I recently spoke with the CEO of a small chamber of commerce on the East Coast. She said they wanted to “create a new city brand and change their city image in the next six to twelve months.” Rather than outline how we may be able to help them achieve their goals, I instead focused on managing their expectations and what a brand can and cannot do for them.
I explained that branding can, and does, bring short-term benefits but the true value and rewards of branding are long-term and cumulative. After all, it probably took decades to shape the current image and identity of her city. Successful place branding is achieved from many small victories, again and again. A city’s image is the result of thousands of influences and influencers over an extended period. On the other hand, a Grand Slam approach to branding a city on the basis of one big ad campaign is a sure fire way to blow the budget with little long-term impact. True success will only come from the consistency of messages and the delivery of outstanding experiences from many sources hitting their mark again, and again, and again.
Big budgets and better communications alone will not turn around the city’s image if its reality is standing in the way. It could be unattractive public spaces, crime, outdated infrastructure or lack of cooperation between businesses and among government officials that is holding the place back. Today, city branding can engage urban planners, architects, elected officials and placemaking specialists as readily as businesses, tourism and economic development marketers.
The benefits of city branding are considerable, however they will not materialize overnight because it will take time for the brand to gain traction within the community, among key partners and with key markets. From the outset, you must be sure that the objectives are clear and realistic, programs are well funded and that there is an understanding of what branding is and isn’t. This includes ensuring that no one expects a magic wand. And when the brand strategy is finally revealed, that’s when the hard work really begins – and it will take much more than a great ad campaign!