Summer of Branding: Pt. I

Looks like this will be the “Summer of Branding” for me, as much of my work over the next couple of months. Therefore, I thought I would do another series focusing on the idea of place brand, why it’s important, and how it’s created and sustained.

Admittedly, my relationship with the concept of place brand has had its ups and downs. I was really first introduced to the idea when I was knee-deep in the rollout of the Knight Soul of the Community project. I was often asked my thoughts on place brand and how the Soul findings could inform a local emerging place brand. I have to admit, most of the place brands I was exposed to during that time seemed gimmicky and certainly not uniquely reflective of that particular place. So my first reaction was generally not a positive one.

Yet, over time I understood of the importance of a place brand. It’s a way for a place to identify and hopefully differentiate itself. Like a flag or other symbol of common understanding about something, place brands (when done correctly) should not only unify residents, but also send a message external world what that place is all about.

So over the next few blogs, I will continue to explore place brand and use my work currently happening on-the-ground in places to develop and champion place brands.  But in this intro blog, I thought I would start by identifying three ground rules that should govern any place brand development, evolution, and sustainability:

1. Place brand must be grounded in place narrative. If you don’t know who you are, you certainly can’t communicate it effectively to others. So going back to the old dating and marriage comparison, when you are out in the dating world, you have to know and be able to communicate who you are, your likes/dislikes, strengths/weaknesses, aspirational goals/real life realities to someone else. One thing not to do is just simply say: “Oh, I like whatever you like. You tell me what you are looking for and I can be that.” And unfortunately many places did just that in early place branding endeavors. By trying to be everything to all people, they really showed a hollowness and generalization to their brand that left them practically meaningless. This is an easy trap to fall into when you don’t do the work in owning who you are and want to be, using it as a basis for your place brand.

2. Place brands should follow the 80/20 rule. My general recommendation is that place brands be 80% actual and 20% aspirational. Most of your place brand should reflect who you think you are today (actual), but should also include where you’re heading as a place (aspirational). Unfortunately, again, many early place brands didn’t get that quite right in that they flipped the formula. They were 80% (or 90-99%) aspirational and not reflective of current reality  (plus they often phrased it as not even aspirational but as current reality. That’s a double whammy.)  So the brands wound up being somewhere along the lines of “there is no better place than ours in the world and there never will be”.  Again, come on.

3. Place brands should be based on resident perceptions and input. Don’t let a PR firm or even a consultant like me tell you what your place brand should be based on “what’s playing well in the market currently”.  Look inward, ask your residents. That’s been our approach in Lethbridge that we will be expanding upon this summer and the results are already well-received . Now, I will say, place brand development needs a placemaker, or a place-based scientist, on (or leading) your team.  I’m seeing through my own current practice that places are starting to turn to people like me rather than just working with a PR/ad agency when it comes to place brand development and that’s a good thing.  Still, a good placemaker should create a strategic, empirical methodology for learning resident perceptions about a place by focusing on key areas and cultivate them into an organic brand.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this hopefully gives you a good foundation. Next week I head to High Point to help conduct a training on place brand and messaging where I will focus on the “why” of place brand and how it should inform effective place brand development. Coming off that training, in my next blog I will focus on that “setting the stage” aspect of brand cultivation.

Until then!


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