Why Place Brands Fail

August 3, 2016

Adopting a city brand offers tremendous rewards if done correctly. However, sometimes these well meaning efforts introduce levels of complexity and pitfalls which could easily have been avoided if leaders had understood the nuances of place branding.

Many city branding projects get off to a great start with a lot of publicity and energy, only to soon run out of steam. Their momentum starts to lag, fresh ideas are not as frequent, designs start to miss their mark, and suddenly the brand has faded, it is confused, and becomes very fuzzy to customers and stakeholders.  There are many issues that can contribute to a failed city brand. Some of the common pitfalls that can contribute to these situations are:

1. Insufficient Understanding Of Branding

A local government administration or destination management organization (DMO) with a board, staff and partners that has an understanding of brand management, and  the concepts and techniques needed for a successful brand has a much better chance of defining its strongest positioning and brand elements.

Some community branding projects fail to gain funding support or become mired in controversy early on because key opinion leaders had not been briefed about what the project is and isn’t. Briefings should be built into the planning phases to ensure that stakeholders are well informed about the strategic nature of branding and its benefits.   Central to this is an understanding that branding is much more than a new logo, slogan or advertising campaign. At this point it is also important to convey the benefits of the project to residents and what it can mean for them.

2. Lack of Stakeholder Buy-in

Sustaining the brand requires the broad adoption and correct use of the brand by all stakeholders who can influence the most important points of contact with city customers. If the brand is only used visually through advertising and stationery, its impact will be limited. It’s best to build stakeholder buy-in from the earliest stages and continue to engage them over time to generate consistency in communications and delivery of brand experiences.

3. Failure to Grasp the Scope of Branding

This might also be referred to as logo and tagline fixation. Many communities forget to ensure that they are able to orchestrate outstanding visitor experiences before they roll-out their publicity and advertising campaign. Branding is all about delivering on a promise by orchestrating superior experiences. Branding is much more than a creative discipline – it is a management and strategic discipline as well!

4. Focusing On Short-Term Results

Remember, place branding is long-term and cumulative. The current image of the place may have developed over many decades and changing it will not happen overnight. While “heads in beds” may be vitally important to the viability of cities and their tourism partners, a short-term focus on occupancy alone is unlikely to support the long-term health of the city’s brand image. It takes time to build positive awareness, associations, name recognition and reputation. There’s no silver bullet!

5. Forgetting The Customer’s View

The greatest obstacles to successful community branding is insufficient customer focus and undue political influence and self interest. The preference for some political and opinion leaders to adopt risk averse, parochial, inclusive, self interest, or popular positions can run counter to the best interests of a city’s economic development when it is trying to promote its competitive edge. The focus should be on distilling the single strongest competitive advantage that will resonate with external audiences. Too many city branding efforts fail because they are based on what locals like and how they see themselves, rather than on what will be meaningful and valued by their external customers.

6. Disagreeing What is Being Branded

What are the boundaries? Is it just the downtown or the entire city? Is it the overarching brand for all communications efforts on behalf of the city? There is a delicate balance in the geographical and political scope of a community-based brand. If the brand tries to cover too wide an area and address too many different audiences, it may become diluted. This can happen by relying on weak points of commonality in order to simply gain agreement. From the start everyone should be clear about the parameters of the assignment, ensure that the correct problems are being solved, and be prepared to pay attention to the underlying issues.  Without this clarity, the exercise can quickly descend into confusion, ambiguity and controversy.

7. Insufficient or Irrelevant Research

While it is occasionally necessary for some places to advance through its brand planning without substantial customer research, it is not the desired option. Research, particularly consumer perceptional research, will provide a far more insightful view in determining attitudes and the strongest competitive positioning. Importantly, you need to know how prospective customers view your city compared to that of other choices and how their perceptions match their needs. Too frequently, cities are lured into research that simply delivers unnecessary “nice to know” information. Instead, they should zero in on the information that’s really essential for the action and strategic analysis required for building the city brand. Don’t spend too much time and money analyzing the demographics and buying behavior of locals when the real audience is outside of the city.

8. The Weak Positioning Trap

Don’t try to be all things to all people. At some point during every workshop we conduct, someone says “We have it all!”, “Small town, big city amenities”, or “We are the gateway to everything”. When conducting the process themselves, far too many cities make the mistake of thinking that they have hit pay dirt at this stage.  Claiming that your city or region “has it all” may feel warm and fuzzy, appease various local groups and avoid the tough decisions, but it invariably leads to very diluted positioning.  Failing to base the brand on its strongest and most distinctive benefits from the customer’s perspective will result in a weak and irrelevant proposition.

9. Not Following the Strategy

When no one has been given the responsibility to actively champion, manage or protect the brand, the effort can be patchy and will usually stray from the prescribed strategy and guidelines.  Successful brands are closely managed and protected, but responsibility for this is sometimes not well defined. If the brand blueprint is not closely followed, the strategy will be launched, implemented and adopted in an ad hoc and inconsistent manner. The worst result of all is when there is insufficient will to implement the strategy and “the bad old ways” are never left behind for fear of upsetting somebody. So much of city branding is about change management, partnerships and transitioning to a more effective focus for leadership, communications, resources, and behavior. It’s not going to happen automatically!

10. The Lure of “Bright Shiny Objects”

Advertising can be important to some cities, but designing a brand with an over-emphasis on an advertising theme is a recipe for failure. Allied to this pitfall is the mistake of selecting an agency planning consultancy on the basis of their attractive advertising examples. The selection of the best agency to create your advertising should be made when you have the strategy set and are at the implementation phase. Your first task is to get the strategy right, so that you lead the advertising in the right direction.  Of course, that also depends upon whether you have a budget sufficient to support an advertising campaign. It’s amazing how many communities are lured by a consultancy/agency’s attractive advertising examples when the city only has a tiny advertising budget. Beware of bright shiny objects!

11. Forgetting to Deliver What You Promise

Your brand is your promise of performance! It must be grounded in truth and reality. Therefore, like all promises, if you don’t live up to it, you will have a weak and unsustainable brand. An integral component of your brand management strategy must be dedicated to the essential actions and behavior needed for partners to collaborate in communicating and delivering the brand experiences that underpin the Destination Promise™.

12. Unhelpful Mindsets

We find that those places which are most prepared to “think outside of the box” and outside of the comfort zone are the likeliest to develop the most potent brand positioning and outcomes. Creating community-based brands is most successful when participants have an open and collaborative attitude in contributing to the common good. Individuals who have entrenched or parochial mindsets are usually unable to move beyond their own self-interest to embrace other perspectives. It is much more rewarding for all to strive toward collective results because these always prove more powerful than individual efforts.

13. Brand Fatigue

It is an old marketing truism that we get tired of our marketing long before our customers do. Some organizations ever so slightly depart from their brand strategy a small step at a time because they get tired of an aspect of it and soon find themselves considerably off strategy.  An important key to successful city branding is to encourage partners to focus on the Destination Promise and consistently use it in all creative executions and when collaborating to deliver brand experiences. Branding is long-term and cumulative. It is an ongoing organizing and management principle that needs continued focus to shape and deliver the brand over time. It involves a constant battle to remain relevant and distinctive.

14. Going It Alone as a DIY Project

Cities sometimes call on us to lead their brand planning after they have attempted to do it themselves. They found it too difficult without the objectivity, experience, and knowledge that a group of experienced specialists can bring.  Not to mention the time savings. Others try to reveal their brand by assembling a local committee to do the audit and strategic analysis. Too often the group lacks objectivity and fall into the trap of making locals feel warm and fuzzy, while forgetting about the realities of the marketplace and what will resonate with customers.

15. Not Engaging Specialist Skills

Not engaging a specialist agency or consultant to guide the community through all of the difficult analysis and decisions can result in less than optimum results. If you are considering appointing a firm to develop your brand strategy, ensure that they have a specialist background in brand planning for cities and regions.  Be sure that you will receive the personalized attention for the project and that you aren’t signing on to a logo factory.

Those cities that take steps at an early stage to avoid these and other potential pitfalls are in a much better position to develop a brand strategy that will unify and energize stakeholders, improve the city’s economic development and tourism performance, and enhance the city’s social capital.

© 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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