Ten Myths That Weaken the Branding of Cities

August 2, 2016

Despite the branding efforts attempted by many communities, a disappointing number fall short of their goals because they are distracted by myths and fail to understand the fundamentals of city branding.

Successful cities are increasingly those that consistently deliver on a valued promise that is prized by customers, clearly differentiate themselves from competitors, and make it easy for customers to choose them. While a city can draw many obvious benefits from a healthy city brand, there are several myths that continue to work against some cities in their efforts to develop a valued brand reputation.

Branding is strategic! It’s a business tool, and it’s all about organizing, differentiation, focus and consistency. And you really can do it on a shoestring budget by optimizing the performance of all resources, communications, and improving the customer contact opportunities that are already in play. But the challenge for cities is to know what to focus on. In a nutshell, your brand is your promise of performance and is closely related to the reputation and image of the city. It is at the heart of everything that you should be doing as a city marketing organization or economic development agency to positively influence the perceptions and experiences of customers.

The following myths are some of those that get in the way of cities releasing their true brand power. Awareness of these will be valuable as you begin your brand planning process.

1. Our logo is our brand

We find that many destination marketers and their Boards still regard their logo as their brand. Developing a compelling and distinctive brand reputation takes much more than a new logo, new graphic design, or “a fresh coat of paint”. A logo is just one element in your branding toolkit. It acts as a cue to trigger positive thoughts and feelings about your brand. But, it is not your brand! What are those positive thoughts and feelings you want people to have about your city to give it a competitive edge?

2. And we have a tagline

This is the same syndrome as found in #1. Your tagline, if you employ one, is an important and expressive phrase to capture and dramatize the essence of your brand promise. Hopefully it hints at the reward or benefit the customer can expect or how they may feel about the place. It plays a valuable role, but again, it is only one element of your branding toolkit.

3. And we created our brand this afternoon

On several occasions city leaders have told us, “we created our brand the other afternoon”. Invariably, we discover that they simply decided on a tagline or slogan during a brainstorming session over a few hours. The reality is that a true brand strategy will not emerge in an afternoon. There are many complex issues to consider, and the views of many stakeholders, customers and partners to consider. Branding is long term, and a strong and sustainable brand strategy is generally revealed after several months of close collaboration and research.  Successful brands demand a strong foundation.

4. We don’t need to go “upstairs”

Branding efforts that do not directly involve the CEO, Mayor or Board of the organization are doomed to fail. Before the project starts, obtain the approval and firm endorsement of leading executives, and desirably that of the city’s political leaders who will be instrumental in the future health and viability of the city’s brand. They must understand why this project is important to the well being of the city and buy into the concept of branding. Help them understand that this is about the city image and ROI, and contributes directly to the effectiveness of the city in attracting income, investment and talented people. Simply presenting the brand solutions to them when completed is likely to result in a very weak brand, controversy, and failure to gain any traction.

5. We don’t need to consult anyone

We know of countries, cities and regions that have launched a new brand strategy only to find that it wasn’t supported by stakeholders and partners. This has most often occurred when the brands were developed behind closed doors by agencies with no (or token) consultation or collaboration with key partners, stakeholders, or the community. The process and rationale for a city’s brand strategy must be able to stand the test of time, public debate, political scrutiny, and media questions. The best course is to conduct educational programs, generate buy-in and foster broad support from the start. Destination brands can live or die on these important early steps.

6. Branding happens anyway!

Every place that you have heard of brings images and associations to mind, even if they are only vague. Some of these perceptions may be inaccurate, negative or even outdated. Nevertheless, they can influence your desire to visit or do business there. The challenge for cities is to bring to mind those thoughts and feelings that support the image and reputation it desires. A place that does not proactively manage its identity runs the risk of being positioned by competitors, the media and others, and usually to its disadvantage. Proactively managing your identity and brand reputation isn’t an option – it’s a must!

7. We can do it ourselves

Some cities have called on us to complete their brand strategy after attempting to do it themselves. Their efforts became bogged down because of the sensitive and complex decisions that must be made in determining positioning and the brand’s composition. They found that a successful brand strategy required unbiased outside objectivity, specialized experience, practical insights, and the type of proven collaborative approach that a team of specialists brings. Above all they should bring you honesty in the form of the sobering voice of the customer and the outside world.

8. We can’t afford it

It’s actually a matter of whether you can afford not to have a brand management strategy! A strong brand strategy provides the leadership, framework, and elements to focus the city’s marketing programs around building and managing the city’s reputation – and avoid wasteful ad-hoc efforts. If the city is allocating public resources to marketing and has not yet clarified what it is, what it does best, how it should be consistently conveyed, and why it matters to customers, it is wasting public money. Your city’s brand is what your combined marketing efforts should be trying to build in customers minds.

9. Branding is a marketing department thing

One of the biggest myths of all is that branding is the responsibility of the marketing department or tourism office alone. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone in the community plays a role in developing your city’s reputation depending upon their level of contact with its customers. Because a brand is built cumulatively by all contact with the city, the brand can fall down at any point, at any time. Delivering a memorable and respected brand is everybody’s business. It demands that the walls between organizations, individuals and departments be knocked down. Until all key stakeholders and partners understand and participate in projecting and delivering the Destination Promise, the brand will struggle to come alive. If the brand strategy stays in the marketing department it runs the risk of being limited to advertising, websites and other communications, and not superior customer experiences.

10. Only advertising builds brands

We have heard this myth many times. However, Starbucks, The Body Shop and Tupperware were all established with little or no media advertising. Their outstanding customer experiences enabled them to build extreme loyalty and advocacy among their global customers. Cities and regions are also able to intimately connect with their customers because they envelop them and impact all of their senses. These powerful encounters are among the most influential in shaping perceptions, feelings and thoughts about a place. It is incumbent upon all cities wishing to build a strong brand to ensure that they delight their customers at every point or moment where they meet. When a city can do this, they might then think about advertising. Advertising should not be the city’s first and dominant marketing investment. In addition to experiences available in the city, other factors such as word of mouth, social media, personal recommendations, and public relations can have a far greater influence on destinations than advertising. Cities that are aware of these myths are able to develop a brand strategy that has a strong strategic focus and is likely to attract broad community support, claim a potent competitive advantage and generate increased prosperity for the city.

© Destination Branding for Small Cities – Second Edition: Baker

NEW: Destination Branding for Small Cities - Second Edition by Bill Baker is drawing praise from business leaders, place branders and practitioners worldwide. It’s a must read primer that demystifies city branding and provides affordable, proven tools, templates and checklists to build a successful destination and place brands. Worldwide sales via Amazon.com

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