I help destinations and communities with the process of branding themselves. It’s not an easy task. Perhaps mostly because unlike any company, there is no sole organization or person that has control of the marketing efforts. A “place” is defined by ALL of the businesses, people, organizations, buildings and stories within it. And all of them speak in a different voice. It is very important for the lead organizations of a community to rally together and capture a unified voice that can be used for outward marketing of tourism and economic development. That process requires great collaboration, organization, expertise and resources. Even when that happens, I’ve learned the communities that are most successful, do so because of related (and sometimes not) organic events that give them instant identification. Here are five that jump to mind.
1. What’s your team? Seems a little strange right? Does your community have a professional sports team? If so what is their name? Bowling Green, KY has the Hotrods. Chattanooga has the Lookouts. Green Bay has the Packers. Pittsburgh has the Steelers. Houston has the Oilers…oopps… I mean the Texans:) If you do not have a team, you can still ask the question, “What would it be called”? More often than not teams are named based on the heritage and the core identifier of the community.
2. What are your greatest exports? Exports are products that are marketed outside of your community to the rest of the world. You’d be amazed how much this influences perceptions of your community. Ask anyone about Augusta, GA and they’ll say the Masters. Gainesville, FL is almost always associated with the Florida Gators. Gibson guitars are known throughout the world but are all made in Nashville. Does your community have export products like Louisiana Hot Sauce? You’d be surprised at how many you have but no one knows they are from your town. Locating these partners and persuading use of your city name in their marketing (or at least their labels) can go a long way.
3. Tap into community pride. No one thinks your town is a great place to live, work and play more than the people who live, work and play in it. Arguably one of the greatest destination branding efforts of all time was “I Love NY”. This effort started by the need to give New Yorkers a sense of pride (and pick up their trash). You can do the same thing. Recently Bowling Green, KY dedicated an entire week and day to “I love BG day“. Merchants across the city were giving out specials to anyone who was wearing the “I love BG” button. Grand Prairie, TX had a similar effort using “100 Reasons Why I Love Grand Prairie“, where locals were encouraged to submit their own entry. In all cases, these bring out authentic experiences and stories that capture a sense of pride.
4. Your events. What are your showcase events and festivals? No, not your 4th of July festival or Christmas parade. Everyone has those. What are the signature events your community has that give it definition? An International BBQ Festival like the ones in Owensboro, KY or Memphis? Dublin, OH has an Irish Festival greater in size than it’s population. Shreveport-Bossier City, LA is know for its Mudbug Madness. Even Music City’s crowning event is the CMA Music Fest. Events are great because they first and foremost give the residents and businesses a common time and place to connect with each other. The breadth of it attracts outsiders and gives them a taste of your unique culture. What is your marquee event say about you. If you do not have one, what should it be?
5. A community’s appearance. We all define ourselves by what we wear. Whether its sweater vests, suits, daisy duke shorts, flip flops, tie-dye shirts or flannels. So of course, the “dress” of your destination does that same. If you destination’s skyline or first noticeable visual is a grain silo or a barn, then do not be surprised if people see you as a farm town. A community’s architecture, streetscapes, and cleanliness says a lot about who it is. Ask Columbus, IN who is constantly listed as one of the top five architecturally significant cities in the country. Their bridges, fire departments, libraries, churches and even city hall are testaments to their commitment to great design. It’s a little unexpected but definitely sets a new expectation for the type of thinking that comes out of this community of 30,000 people. So one BIG way to make a dent in your destination’s identity is to involve your local public works and area developers in your branding plans.
There are many ways to create a destination of distinction, but hopefully these will get your juices flowing towards action. I would submit these things can do far more for branding a destination than a great catchphrase or logo. One more thing, please refrain from using “A great place to live work and play as positioning message”. Everyone does it and no one outside of your community cares. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Truth.
A little hint for marketers of traditional public and private organizations, the idea behind all of these can apply to any business. Try it.