Place Branding Before/During/After COVID-19: It’s Still About the People

What makes a place? It's more than a location on a map — a place is shaped by the humans who live there.

What makes a place?

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Is it the geography, topography, architecture, outdoor and indoor spaces, landmarks, infrastructure or industries? There’s no one factor that captures a place’s essence. All of these elements define the deeper connections behind a location on the map, a place where people can live, learn, work and thrive.

Most importantly, a place is shaped by the humans who live there. This is true with or without social distancing. Even though COVID-19 has given us new challenges in being truly together, we still find ways to be social in our interactions. Connections matter for economic development.

People set the tone for conversations and form the personality of the community. How they engage in schools, grocery stores, businesses, volunteer efforts and coffee shops, people activate a living ecosystem of interactions that makes a place feel like home.

This combination of factors, all interwoven by human engagement, is the best form of place branding (and now sometimes call place doing). It’s somewhat subjective, and not everywhere has this strong sense of place.

Some places try to be like other places. How many times have we heard, “It’s the New York City of the Midwest,” or similar comparative place-based tropes? In a twist on this concept, some places create themselves out of nothing.

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The worst example of negative place-branding is the faux-storefront outdoor shopping center complex with hotels designed for the business traveler. No matter where you travel, they are all the same predictable chain stores and restaurants, simply outdoor versions of airport terminals. In a way, they are comforting, but they have zero place-ography because they are the opposite of unique. Their very purpose is sameness and predictable quality control, like a mass-made hamburger that could be made for and eaten by anybody.

In the world of site selection, place branding tells the story of the unique aspects and 360-degree view of place. It is the equivalent of a home-cooked meal, served by a family welcoming you into their abode. Many countries, regions, states and counties are successfully place branding themselves.

Take for instance Marion, located just north of Central Ohio. A small town with a population of 35,000, Marion, Ohio was devastated by manufacturing job losses and employer flight in the 1980s and 1990s. City leaders needed a strategy to re-energize residents and emphasize its positive assets to prospective employers.

MarionMade! and programming to emphasize Marion’s workforce development programming have attracted more than half a billion dollars in business investment and added 300 new jobs to the area in less than three years, with a healthy pipeline of interested employers now in the offing.

“By positioning us as America’s Workforce Development Capital™, FrazierHeiby has helped change Marion’s image to create meaningful momentum,” said Gus Comstock, director of Marion CAN DO! “They’ve upgraded our communications efforts with community leaders, and with businesses looking to relocate to Marion.”

Talk to any business leader about why they are committed to their HQ hometown, and they may give a rundown of the expected site selection checklist—logistical benefits, low risk of investment, culture and family attractions, educated workforce, reasonable cost of doing business, etc. But what really matters is something almost ineffable. It’s a feeling of place that cannot be found anywhere else.

Erik Collins, director of community and economic development in Montgomery County, located in Western Ohio, describes the brand promise of his county as inextricably linked to its residents.

“What we’ve found is that this place has a long history of people making things that matter, collaborating to solve massive challenges, and doing that work at scale,” said Collins. “You don’t find that kind of perseverance and ingenuity just anywhere — and we have a whole workforce with this mindset.”

How can you break through the noise of hundreds of other places vying for one business’s attention for a new location? The strategy of place branding is not a cookie-cutter solution, and it takes time and investment of marketing communications. Here are a few keys to success:

  1. Be clear about a brand promise that reaches minds and hearts. Once you know the fundamentals of what your location offers, to reach the minds of site selection decision-makers, dig deeper to articulate the feeling of the place. How do prospective businesses want their employees to experience living and working in their new home? By connecting to people’s hearts, not just giving them the logical benefits, you can capture their attention with your messaging and start a meaningful conversation that leads to conversion.
  2. Target C-level leaders. Selling big ideas means inspiring the big idea people. Focus your marketing on channels that will be sure to reach this niche audience. Video, Instagram shows, podcasts, LinkedIn long-form posts and publications like The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company are a few examples. By sharing true stories — with messages that matter to CEOs, CFOs, COOs and others in the C-suite — amplify your story through the right channels. Don’t ignore brand ambassadors from businesses already in the region. These peer-to-peer messages can be most impactful.
  3. Use the network of your place-based ecosystem as an extension of your channels and as sources for compelling stories. The businesses of all sizes, nonprofits, community service providers, educational organizations and cultural institutions in your location all have their own email lists, newsletters, websites, social media and events. Ask them to let you share your message with their audiences to extend your reach. And don’t be shy to request they share spokespersons and their stories if they are a good fit. When you have a common cause, it makes good sense to collaborate.

How do you define place? What has drawn you to a new location, or what has kept you content in your current home base?

Share your story about place branding success with us on our social channels.