Economic Development

Are Municipal Branding Campaigns Worth the Price?

Brand marketing promises new attention -- and money -- to cities.
by | December 2012

For the last 12 years, Don McEachern has been traveling the United States and making a relatively simple pitch to city leaders coast to coast. For a modest sum -- typically somewhere between $80,000 and $200,000 for a medium-sized city -- he can help improve a city’s image, contributing to gains in tourism, economic development and citizen pride.

Many of his clients are places you’ve probably never heard of and will probably never visit, like Brookings, S.D.; Walton County, Ga.; and Goshen, Ind. But if McEachern has his way, once acquainted with them, you’ll never forget them. McEachern’s Nashville-based North Star Destination Strategies is one of the leading firms in the field of place branding, a specialized type of marketing that promises to help tell a community’s story by drawing on lessons learned from market research, focus groups and surveys. In short, McEachern helps cities develop their brand. Call it their essence, their character, their spirit -- whatever it is, a brand, McEachern explains, “is what they say about you when you’re not around.”

The field has its skeptics. Critics of place branding say McEachern and his ilk are selling a false promise. A city’s brand is developed over years by its policies and its amenities, and a glorified marketing effort can’t change that, they argue. But advocates for place branding say services provided by firms like North Star are so integral to the success of a city that it’s nearly impossible to compete without them.

Ultimately, does place branding really work? That depends on whether you trust McEachern. He insists it does. But he’s also the first to acknowledge that he has almost no proof.

Every city is trying to capture a little bit of the branding magic that has helped put some of America’s best known cities on the map. Many are associated with catchy slogans -- not necessarily developed by city governments themselves -- like “Keep Austin Weird” or “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” Other places have an instantly recognizable nickname, like the Windy City, the Motor City or the Big Easy. Those in the branding community say that while a slogan or motto is part of a brand, they’re more concerned with projecting a broader image of a community, like the reputation Portland, Ore., has as a haven for independent-minded hipsters, Santa Fe’s position as a destination for those embracing Southwest arts and culture, or Miami’s role as a place for sun, surf and nightlife.

But most cities aren’t Portland, Santa Fe or Miami. The vast majority of America’s small and midsize cities don’t have much of a reputation very far beyond their borders. That’s where branding consultants like North Star and its competitors come in, pledging to help communities distinguish themselves.

North Star officials speak at events run by groups like the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association. The firm distributes information about successful campaigns to potential clients, and its efforts have been well documented in local newspapers across the country. So when city leaders decide to pursue branding, McEachern says, “people think of us.”

The typical product provided by North Star and other companies includes a logo, a slogan and a broader message or narrative about a community, as well as a list of steps that should be taken to help spread that story. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard ‘small-town charm with big-city amenities,’” McEachern says. “That might be extremely relevant about a place, but it’s not the least bit distinct.”

If a community has done a particularly good job at identifying and understanding its brand, it won’t just serve as a marketing tool. Rather, it will actually be used to guide decision-making, almost like a citywide mission statement. Advocates for the process don’t shy away from emphasizing how important they believe developing a brand to be. A report by the group CEOs for Cities says branding can help repair a city’s image problem and raise awareness of what makes a city a good place to live. It goes so far as to call branding the foundation of what makes a place desirable. “A city is not Coca-Cola,” says Alison Maxwell, deputy director of economic development for Glendale, Calif. “It’s a living, breathing, amorphous entity. Good branding can bring the sum of the parts together and give you a hook to hang your identity on.”

You’ve likely never heard of Petersburg, Alaska, pop. 3,000. The tiny town about 110 miles southeast of Juneau sits on a coastal island that’s only accessible by boat or plane. With snowcapped peaks towering over a quaint harbor, it’s a picturesque Alaska fishing town -- which doesn’t make it all that different from many of its neighbors.

So last year, in an effort to distinguish itself, Petersburg hired North Star for the full branding treatment. (Since landing Sumner County, Tenn., as its first client in 2000, North Star has provided services to about 180 communities.) The firm conducted a series of focus groups, interviews and surveys of stakeholders, residents and Alaskans from other parts of the state. The data revealed some interesting aspects of the city. Its best assets, research found, include its reputation as an authentic town not inundated with tourists like other Alaskan coastal communities, and the fishing industry in Petersburg is well known and respected. Petersburg is also unique in having a deep-rooted Norwegian culture. While residents overwhelmingly said they’d recommend it as a place to visit, they weren’t as enthusiastic about recommending it as a place to live. Ultimately, the city’s historic lack of messaging meant many Alaskans -- even those living near Petersburg -- weren’t that familiar with the city. While obstacles like high transportation costs weren’t helping Petersburg get visitors, neither was its hesitancy to be its own advocate.

The key to a good brand, McEachern says, is linking up research with an authentic message that resonates. North Star concluded that while Petersburg can’t claim the distinction of being Alaska’s best fishing village, it could own the title as Alaska’s best Norwegian fishing village. That, North Star says, works to the city’s advantage because it plays into the town’s reputation as industrious and hardworking. North Star -- as it does with all clients -- boiled it all down into one sentence known as a “brand platform” that’s meant to be the driving force behind all the city’s messaging efforts: “For those seeking adventure and independence, Petersburg is at the heart of Southeast Alaska on Frederick Sound, where the fishing culture is distinguished by a strong Norwegian heritage, so your hard work and pursuit of authenticity are rewarded.”

In addition to developing a logo for the city (featuring six fishing ships) and a new slogan (“Little Norway. Big Adventure.”), North Star suggested some other ways the city could spread the brand. McEachern typically proposes strategies beyond traditional advertising, largely because he works with cities that don’t have big budgets for major ad campaigns. For starters, North Star told Petersburg to inventory all things “Norwegian” about the city -- festivals, foods, traditions -- and highlight them. It also recommended developing an online community calendar, a citywide Flickr account (followed by a photo contest), an endurance race through area trails and online job listings -- all to generate buzz about the town.

The firm designed signage for the airport and harbor, and directional markers around town that feature Petersburg’s new logo and color scheme. It offered suggestions for content and design of a new website, print advertisements and trade show booths. It gave ideas for merchandise to be branded with the new city logo, like workboots and fleece jackets. It provided city leaders with words they should use in written materials and even in conversation to spread the brand, like “authentic Alaska,” “small-town feel” and “adventure.” It even suggested a new way for city staffers to answer their phones that plays up the Norwegian angle: “Velkommen to Petersburg.”

The city and affiliated entities are using the new logo and slogan on business cards, stationery and websites. A new public library will include a totem pole that incorporates Norwegian designs, per North Star’s recommendation. A recent promotion with Dodge Ram at the Alaska State Fair offered fairgoers the chance to win a free trip to Petersburg. The chamber of commerce is scheduled to have a booth at the upcoming Seattle boat show in January. The community is even planning on advertising in Alaska Airlines’ in-flight magazine. “I couldn’t believe the number of people who came up to me and told me ‘I’m so excited about this project,’” says Liz Cabrera, coordinator of the Petersburg Economic Development Council. “It was almost like the horses got let out of the corral.”

Skeptics may wonder why Petersburg needed to spend $75,000 to get consultants to travel 2,500 miles and confirm that the Norwegian fishing town is, in fact, exactly that. But McEachern says that in the case of Petersburg, his company’s value is in providing insight on how the city should convey its message, as opposed to the message itself.

Still, skeptics contend that at a time when cities are struggling financially, it’s irresponsible to spend money on amorphous branding campaigns that don’t provide a concrete return on investment. Many have also questioned whether a process originally designed for corporations can work for a community. A 2006 paper on city branding by a pair of Danish professors noted that city branding campaigns tend to be bland -- and thus fail to stand out -- thanks to the manner in which they’re developed. Cities are diverse places: In order for a brand to see the light of day, it needs buy-in from a broad group of stakeholders. So while the intent of place branding is to emphasize what makes a city unique, the messages that come from branding efforts can sometimes be anything but that. “The result may appear well meant,” the researchers concluded, “but the remarkable and catchy will elude the branding effort.”

Indeed, while Petersburg gave North Star a lot to work with, other communities offer greater challenges. Some slogans developed by North Star -- like “Bring Your Dreams” for Brookings, S.D., or “Yours Truly” for Lee’s Summit, Mo. -- could probably be used in any city in America. Steve Arbo, the city manager of Lee’s Summit, a Kansas City suburb of 91,000, says that there was some skepticism when that slogan was first revealed. “There are those that said, ‘This is a waste of money and you could have paid me $75,000 to come up with “Yours Truly,”’” Arbo says. But he dismisses those critics as people who “don’t have a full understanding of what we’re trying to do.” The slogan is part of a broader message that emphasizes Lee’s Summit as a place that values community.

Critics also wonder why an outside consultant is even necessary. Glendale, Calif., for example, finalized a branding campaign led by North Star last year. The city didn’t have a bad image, says Maxwell, the deputy director for economic development. It just didn’t have much of a reputation at all. Ultimately, the city and North Star selected “Your Life. Animated.” The intent is to highlight Glendale’s position as home to DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind animated movies like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” and Walt Disney’s Imagineering, which develops components for Disney’s theme parks. The phrase has a double meaning meant to convey positive feelings about the city beyond the industry. “It gives you something we can talk about,” Maxwell says. “It helps everyone coalesce around an image and sense of self.”

Dave Weaver, a retired engineer who serves on the Glendale City Council, says he’s not convinced the city needed to hire an outside consultant. “I said, ‘You’ve come from the East Coast, and you want me to tell you about the town I was born and raised in so you can tell me how to brand ourselves?’” He says the effort could have been done internally, or the city could have used creative types from the area. “Let the entertainment people come with their ideas,” Weaver says. “It’s in their own backyard.”

City officials would be better off focusing on concrete improvements they can make to their communities, some have argued. “I said from the beginning: If you want to change the image of the city, change the city,” says Steven Holzman, a city commissioner in Boynton Beach, Fla., which spent about $15,000 on a branding campaign. “We have areas that are blighted. There’s trash strewn. The landscaping needs to be replaced. We don’t have sidewalks and curbs on major streets. You can tell people all you want about how beautiful it is, but when they drive and see it with their own eyes, it’s not as beautiful.”

That kind of criticism isn’t unique. North Star’s own Petersburg report, for example, notes that the city faces serious hurdles: a declining population, a lack of higher education opportunities and few entertainment venues to attract new, young residents. It’s hard to imagine a branding campaign reversing all of that. Scott Doyon, a principal with PlaceMakers, a firm that specializes in urban planning and marketing, says cities undergoing branding campaigns risk advancing a message that’s too aspirational and not rooted in reality. The best plan, he says, is to try to leverage positive qualities -- not dupe people. “Cities already have a brand whether they’ve done anything to cultivate one,” Doyon says. “They tend to get the most respect if they can find a way to leverage that reputation.”

Still, Holzman wonders if the relatively small amount of money that his city and other midsize communities spend on branding will have much impact, considering that they don’t have the resources to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns that will get lots of eyeballs. If they can’t go all out, he reasons, then what’s the point? But McEachern counters that his efforts give cities the power to get the smartest use out of the limited dollars they’ve already budgeted for marketing.

Sometimes -- for reasons that can’t always be anticipated -- branding efforts flop when they’re first rolled out. When Oak Park, Ill., revealed its new logo, bloggers suggested it resembled a stylized phallus. Critics of Dunwoody, Ga.’s new logo, which featured sky-blue text and a large neon asterisk, said it was remarkably similar to Walmart’s. And Colorado Springs faced a double dose of criticism. After committing $111,000 on a branding project, city officials didn’t get the reception they had hoped for. Its slogan, “Live It Up,” was panned as generic and unoriginal (it turns out Battle Creek, Mich., had used the same one), and some said the logo looked like clip art.

“You spend months working on a strategy, and people say ‘Show me the logo, show me the tagline,’” recalls Doug Price, president and CEO of Colorado Springs’ Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We got to the end, and when we announced it was going to be ‘Live It Up’ ... everybody’s a critic. People say, ‘How did you come up with something that stupid?’”

Colorado Springs ultimately kept the slogan. Price is a fan, noting its double meaning (“It’s an attitude and it’s an altitude”). But it still responded to the criticism of the logo with a redesign contest and wound up with a new logo that was vastly more popular. “My advice is to pull the tent flaps back as far as you can and get as many people involved,” says Price.

In the end, the most critical question is whether branding matters. Experts in the field say that, to an extent, its return on investment can be measured by social and economic indicators, job creation numbers, tourist trips and opinion surveys of the brand itself. Indeed, the New Mexico Tourism Department, which recently launched a multimillion dollar “New Mexico True” campaign, says it’s so critical to measure the ROI that it’s budgeted for a consultant to study the ads’ impact.

Still, it can be difficult to measure the true return, since indicators like jobs don’t change in a vacuum. Ask a new resident whether the “Yours Truly” campaign helped convince her to move to Lee’s Summit, and she’ll probably say no -- even if the campaign really did play a role -- since marketing done well is subtle. “I’ve been asking people all over the country if anyone’s ever moved anywhere or even spent a vacation somewhere because they had a great logo and a line,” McEachern says. “Nobody’s raised their hands.”

Cities may not be able to point to specific effects of a branding campaign, but in many cases, McEachern says, a new brand will infuse existing city efforts with new energy. “There are so many variables at play, there’s no clean return on investment on this, and if anyone tells you there is, they’re selling you something. There simply isn’t.”

Arbo, of Lee’s Summit, says he knows the campaign on its own won’t prompt people to move to his city or open businesses there. But he hopes -- and expects -- that it might be enough to get people to give Lee’s Summit a second look. “The rest,” Arbo says, “is up to us.”

Images courtesy of North Star Destination Strategies

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