Place branding is one of the most complex forms of brand development. Smaller destinations have many more moving parts and far less control over brand consistency and adoption than a startup or restaurant.
The businesses within your community have their own priorities. Your residents are probably very vocal about theirs. And visitors need a reason to stop in. Oh yeah, and you have to keep your elected officials pleased with your work.
This can drive you bananas but there’s a way to build an exceptional brand with limited resources.
We all know the three main audiences for any municipality: tourists, residents, and businesses. Within each audience can be countless subsets and personas but they’re usually:
- Businesses: investors, developers, site selectors, existing small businesses, new small businesses
- Tourists: families, couples, tours, millennials, seniors, daytrippers, overnight travel
- Residents: too many segments to even list
Often, branding experts require that you promote aggressively to the values of every audience. But you’re not Orlando, New York, or any other major city that can attract all three from far and wide. There simply aren’t the time or resources, and there may not be competitive advantages for every audience. If you’re a smaller city, you have to put your attention where it counts the most. Where there’s strength, you can lead with a brand that stands on its own.
If you’re fortunate to host a university or provide abundant transportation, perhaps you focus on your economic development brand. If you’re located near a national park, perhaps a tourism brand may be where you invest. Residents need your attention either way; they’re not optional, so you’ll always have to speak to them.
So, how do you get to the point where place branding really plays to your strengths?
The Goal of Place Branding: Exceptional Experiences
At the core of any place’s brand (and then within each department’s brand) lie what makes the place truly special. In the place branding process, these areas are identified and the brand is built around them. These can include proximity to natural features, access to natural resources (or a large city) the arts, culture, transportation, a nearby university – the options are endless. Often, these strengths may only attract one type of audience, but the right positioning can still make your destination exceptional.
We all know about the big city brands and how they work to differentiate so I’ll use a couple of slightly smaller places to illustrate.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee is well aware that people visit their town as part of a journey through the Great Smoky Mountains. Instead of fighting that trend, they embrace it by positioning the town as the perfect basecamp for a mountain adventure. Every facet of the town seems designed for that purpose and, as a result, visitors get an experience that surpasses expectations.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle is an economic development powerhouse. While this area comprised of Durham and parts of Raleigh, NC isn’t much of a tourist destination, it draws businesses in droves. In fact, Apple just announced a $1 billion investment in a campus in the Research Triangle.
What makes both of these places exceptional is where they’ve put attention and investment. They’ve built brands that know their audiences, speak to their values, and don’t pretend to be something they’re not. Is Gatlinburg a commercial hub? No. Are people booking vacations to the Research Triangle? Probably not. But they both do one thing exceptionally well and thrive as a result.
What does your destination do exceptionally well? Your destination may not be the only place in the world where people can find your strengths; but with the right place branding and attention, it can be the only one they’d care to consider.