Branding isn’t marketing
When most people hear “branding” what they actually are picturing is marketing. There’s a big difference and this is where communities often go wrong. When branding is approached simply as marketing, it can and should get a bad rap.
Marketing is often about taking your message to an audience. For cities this can be to attract talent, tourism or investment. Good branding will certainly support your marketing efforts by helping shape that message and ensuring that it is authentic. However, branding does not just support external marketing efforts – it supports and shapes so much more than that. In fact, I argue that branding is even more important for internal audiences and internal decision making. Therefore branding is just as important even in communities that have no desire or need to market to external audiences.
Internal benefits of branding
Branding is about defining who you are and communicating and packaging that in a way that is consistent. Further, when defining a community brand, who you are not is just as important as defining who you are.
When a community is on the same page about who they are and who they are not, they can use that as a lens with which to make a wide range of decisions. This includes decisions about zoning, what events to host, incentives, and initiatives to invest in and prioritize. Without a brand as a decision lens, the day to day decisions that communities make will be all over the place and not working together towards a unified vision and goal.
In many parts of the county, like North Texas where CivicBrand is based, there is rapid growth that is coming whether cities and residents like it or not. Communities that do the upfront brand work to define who they are and who they are not can use that brand as a growth filter. That brand will attract the right kind of growth. It will attract those with similar or shared values and it will find its way into long range comprehensive planning that will shape that growth. Communities that don’t know who they are or who they want to be will simply be the victim of growth. Growth will happen to them but they will have no control over it.
Being on city or county staff is often a thankless job. Elected officials often get the credit while staff is behind the scenes doing the hard work and rarely getting credit for it. Staff often takes the blame and gets beat up on Facebook and in public meetings. Most residents and business owners have no idea of the hard work and many benefits and services that cities and their staff are providing for them. They only see when things go wrong. Branding can play a huge role in ensuring that the city and city staff are getting credit for many of those behind the scenes services. This isn’t about tooting your own horn but rather putting daily deposits in that “good” bucket so that you’re building the reputation with your stakeholders. In some communities that means better branding of the community events and festivals that residents love so that the city is getting credit for putting that on. They will certainly get the blame when there are potholes or trash in the park so it’s important to balance that with the positives.
Cities are often understaffed and overworked. This means that you have people doing a lot of good, hard work but they are heads down getting their tasks done. This often leads to departments being siloed. By doing the brand work you can create a shared vision for who the city is and where the city is headed. This makes it easier to connect the dots between initiatives and departments so that everyone can see the shared vision and where you are headed. It breaks down silos and puts you all on the same team. Cities with no brand or shared vision are often the most siloed and inefficient. This is because each department is starting from square one with their own vision. Cities that have defined that brand can build off the great work each department is doing and become more efficient and effective.
Lastly, and probably the most important is civic pride. When there is a shared vision, shared values and a defined way to see that and communicate that, it creates pride. This is why sports teams have such die hard fans. By having colors and logos, teams make it easy for their fans to buy in and show their support for their team. This is no different for cities. When you define a brand, you are creating something that people can be a part of. Everyone longs to belong and be part of something bigger than themselves.
In closing, branding isn’t about only trying to speak to tourists and outside audiences. Instead it’s about understanding who you are, who you are not, and then packaging that in a way that people can buy into, can use as a decision lens, can help get credit for the work they are doing and can simply be a part of. When it comes to communities we almost never use the phrase “rebranding”. This is because it’s almost never about changing who you are or going in a different direction. Instead, it’s about engaging the community and uncovering that brand that is already there but that just isn’t well defined and that isn’t being communicated very well.
Next time someone talks about branding or marketing in your community – speak up. Don’t let it be dismissed as simply marketing to external audiences but also don’t let it just be a marketing campaign disguised as branding. Instead help your fellow residents, business leaders, staff and elected officials understand the value and internal benefits of branding the right way.