By John Paget & Chris Elisara, Founders of First+Main Films
Let’s remember something: branding started with cows.
Advertising gurus adapted the practice to brand products, and then to brand the makers of products.
And now we’re told that branding is for people, and for places.
Cities, regions and countries do place branding to attract tourists, talent and investment and promote exports. And business experts hype personal branding, urging us to “Be your Own Brand” and “Brand Yourself.”
The Onion mocked the trend as absurd (headline: “’I am a Brand,’ Pathetic Man Says.”), but the branding stampede shows no signs of slowing.
If something about this seems a bit off – if you’re not quite ready to add the “Inc.” suffix to the name of your town and your child – you’re not the only one.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, was asked “How should I manage my personal brand?” during a Q&A event at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her answer was surprising:
“Please don’t. Crest has a brand. Perrier has a brand. You don’t have a brand. Don’t package yourself. People are not that simple. And when we are packaged, we are ineffective and inauthentic.”
Sandberg’s critique of personal branding also hints at the limitations of place branding.
Let’s Go Beyond Branding
You are not a can of baked beans. And a place is not a box of biscuits.
Place branding can be useful and important – especially for places that have a strong identity and sterling reputation.
But that is not most cities and towns. Most places are unknown or unsung. They are underdogs or underachievers. They’ve got some unfinished business; some hopes and dreams still under construction.
For these places, our advice is: Don’t package yourself. Go beyond branding. Tell your story. Focus on believing, belonging, and becoming. A story can change a city in ways far more powerful than branding. Here’s how we do it.
Advertisements and marketing messages constantly bombard us. But who believes it anymore? Bill Lee first said it in Harvard Business Review in 2012: “Marketing is dead.”
There is one form of marketing that still works: word-of-mouth.
And for a city, word-of-mouth can only come from one source: your citizens. They shape how a community is perceived by outsiders.
It’s happening constantly, through a Facebook post, a phone call to out of town family, or at the conference hotel bar happy hour, when someone asks, “Where you from?”
You’ll go bankrupt trying to buy enough airtime to counteract the aggregate impression formed by these thousands of conversations.
If you let this sink in, it’ll tweak your idea of “target audience.”
Even if your ultimate target audience is outsiders (the talent and investors and visitors you’re hoping to attract), you’re got to reach insiders first. And that can be a tough crowd.
Empty boosterism or a B.S. branding campaign won’t cut it and may only increase cynicism. We know, because we first started making civic story films in Buffalo, New York.
If you came to Buffalo ten years ago and asked a local cab driver what there is to see and do in town, the cabbie would say, “Why on earth did you come to Buffalo? This place sucks!” With a look of pity, they’d offer to return you to the departures terminal.
When we make a film about a place, especially the unsung and underdog cities, our first aim is to help the city believe in itself again. Branding and packaging can’t quite do that. You can do that only by telling an honest, warts-and-all story.
For Buffalo, we created the film “America’s Best Designed City” and told the story of the city’s rise and fall. A century ago, with great vision and ambition, Buffalo became the best-planned city in the world; and then it squandered that legacy in a series of tragic blunders. So, we asked residents “What was Buffalo’s biggest mistake?” and we got candid answers. We included those comments in the film, along with imagery, the evidence of those mistakes seen across the city today. But the story didn’t end there.
We also asked them how to fix those mistakes, and what signs of hope they see today.
To bolter that hope, we highlighted how a younger generation is rediscovering and revitalizing this historic Great Lakes city.
Confessions and dreams. Grit and determination.
The film unlocked feelings of pride and love for Buffalo. It gave people the courage to stay, to invest, to take risks.
And it unleashed a volunteer army of ambassadors – as people proudly shared the film to their friends and relatives around the world. Over one million views, all from word-of-mouth.
It comes down to this: you can do paid advertising that interrupts people with a dubious message from an anonymous source. Or you can tell a story that will help people believe in their city again, and they’ll spread the news in ways that will have outsiders believing too.
Imagine that you’re interviewing for a job.
They invite you in and say, “Tell us about yourself.”
You answer, “Well, I dress professionally. I show up on time. And I brush my teeth and shower every day.”
They’d be baffled by this response, right?
Too many cities, in their quest to attract people, are making this same mistake.
Their opening pitch is “low taxes, affordable homes, safe neighborhoods, great schools!”
All important things. But all basic things, things that should be assumed.
The essence of a place isn’t about these prerequisites – it’s about belonging.
A sense of belonging is the most important thing a place can give us. It’s what places are for. So how do you talk about belonging? It’s nuance, not numbers. It’s unique, not generic. Identity, not imitation.
One of my favorite place marketing campaigns was launched by the state of Nebraska a couple years ago: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
Wow! I had never remotely considered a vacation to Nebraska, and suddenly I’m wondering if maybe – just maybe – I’m one of the select few that belong there. “Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” makes you curious, and sets them up to talk about all the important things makes the region special and surprisingly cool.
For Buffalo, we launched a series of very short videos called “Buffalo 101” to highlight the cornucopia of little things that combine to make the city what it is. The most watched episode? A short vignette about how our city smells like Cheerios. They’re still toasted here along the river; and for Buffalonians, it’s not just a scent – it’s a whiff of pure history – a visceral connection to our proud past as the world’s largest grain port and the birthplace of the grain elevator. It’s just one of the many insider idiosyncrasies that creates the feeling of belonging to a place.
Not for you? Not for everybody? That’s OK. Chances are, if you’re trying to attract everybody, then you’re saying nothing.
We are drawn to places where we feel we belong. But a place that feels like nowhere – or like everywhere else – will never give us that sense of belonging. We can only belong in a place that is some place.
If you’ve brainstormed a list of things that makes your place truly different and distinct and you’re coming up short, don’t worry. You’ll find it. Every town has it – it’s often hiding in plain sight. That thing that makes you unlike any place else is your story.
We were recently hired to create a film to attract investment and talent to a trio of towns in upstate New York. In our first meeting, the clients were concerned that there was nothing to film yet. They were optimistic about the future of the region. An exciting revitalization was under way. But for them, it was still early.
They wished we were making the film five years down the road, because by that time there would be so much more to show. Yet the need to promote and catalyze their nascent revitalization was now. So, we started rolling. Sure, there was no finished product; but we knew we had something better: a story.
We crafted the film’s narrative around the towns’ illustrious past, their rise and fall, and profiled the hometown people taking crazy risks to restore buildings and start businesses. We captured the aspiration, the journey the community was on. And our film “The Square Deal Towns” became a rallying cry for the community.
Here’s why it works: People are drawn to places with a story, especially the story of what you’re becoming. It’s history, but not merely history. The becoming story is still being written today, so we can experience and participate in it. The message is never just “Come see our great history.” It’s “Come help us make history.”
That’s a powerful invitation.
If your place isn’t quite perfect – not ready for packaging – then tell the story of what you’re becoming. Invite people to experience and join up on the journey.
With branding, there is always some sleight-of-hand. Suddenly, an ordinary sneaker or soda pop gets imbued with some deeper inspirational, aspirational meaning – if you buy it.
But a place, a city, a hometown? It’s the real, “real thing.” It’s not a product, and it’s not for sale.
It is heritage. It is community. It is identity. It is home.
That’s why we want to go beyond branding. We want to make films for places that are ready to tell stories about believing, belonging and becoming.