by Karen Post aka the Branding Diva

Communities, cities, and even states all compete in the world of everything: commerce, tax bases, cultural riches, hometown intellects, the creative class, and happy folks using it all. It’s the fuel to keep geographic areas going and growing.

It also brews healthy combat zones, the seduction of buyers to destinations. For business or pleasure, the game is called branding. As in, regional branding.

For decades, this practice has existed, but more recently it’s become in business vogue and a powerful economic advantage.

As people and companies decide where to plop down their roots and cash, just like with any other buying decision, they need to feel the emotional connection to their needs and the earned trust to reduce their fears.

Destination branding is about
• clearly defining a purpose
• being distinct
• consistently communicating a persona
• delivering on a promise

Sounds easy enough. Then why is it that so many cities and other geographic destinations have a bad case of brand blues?

To track down the answer, I sent out feelers to the main information-disseminating practitioners, PR firms. The response was encouraging: Within 15 minutes I had almost 40 examples of branded cities, states, regions, and countries. Then I starting researching, checking out the so-called “branded” Web sites, and making calls.

Clearly there are well-branded cities and places. Bravo for those gallant efforts. These destinations have crisp stories, distinct attributes, and consistent messaging. They deliver the brand promise at all touch points. They affix a vivid brain tattoo on the minds of their markets.

On the other side of the map are many lost destinations and leaders who don’t quite get it. They think the brand is their jazzy logo or a catchy tagline. They think a costly ad campaign is the big ticket, and most of all, they are oblivious to the destructive power of un-united forces within their destination.

A city or destination brand is the sum of what the market thinks when they hear the brand name. It’s how they feel when they arrive at the destination’s Web site or experience other communication. And it’s what they expect when they select one place over another.

An effective destination brand resonates through all touch spots, including but not limited to the physical environment, entry and exit points, signage, marketing, residents’ attitudes, transportation venues (airports and freeways), events, Web presence, visitor services, and leadership.

Unlike product or company branding initiatives, however, branding a destination has an extra layer of challenge. Here are some of the most prevailing brand development dysfunctions and how you can work through them.

Creative Class Deficiency

Well, maybe “deficiency” is a harsh term. My point is that many cities lack creative potency or organized creative movements and allow fear to halt their creative progress. This spills over into their branding.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, sums up the impact of creative thinking and the Creative Class on economies.

“The Creative Class now comprises more than thirty percent of the entire workforce. The choices these people make already had a huge economic impact, and in the future they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither,” states Florida.

Competing Complexities
Most destinations have multiple sub-brands or voices. A typical city can have the business chamber, the visitors and convention council, economic development councils, and the government all reaching out with similar — and different — agendas.

“Hartford, Connecticut, needed to change their image, build a fresh brand, and increase business and visitorship,” says Michael Kintner, project director of the Hartford Image Project (HIP). Led by former Governor John Rowland, the HIP brought together 13 community organizations in 2000 to form a nonprofit marketing consortium.

“The result was ‘New England’s Rising Star,’ a cohesive brand story and visual system. The united group contributes funds along with corporate donors and we stay committed to communicating and living one brand message,” Kintner adds. “The initiative has been a great success. Annually we assess our efforts, brand recall is strong, and business is up.”

Committees Can Kill Even the Greatest Idea
A by-product of brands “for the people” is the committee that compromises and kills potential brand home runs. That is why you never see statues of committees in parks; you see brave leaders.

Adam Hanft, author of Dictionary of the Future, notes, “There is no question that multiple levels of government, etc. militate against a successful branding campaign. When the strategy and advertising become dumbed down so that it satisfies bureaucrats and ends up as self-serving pabulum, it’s destined to die.”

The way around this is for leadership to take control and say, “Listen, while some issues demand creating a consensus, this is one area where a consensus will fail.” What might be helpful is to show resistors the kind of advertising that works in today’s culture and how a city that wants to brand itself as cool must rise to that level.

While firm leadership is required, it also makes sense to create a small subgroup of special interests and involve them in the process. That way, their opinions can be heard, and they can feel invested in the process — and end product.
So Many Good Things, Nothing Stands Out

To gain something, something else must be sacrificed. The great brands in every industry have a strong singular message. The same thing applies to destinations. If you try to brand with everything that you have, your brand will mean nothing — unless of course your position is “A great city full of flea markets.”

One more thought from Adam Hanft: “Align your city’s strengths with what the market demands, and be pretty brutal about zeroing in on one communication strategy, and then stick with it.”

History Is Hard to Change.

Many well-deserving destinations are burdened by some mind-chiseled brand or event from their past. That’s certainly not the easiest of roads, but these situations can be turned around.

How do you brand a city best known for its tons of nuclear waste? Or a town that smells bad? Lynn Parker, principal of Parker LePla and author of Brand Driven and Integrated Branding, explains.

“These seemingly intractable branding challenges have been fought to positive effect by Richland and Tacoma, both in Washington state. In the first case, we approached it with an ‘if you can’t fix it, flaunt it’ method,” LePla says. “In our research we discovered Richland has more PhDs per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So we played up the atomic history through a grade B alien movie campaign, ‘Come to where there are signs of intelligent life,’ focusing on the well-educated workforce. We sent branded spaceships to 100 companies looking to relocate out of California and ended up with 100% recall of the direct mail box. We also achieved the center column of the front page of the Wall Street Journal.”

LePla continues: “In Tacoma’s case, the famous ‘aroma of Tacoma’ was history since the paper mill left town, but only locals knew it. So we designed a campaign around the Arts District, made up of a brand-new Tacoma Art Museum and its nearby architecturally interesting Museum of Glass and the Washington State Museum of History and Industry. Adding new, brandable assets expanded our story and strengthened the city’s brand.”

As you can see, destination branding is vital to compete and win. Take these steps and your brand can become a valuable, revenue-producing asset to your community.

Make necessary physical and mental changes to attract and keep “The Creative Class”.

Embrace a big, distinct idea; unite all subvoices to sing the same song; and stick with it.

Educate all forces and the community that the brand is not just the logo or tagline. It’s the sum of everything the destination does!