City Branding vs Destination Marketing
By: Scott Burkhead
Many smaller cities across the nation are losing their population. The twenty-five largest US cities on the other hand, are doing well, except for Detroit, and a few others with less dramatic problems. The next twenty-five rated by size are mostly doing well, in fact some of the fastest growing places like Austin and Raleigh are in this group. But for the rest of the country, the report is not so good. For example, even with hot spots like Charlotte and The Research Triangle area in North Carolina booming with job creation and growing populations, only about ten out of 100 counties in the state are showing significant growth. Another 20 are holding on, or are on a path that promises to result in growth. The remaining 70 counties are stagnant or declining. In varying degrees this is a pattern repeated throughout our country.
Reasons for the shift from a geographically diverse economy to a metro-centric economy are complex, and range from loss of manufacturing and mining jobs to cultural conditions that work against retaining young, educated workers. Sometimes aging infrastructure or political apathy add to the problem. Many cities do not communicate their actual performance well, even on their own website. This also applies to states, counties, and regions. The Innovation Cities Index is an interesting read to get a sense of the market. It is baffling, for example, the number of American small cities that have poor or even no broadband service.
How to fix this
Branding, of course, does not make up for lack of broadband or other infrastructure, or for undesirable location. However, branding is a tool to create interest in your city while you’re focused on implementing a long term vision and the changes or improvements that are needed. But, caution. Branding isn’t just a new logo, or color scheme for city offices and like any other professional improvement it can be ineffective, and even destructive, if not done correctly.
Recent examples of towns that successfully rebranded themselves are Morganton, NC, bouncing back from the loss of textile industry jobs, and high growth small city Greeley, CO. Morganton takes full advantage of its proximity to tourist attractions like Asheville and the Smokey Mountains. Greeley benefits from a different dynamic. Greeley is an hours drive from Denver, a dynamic, large metro area, and offers prized small town attributes like less traffic, good schools, and relatively low housing prices. Greeley urges people and companies to Grow.Trust. Build. Invest. Not exactly an ear-worm positioning line, but the city knows what they have that makes them different, and the message is working well.
Just as the reasons for the problems that cities face vary, solutions can be complex. But there are steps small towns and cities can take that in a few months will put them in a position to compete for potential visitors, new residents and job creators. It is called Strategic City Branding.
Why is branding so complicated?
It shouldn’t be. Unless the city attempts it without professional help. My friend Dennis is a neuro-surgeon. I can not listen to him describe a complicated spine procedure without wondering how what he does is possible. But, for Dennis, while critical and tedious, surgery is not complicated or confusing. He has done these procedures hundreds of times. Like Dennis’ patients, your city will be off to a good start if you select an experienced team that you’re comfortable working with to help you through the process. Much of the confusion about branding comes from the lack of universal terms. “Destination Marketing,” “Place Branding,” “Place Marketing,” and Strategic City Branding are terms frequently used to describe how Places differentiate themselves.
Strategic City Branding (or county, region or country)
Cities are both products and services, and are fundamentally supply-based entities. They do not fit into classic marketing applications that are focused on demand-based clients. Strategic City Branding starts with existing assets and is therefore supply driven, and must start inside out, as opposed to marketing which is demand driven and outside in. This is not to say the strategic branding effort ignores the potential outside target audiences. It means that the city needs to understand what it’s current strengths and weaknesses are, and decide how the attributes can be a tool to attract relocating companies, visitors and new residents.
Destination, or place marketing, works for Sea World, or a trendy resort in Bimini, attractions that can quickly adjust their product to appeal to a particular audience. But cities must work with existing political structures, the business community, and the people who live there. An effective city brand strategy brings all stakeholders together – from investors to officials to residents – at the beginning of the process. Indeed, it is supply based branding.
What are the first steps in City Branding?
Someone with an objective, unbiased view should look at the core value of your place with fresh eyes and share what they see with others. Additional examples of cities that found their difference and appeal are Chattanooga, TN, Hamburg, Germany, and Chatham Park, NC. Regardless of size (Chatham Park will house sixty-thousand residents when built but currently has no residents) these communities all looked inside and found the core of their values and personality and infrastructure and turned their strengths into a vision to lead them forward. Your city or town can do the same. If you’d like to talk about how your city or town can benefit from Strategic City Branding send the contact form on this website and we’ll schedule a call. No obligation, we love talking about this subject.