Best Practices for Managing a Place Branding Project

A Q&A With Director of Project Management Sam Preston

For community marketers, managing and navigating a place branding initiative is no easy task. 

With football season kicking off, we thought it would be timely and accurate to compare the roles of this community marketer or manager to a quarterback. You’re running the show and are typically most responsible for ensuring the project operates smoothly, in unison and successfully. There are a lot of factors and spinning plates at once, many of which are difficult or impossible to control. So, your game plan must be strategic and tailored to how you complete the initiative on top, with a strong outcome.

Our Director of Project Management Sam Preston, who counsels and works alongside community managers every day, answers a few questions below that can provide helpful guidance to those considering a branding initiative.

We always say, “branding has a branding problem.” What is the most common or significant “branding problem” you see for communities?

There’s a negative connotation to the terms “brand” or “rebrand.” Many believe it means the community is planning to tear down everything they have to make them something they’re not. Or, those terms can seem squishy and valueless.

In reality, this is never the objective. There’s already a brand that exists in every community. The job of community marketers and place branders is to help uncover it and figure out the best way to bring that authentic brand story to the surface.. 

As the quarterback of such an initiative, you must tell the story repeatedly and ensure the public is well informed of the project’s goal, ultimately remaining in control of the narrative and securing community buy-in.

As community managers understand well, every initiative will involve doubters and nay-sayers. What are the best ways to engage with those individuals to mitigate their concerns?

The Four P’s of community branding are “Passion. Passion. Passion. Passion.” Residents and community stakeholders love where they live because of its authenticity. They don’t want it made into something it isn’t, which can drive doubt. 

We encourage meeting with these individuals to uncover what it is that they value so much, and why they view the community in such a protective light. These people exude passion and have had some incredible experiences in the community. We always seek to engage them at the beginning of the project when gathering perspectives about the community. Use that time as an opportunity to also explain your intent and goals not to change the community and its history, but to properly convey its story in the best way possible. Sometimes, initial doubters can turn into your greatest advocates.

Uncovering a community brand requires significant research and input from a community. What’s one aspect of that process that community managers may overlook? 

Some of the most influential, insightful and informative aspects of the planning and research process is the work that’s done externally, or outside of your community’s borders. 

Community leaders are well aware of most issues and messages that come from residents. But what they don’t often have a strong sense of is the strength of the municipality’s brand reputation elsewhere.

While it should never trump resident input, the learnings derived from nearby outsiders often reveal the least understood aspects of the community. Is your reputation only strong or understood within the community, but unfamiliar beyond that? How do people 45 minutes away, often a key target audience, perceive you? Why do or don’t people want to come spend an afternoon or a weekend in your community? 

These are all answered in external research, which is key to ensuring a brand’s story is told correctly.

What are some of the most common challenges community managers face when rolling out a new brand identity?

Going through the branding process is an exciting time, and it’s natural to want to celebrate the completion of the project in the public realm. Thus, one of the least anticipated or understood challenges of rolling out the brand is strategically and carefully releasing it in a way to gain consensus from residents and all key stakeholders. 

The top reason for community brand failure is lack of understanding of “the why” and therefore, acceptance, from residents who call your place home. At all costs, despite insistence from other leaders or project participants, you must avoid a grand “ta-da” moment and logo unveiling or “reveal.”. 

Instead, a thoughtful approach to explaining the why and the how of the project and the essence of the brand – first to community leaders, then gradually to the public – is the best strategy for gaining public acceptance. The message is about the brand story and your identity – what your community is about – not a logo or tagline. Think of it as a slow introduction and soft launch. Have questions for Sam or our team about launching a place branding initiative? Reach out today and let’s have a conversation.