How to Market Your City? Be Brave…Very Brave.

One of North Star Destination Strategies’ most successful client stories is the Hub-Bub brand developed for Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Every time we tell that story – during a pitch, at a conference or to a client – our audience gets antsy and excited, often asking, “We would LOVE something like that. How in the world did you get community leaders to agree to such an edgy brand?”  Our response, “The Spartanburg mayor was very, very brave.”

hub-bub city marketing

Our advice to clients just setting out on a city marketing and branding adventure is to start by determining what your goals are for the brand.  Because once you have determined the strategic brand platform for your community, there are a number of different directions the creative can go . . . totally safe, middle of the road and completely unique and different like Hub-Bub.  

Totally safe will allow your community to integrate a consistent branded message.  Your community will look more buttoned-up and professional but you won’t stand out in a crowd . . . it also won’t make any waves.   Middle of the road is exactly that.  It represents something new and a bit edgier than your community is used to, but it certainly doesn’t push any boundaries.  Middle of the road may result in a little push back from stakeholders and residents just because judging creativity is extremely subjective.   But to REALLY get people buzzing, a completely different creative approach is the ticket.  Taking creative chances will set your community apart.  You must put a stake in the ground and definitively declare what you are and what you are not.  You must be willing to take some initial heat for your bravery.  Because when people talk, the talk will be both positive and negative.  That’s just the name of the game when you’re getting noticed. 

As a community marketing and branding company, we love it when clients like Spartanburg are willing to take risks and reap the rewards.  But we also completely understand the nature of politics.  It is much easier to take risks when marketing a retail product like cookies . . . just because the cookies don’t have an opinion about how you promote them.   But residents, stakeholders and businesses . . . they definitely have an opinion how you promote them (in people’s minds, their community is them).  And if your brand is so edgy it becomes mired in controversy, it certainly won’t do any good. Again, having a feel for the nature of your community and what you want your brand to do is critical before embarking on any type of creative decision making.   

Of course, there are ways to integrate edgier brands into a community without making so many waves.  For example, it is much easier to take creative chances with a tourism brand because it is directed outside the community to the consumer.  Some of our clients such as Lansing, Michigan have had success with a destination brand and then, when it has become an accepted part of the vernacular for the community; other public sector organizations want to adopt it.   People are more comfortable accepting something different when they have seen its success somewhere else.   

Another idea is to develop a more middle-of-the-road brand but look for some brave ways to deliver that brand message.  For example Grand Rapids, Michigan is one of North Star’s past tourism research clients.  As part of this project, we evaluated the response to Grand Rapids’ production of the Lip Dub Grand Rapids video, which has gone viral in a way that few people could have anticipated (5,561,272 You Tube hits as of this writing).  While the video was the brainchild of three local creatives, the Grand Rapids CVB agreed to lend their name to it.  We know from talking to our Grand Rapids client that there were a few sweaty palms when the okay was given to back this video in response to an article saying that Grand Rapids was a dying city.  And while not all responses have been positive . . . a lot have. And we happen to think exposing more than 5 million people all over the world (for a mere $40,000) to fun images of your community and its residents is worth its weight in gold. Millions of people are now familiar with Grand Rapids who had never even heard of it before. But backing that video was taking a chance.

Branding professionals themselves are split down the middle on this issue.  Some say “assume your residents and stakeholders won’t embrace your brand . . . but remember it is developed to make an impression with the outside consumer.”  Others say, “If people aren’t arguing about your brand, then it’s not provocative enough.”  On the opposite side, some advocate soliciting lots of internal buy-in, even to the extent of holding community-wide meetings to let residents, businesses and stakeholders “vote” on various creative aspects of the brand (see the top ten branding blunders).

Most important, regardless of what approach you take, stay away from “me too” messaging that your consumers – residents, visitors and businesses – hear every day.  That messaging is not safe, it is marketing suicide. The most common “me too” message in communitywide branding is “a great place to live, work and play”.   Don’t take our word for it . . . try Googling it.

What approach do you feel would work best for branding your community?  What forces in your community are driving that opinion?  Schedule a branding webinar with our experts to find out!