Well, if you’re following us, this is the third in a series of four Op-eds on the future viability of local governments. We led off with some dire predictions based on long-term trends we see – it wasn’t a pretty picture. Based on feedback from that, we next jumped into a discussion of civic well-being as a potential mitigating force. Now we turn to branding your city. If you have the civic well-being angle covered, how do you communicate that? That’s where branding comes in.
What is a brand?
A brand is a living, breathing relationship that is forever changing between your stakeholders and the focus of that relationship: your civic brand, which is a clearly defined and identified entity with an associated promise of value, purpose and values. In other words, a brand is what “they,” your stakeholders, say it is – NOT what you say it is. A brand is the sum of all that you do and don’t do as experienced and interpreted by others. In your case, it is the shared experience of the place you are stewards of and the people who congregate there.
If you don’t demonstrate that you have a positive purpose and share it, then you don’t and won’t have a positive shared experience. The speed of word of mouth has never been quicker and is only picking up in speed and velocity through social media, interconnectedness and the global village as well as peer-to-peer review sites and smart phone apps. Today is a new era of transparency, authenticity and the never-ending thirst for trust. If citizens and other important stakeholders such as employers and investors don’t trust you to maintain and grow their brand experience in a positive, shared way – you’ll be fighting a losing, uphill battle. Listen to the leaders.
“A city is not Coca-Cola,” says Alison Maxwell, deputy director of economic development for Glendale, Calif. “It’s a living, breathing, amorphous entity. Good branding can bring the sum of the parts together and give you a hook to hang your identity on.”
A place brand is the specific purpose, values and value associated with a defined place and mental space be it a city, town, or county. If your local government is not a well-recognized brand that is easy to identify and relate to – associate positive attributes with – you’re in big trouble. If your stakeholders can’t quickly feel and share the uniqueness and value of your brand, then you’re indistinguishable at best or memorable for all the worst reasons.
Consequentially, your stakeholders will over time abandon you and your word of mouth will only get worse. On top of that your savvier competitors, and they’re many, will be working day and night to build their brand at your expense. Thus you will lose the competition for the hearts, minds, wallets and feet of your stakeholders and you will become a collection of crumbling, half-forgotten buildings – in other words, a modern day ghost town – and you’ll be out of a job to boot.
‘Place branding’ is about much more than geographic location. It’s a ‘social space.’ Show and share your distinctness in easy to understand, concrete terms and values that will appeal to your stakeholders’ heart and head.
Why should you care?
Because your competition will eat your lunch. Is it worth it? Yes, if you want to attract and retain top talent.
Talent is the engine of the innovation economy. Brand is the emotional link that connects these bright people to your place. The more talented and well-educated folks are, the more choices they have, and the more they might not choose your brand of governance. If they don’t, then you’ll loose the best and the brightest, and much else worth keeping such as tax base, jobs, economic resiliency, favorable word of mouth, etc. which will follow them out of town and over to your competition.
So what to do? Take a look at where your community came from, where you are today, and where you should and could go in the future. Then start working backwards from your ideal trajectory point guided by the North Star of your core purpose to start figuring out how to get from here to there, step by step:
- Step #1 is to define what today is your civic brand in the hearts and minds of your stakeholders.
- Step #2 is to do a gap analysis of the difference of what you think your brand is and what it actually is.
- Step #3 is to determine what to start doing (more of) and stop doing.
- Step #4 is to develop a plan of action to further clarify, deepen and sweeten your relationship with your stakeholders.
- Step #5 is to put that plan into action as soon as possible in as many ways possible and track the results, making course adjustments along the way.
- Step #6 is to communicate all this and invite folks to participate through town halls, interviews, community events, social media, county fairs, etc. while always asking what do we want to be remembered for and are we acting on that… making our intentions, our brand promise that will consistently deliver value, real and palpable?
Either define or be defined. Brand or be out-branded in the heated competition for the wallets, votes and feet of your stakeholders: your citizens, employers, workers, investors, boosters, reviewers and visitors. Make it a win-win for all your stakeholders or you could lose... everything.
If you think of water, for example out West, as an irreplaceable, life sustaining resource, and then think of trying to live without it. Now, think of living without a positive brand for an extended period of time as a parallel. You have to replenish the wells of brand goodwill on an ongoing basis, otherwise you’re community is going to run dry.
More and more local governments are hiring Chief Innovation Officers, which is a good step forward. But in itself it will only be a source of short-term publicity and novelty if it is not made part of something much bigger and permanent. Innovation, like good service, must be a cultural trait imbued, recognized and rewarded across the entire bureaucracy of local government.
How do you get the word out?
By tracking, measuring, analyzing, extrapolating, and predicting. Through ROI studies and investing in the most promising, biggest returns communications. Using omni-sided communications from peer-to-peer to one-to-many to many-to-many, 24-7-365. Don’t shotgun it. Define your stakeholders, identify the best channels to engage them and frame your message in their terms – not yours, and start an ongoing conversation
1. Use an interactive multi-media approach including social media.
To start, define your lowest hanging fruit and be quick to act on them to demonstrate action and seriousness. FYI, everyone is in the marketing department… all local government employees and contractors… volunteers even. Beyond that, all your stakeholders and how they act define your community’s brand to one another and to those beyond.
2. How do you know if it is working?
Set up a multi-indicator dashboard (quantitative and qualitative) and do routine audits of external sources. Do Brand Tracking by setting up a baseline of key emotional indicators with pools of corresponding people and then track sentiment over time.
Ok, now that we covered all that ground we will next explore the nuts and bolts of ‘how’ do you move your city in this well-being, well-branded direction? Stay tuned.