolio may look great, but without a brand strategy it will be a matter of luck as to whether there is consistency in their look, story, and message. So often the ad of the month syndrome is at play where marketers constantly change their communications in the hope of finding a message that will strike the right chord. Brand planning is the ideal way to avoid this kind of marketing schizophrenia where there is no consistency or clarity to the way the place presents itself. It is time to develop a brand strategy when you detect one or more of the following conditions:
- The city is not leading with its most distinctive and competitive strengths.
- The need to overcome a dated or inaccurate image.
- New infrastructure developments, revitalization programs or a major event are likely to redefine the place.
- The messages from the city and its partners lack focus, consistency or market relevance.
- There is a gap between the city’s promise and its reality.
- Resources are being applied in an inefficient or uncoordinated manner.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Bill Baker. Excerpted from Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition
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