Five Things Every Community Should Know Before Starting a Branding Process
Across the country local governments, economic development commissions and destination marketing organizations are branding, or rebranding, as they seek to strengthen their market position. We’ve seen these process go incredibly well…………….and incredibly badly.
Here are five things every city manager, economic development officer or destination marketer should know before beginning a branding process.
- Communities are NOT products.
There’s a world of difference between the latest video game and your community, which means the skills and processes required to develop an authentic brand for a community, region or state are very different from branding a product or service.
Case in Point: When a community near us hired a design firm more experienced with products than communities, the project blew up, leading to this story in the local paper:
“The department’s “branding” project remains stalled. Initiated with great enthusiasm, with a budget of more than $100,000, to develop guidelines for promoting the town to audiences outside its traditional boundaries, the project ground to a halt over dissatisfaction expressed by Council and others within the Town, with four designs for a new logo. “
2. Strategy drives design
Done right, branding is a fundamental pillar of communications strategy. Graphic design has to be an expression of that strategy – not the strategy itself. When was the last time you moved to a community or selected a vacation destination because of the logo? Never? Exactly. Yet too many communities obsess over the logo, rather than the overall strategy.
Case in Point: When the State of Rhode Island hired a brilliant graphic design artist, they ended up with design instead of strategy. And it blew up in their face.
3. Process Matters
For a community brand, process matters and that process has to truly engage the broadest range of stakeholders. Talking to the usual suspects means you’ll miss out on the fullest range of information and viewpoints. As important, you’ll have failed to engage them as partners, making it more likely they’ll oppose whatever you come up with. Every community has that well known “difficult” person(s). And while its tempting to avoid them, it’s a mistake.
Case in Point: As third generation resident and head of the local historical society in her small New England city, Rita was at best hostile to the entire branding process, and only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed during our discovery phase. Yet despite her rather chilly tone, she shared stories that turned out to provide the connective tissue for lots of other data. Had we avoided talking to her, we would have missed out on real insights into the richness of the community.
4. Tasting the Bait
I used to work with a very smart and very cynical political consultant who would periodically remind clients that “the bait has to taste good to the fish, not to the fisherman.” The reasons you love living in your community may NOT be the same reasons someone would visit. The reasons that are most important to you may NOT be the most important to your target audience. A smart branding strategy lives at the intersection of what’s true about your community and what’s most meaningful to the target audience.
Case in Point: When we began working with the Gardiner Montana Chamber of Commerce, they insisted that the most important marketing messages were their proximity to the Bozeman airport and their four season access to Yellowstone National Park. Yet when we tested ten messages with the target audience, those two came in # 9 and # 10. Testing the messages (bait) with the actual audience vastly improved the effectiveness of their marketing investment.
5. A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
Finally, communities often look for an agency partner who already knows them by virtue of being located nearby. But time and again, we’ve seen the importance of coming to these projects without preconceptions. By having fresh eyes we find truths that others don’t see. And frankly, the most fun part of the project is discovery – getting to the core of what a place and its people are all about, and then celebrating that. The best compliment we hear again and again is “Wow – you really get us!”
Bottom line – branding your community is one of the most important investments you can make, and you don’t get a do over. Understanding these five points before you start will set you on the path to success.