Branding a community is an adventure with an uncertain outcome. The uncertainty comes from, among other things, the involvement of a (appropriately) diverse group of people who are not likely to be experienced in this type of process, and the sometimes challenging task of invoking local attributes. An illustrative example is found in a recent Planetizen newsletter discussing a Rust Wire (rustwire.com) article on the challenges of branding a less-than-glamorous place like Cleveland.
The fact that a community's “brand” – its brand message, images, and uses – and its economic development strategies are directly related should seem obvious. The brand message would be integral to all economic development marketing efforts, and therefore should have a clear relationship to the area's assets, industries targeted for attraction, etc. Perceptions of a community evoked by the branding images will influence prospective employers and investors. However, the two activities, branding and economic development, often face coordination challenges, for reasons such as:
- Ownership of the branding process, which often falls to the originating or sponsoring organization, and that organization might be oriented to a specific aspect of economic development, such as tourism, a major business park, regional airport, major institution, etc., or to some group with no specific connection to economic development, such as a citizens’ organization.
- The fact that each entity involved in a branding exercise, within a group that could include but certainly not be limited to all of those listed immediately above, is going to have at least a slightly different notion of what branding is all about, and how a brand should relate to, and be used by, that individual organization. At the same time, the entities would ideally be attempting to develop and use a common brand in order to maximize its effectiveness.
- Branding, even for an individual organization, is one of those deceptively simple-appearing processes that is actually very complicated and forces people to think outside their usual comfort zones – confronting for example basic philosophical views on their relationship to the community, personal and shared values, and the like.
While we are not branding/marketing consultants, we believe that branding will become an increasingly critical component of progressive economic development. At the same time, examples of unsuccessful attempts seem (anecdotally) to be common – including branding exercises with inadequate economic development coordination. Consequently, we intend to explore the topic of crafting credible branding-process models, with input from branding-professional colleagues, on our blogsites and perhaps in future newsletters. From an outsider’s initial perspective, however, cities contemplating a branding exercise would do well to involve branding professionals early in the process, and be ready to commit to working with a broad-based set of stakeholders who will then need to be oriented to the task.