Understanding Branding: Insights into the Hottest Trend in Municipality Marketing
By Don McEachern, CEO, North Star Destination Strategies

In Arizona's highly competitive environment, an effective brand can offer hope for moving your community from good to great.
Chances are good that you have heard about one of more of your neighboring communities embarking on a branding campaign. Branding is currently the hottest trend in municipality marketing. But before you jump on the brand wagon, take a close look at this nationwide marketing phenomenon. Is it hope? Or is it hype?

Essentially, your brand is what people say about you when you're not around. Your community's brand can develop organically, without a deliberate initiative. It is a combination of emotional and intellectual reactions to all the different experiences, marketing communications and behaviors people have encountered on behalf of your community. Unplanned brands are often fragmented, ineffective or even negative.

The good news is that your brand is not set in stone. Branding is the process a community embarks upon to change, refine or improve what people are saying about you.

But be realistic. Branding is not a panacea for all ills. It cannot eradicate racial discord or turn a culturally desolate city into a cultural mecca. What branding can do is focus people on the positive differentiator in your community, which can help it stand out relative to the competition. And that differentiator does not necessarily have to be a big thing. Perhaps your community boasts a more relaxed pace or excellent value for families. Presented in a unique and memorable way, these characteristics can make people want to spend their time, their money . . . even their lives there.

How broad is your brand?
Some brands are clearly the jurisdiction of a specific public sector organization. Las Vegas, for example, is very well known for its tourism product. Thus its entire brand was developed for and by its tourism people.

Other communities depend as much or more on economic development, residents, the arts and existing business for their health as they do for tourism. In those cities, a community-wide brand is the answer. In a community-wide initiative, city government should be at the center. Only city government has the best interest of all the public sector entities at heart. When a community brand is managed by the local government the brand stands a significantly greater chance of working for the city as a whole.

It is important that municipalities recognize their role is to "manage" not "own" the brand. A number of problems are inherent in the idea of a city wholly owning and controlling its brand. First, that type of control may impact buy-in from the bigger group including the private sector. And buy-in is mandatory, both from an implementation and a financing perspective. In addition, every four years or so city government may experience turn over.

One solution is to follow the lead of Gainesville, Florida, which last year launched a branding initiative backed financially and otherwise by an alliance of marketing professionals from 46 organizations found in the public, private and non-profit sectors and including heavy hitters such as the University of Florida and Shands HealthCare. This alliance "owns" the brand, making it invincible to political sway but the city is right in the middle of the mix from a management perspective.

Hope or Hype
Branding initiatives are often high profile and political. You are spending public dollars. So if your branding efforts consist wholly of the development of a logo and strap line (also called a tagline or positioning line), your branding initiative may be viewed as hype.

But in a well-executed branding campaign, the logo, line and any other creative, is only the tip of the iceberg. About 80% of the total effort is related to researching the current brand position and identifying the essence of what makes that community different.

In fact, don't consider embarking on a branding relationship unless the provider offers the following:

    Understanding: Start with research to understand your community's physical attributes in relation to the competition, to glean the opinions of the stakeholders, to determine the perceptions of current and prospective consumers and to identify demographic and psychographic information about consumers. You should be able to use this research not just for the branding initiative, but for a myriad of projects in the years that follow.
    Insights: In this stage you need to translate all those research facts into the emotional sparks that can bring your brand to life. I call these sparks insights - a series of fact-based emotional truths about your community. Just like a good storyline, these insights build to a conclusion that is your brand strategy.
    Imagination: Next, creative gurus breathe life and character into the insights and strategy the process has revealed. Remember, it is not enough for your creative work to be clever; it also must be on-strategy.

Spirit of Cooperation
In Arizona's highly competitive environment, an effective brand can offer hope for moving your community from good to great. Remember, however, effective branding is more than a logo and strap line, it is a body of research you can use to attract new businesses, allocate resources and prioritize plans. It is a strong strategy that can help ground and define all community initiatives - from signage to special events -- moving forward. And it is a spirit of cooperation that can help your leadership accomplish great things.

Alaska's Kenai Peninsula will launch its new regional tourism brand in the coming months. While all involved are pleased with the research, strategy and creative that have emerged, it is the elimination of political polarization within the region that has the stakeholders flying high.

Said Shanon Hamrick, Executive Director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, "The project has brought so much attention to KPTMC that it is elevating the organization to a place it has never been. I can't believe how far we have come in a year . . . I am to the point where I would recommend Branding based on the unifying effects alone."

Branding Champs
Your community doesn't have to be big or big-name to implement a successful brand. Following are examples of tourism, economic development and community-wide branding stories.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi was also looking for a tourism boost and turned to branding. First this charming town needed to identify its own essence. Who was Hattiesburg? And what kind of person would want to visit?

Visitor profiles and interviews revealed an extremely value-conscious, family oriented consumer who appreciates Southern hospitality - characteristics that Hattiesburg has in spades. Hattiesburg was positioned strategically as a charming, welcoming Mississippi town where visitors can find a good meal, a good deal, good times and good advice so it feels like you're with family or friends, even when you're away from home.

The line "Stay with Friends" was developed to support a creative campaign centering on a female persona who speaks to tourists with down-home wisdom and warmth.

Response to the campaign has been overwhelming. In 2004, the CVB was named CVB of the Year by both the Southeast Tourism Society and the Mississippi Governor's Conference on Tourism. It also received the Research-In-Action award from the Travel and Tourism Research Association (TTRA) and the Gold Award for outstanding tourism marketing by the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association, International. That same organization recognized Hattiesburg - along with Las Vegas, Barbados and Malaysia -- as one of the best marketing programs of 2004.

Tulare County, California is home to the world's largest tree found in Sequoia National Park. But the region had low awareness among tourists due to competition from its high-profile neighbor, Yosemite. Things weren't any easier for the county's economic development department, which battled California's reputation for high costs and stiff regulations. So how could this little-known county super size its reputation among economic development and tourists alike?

In addition to big trees, Tulare County boasts a slew of superlatives including the tallest mountain in the continental U.S., the world's leading production of agriculture and dairy, and a bigger bottom line for businesses and residents thanks to affordability relative to the rest of California.

Tulare County was positioned: For people seeking the rewards of California without the typical California "hassles," Tulare County is a prolific community in the middle of everything, where the generous land has yielded the highest agricultural production, the biggest tree, the tallest mountain . . . and continues to promise the greatest yield.

In addition, the county took ownership of the big equity in the Sequoia name. By changing its name to Sequoia Valley, Tulare County instantly super sized its name recognition and established an identity with all things big including "big" benefits to businesses and visitors. An extra incentive - the name joins the national park and agricultural valley in an association that highlights all the area's strengths and ensures community support.

The line "As Big as it Gets," launched a creative campaign featuring giant Sequoia Valley products contrasted with the modest yield of most cities.

McKinney, Texas has a solid dose of Texas swagger and a tendency to do things their own way. But their location - in the mammoth shadow of the Dallas Metroplex - meant they were often viewed as a cookie cutter bedroom community. How, then, could this unique community break out of the mold and show the world that McKinney's got its own?

Research showed that McKinney is very different from Dallas and other surrounding cities. Those differences include rolling hills, lots of green space, lots of attitude and lots of opportunity. Guess that's why it's the fastest growing city in the nation!

The strategy capitalizes on McKinney's self-sufficient, independent nature: For people who like to do things their own way, McKinney is a one-of-a-kind town near -- but not shadowed by - Dallas, where even Mother Nature feels free to stand out from the crowd so you have the confidence of knowing "McKinney's got its own."

The strap line "Unique by Nature" helped establish McKinney as a stand-out Texas town made unique both by Mother Nature and the independent nature of the people. The creative campaign juxtaposes the surprising natural beauty of McKinney with the other benefits of living and visiting the city.

Not quite two years after launch, the "Unique by Nature" campaign has racked up multiple awards including two International Association of Business Communicators Awards for "Best Marketing Communication" and "Best Strategic Communication."

Hotel/motel tax was up 22% in 2006 over the previous year and city sales tax revenue was up 17%. The population is estimated to have grown by about 19,000 people. From an economic development perspective, there has been more than $1 billion invested and 5 million new square feet of development.

Don McEachern is CEO of North Star Destination Strategies, the nation's leading provider of integrated branding solutions for communities. Having spent more than 22 years growing brands and leading teams, McEachern is now the recognized expert in the exploding field of community branding. North Star's process combines research, strategy and creative, and has helped create unique and effective brands for big-name cities like Downtown Anchorage, Alaska; Monterey, California and Williamsburg, Virginia. That same process and passion has also been applied to small cities that will soon be household names such as Uvalde, Texas, Seward, Alaska and Warrensburg, Missouri. www.northstarideas.com
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