Why Community Branding Efforts Fail

Ed BurghardMay 13, 202236403 min

As I traveled the U.S. giving talks to economic development professionals on how their community brand could uniquely deliver the American Dream, I had the opportunity to listen to stories of many failed community branding efforts. I found the stories unfortunate because for the most part the failures were avoidable. The typical root cause of the failures tended to be one of three things.

1. Misunderstanding of the real scope of a place branding initiative. Most of the failed initiatives focused primarily on community promotion. The goal was simply to position the community in the best light possible. Place Branding is first and foremost a strategic exercise requiring the involvement and commitment of community leaders including elected officials.

To help drive this point home, I modified my basic branding formula to describe Place Branding:

Place Branding = Place Making + Place Marketing

I wanted to ensure Economic Development professionals understood how the two concepts are coupled in any place branding effort.

If you want to successfully brand your community, you must align your place-making strategies with your brand promise. That means the choices on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public program/policies must consciously be focused on closing negative points of difference or strengthening positive points of difference vs. competition in delivering the promise of better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream.

2. Under resourcing the place brand initiative. Many of the stories I heard were from small communities with very limited budgets. My feeling is if you can’t adequately resource a branding initiative don’t start it.

Failed branding efforts poison the well for years making it exceptionally hard to convince community leaders to support investing in a second try.

I recall a branding discussion at an International Economic Development Council conference where I was on a panel with three agency representatives. An economic development professional from a small community asked what we thought the smartest use of her $10,000 marketing budget would be. All three of the Agency panelists recommended market research to better understand the community’s competitive points of difference. I recommended investing the funds in ensuring the data in their Geographic Information System was as complete and accurate as possible. My recommendation was different from the other panelists because I knew the community was woefully underfunded to even think about starting a place-branding initiative.

If you can’t get the resources to properly engage in a place branding effort, then hold off on spending until you can. A failed place branding initiative will waste significant political capital.

3. Treating Place Branding as a one-off exercise. My friend Jim Glover pointed this root cause out to me. Many economic development organizations fail to establish multi-year budgets to support their place branding efforts. Even if the initial work is excellent, these communities essentially starve success.

Place branding is a long-term commitment. It is a fundamental driver of strategy and needs both the funding and personnel to support doing it right.

P&G is successful because it understands branding and is organized around the concept. That is why P&G’s success has been sustained for nearly 200 years. If you want your community’s place branding efforts to work, you need to adopt a similar mentality as P&G. Place branding must drive your strategies and your community needs to organize around the concept to ensure it is adequately prioritized and researched. That means your elected officials must understand and embrace their role in delivering the Place Making component of Place Branding.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Ed Burghard and excerpted from his book Building Brands: What Really Matters

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