Why is Branding Cities Different?

August 3, 2016

When discussing the differences in branding places and consumer products with friends in advertising agencies, they frequently maintain that there is no difference between the two. To some extent they are correct. However there are differences that have a profound influence on the brand planning, brand implementation and brand management. These relate to the complexities of ownership, consultation, decision-making, product development, and experience delivery.

Unlimited Stakeholders

The path to revealing a city or place brand can be a tricky one that usually involves a multitude of stakeholders and departs somewhat from that generally followed for branding corporate products and services.  One reason for the variation is the composite nature of places which are a compilation of many independent and competing businesses, products, and experiences that are owned and managed by many different organizations with no single management team or custodian.

A city has many faces and identities. For instance, it may be known as a destination for medical services, golf, education and shopping as well as being home for residents, each with different levels of political, financial and community support.

The Challenge of Committees

While a corporate brand may need approval by a marketing team or Board, a city brand usually requires endorsement by several public organizations in which the players may never see completely eye-to-eye, may not share a common goal and have a different vision for the place. Another problem for many city brands is that important leaders frequently do not have strong marketing or branding credentials, nor do they have a customer-focused perspective. Yet they can exert considerable influence over the process and end result. The city brand must overcome enmity and rise above politics. Support from political leaders is vital and their understanding must be nurtured because they may not readily recognize the direct relationship between decisions they make and the reputation and attractiveness of the city.

Community branding must withstand a level of public debate that consumer brands rarely endure. A city brand must stand the test of time, public debate, political scrutiny, media questions, and the analysis of marketing partners. The best way to insulate the brand from this scrutiny is to generate buy-in and involvement through an open, consultative planning process.

Managing Interest Groups

Vigilant project leaders are necessary to ensure that the process follows an unbiased and objective view while constantly balancing the need to resonate with external customers and optimize support from residents and key stakeholders. There is also the challenge of balancing the influence of particular interest groups. The recommended brand focus might result in certain businesses being a central element, but this determination should be reached without political influence or coercion. Allowing the greatest strengths to rise to the top without undue influence will result in a much stronger and sustainable brand.

A City is More Complex

Place and destination branding usually requires an approach that is more conciliatory and inclusive than that found with most consumer products. For instance, being very specific with the positioning may unintentionally alienate some locals and cause controversy. Conversely, the trick is to avoid diluting the brand to the point where it loses its strongest competitive edge and ends up being seen as bland and irrelevant.

Additionally, unlike a consumer product such as a soft drink, cities are not discrete or independent entities. A city is much more complex and cannot be reformulated or terminated if it is not popular or is under-performing. Even the prospect of changing the name of the city can prove difficult.

Project and community leaders who are aware of the differences between the branding of places and consumer goods are in a much better position to adapt to these situations when they become evident. Their presence should not represent a barrier, but a need for further fine-tuning – and a lot of patience! Successful city branding calls for strong visionary, support and committed leadership.

© 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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