Are cities too big to brand?

For the second year in a row, I served as a judge in the Michigan Economic Developers Association’s marketing materials awards. I was again struck by the difficulty cities face when they try to create a unique, memorable identity or brand to attract and retain businesses.

One mostly-hypothetical suburban city illustrates the discussion. People who moved there years ago did so because they liked its semi-rural hominess and the city’s website reflects that. But the city is also a thriving business center, with high-occupancy industrial parks, excellent infrastructure and a business-friendly city hall. How do you distill those dichotomous qualities into a clear, compelling economic development brand?

Branding is a marketing tool you use to sell something. You first have to decide what you’re selling and that means deciding what is important. Of course that means that some things are not important to your prospects – but they’re important to somebody. Heaven forbid that you don’t mention the municipal pool in your ad in Site Selection Magazine.

The branding process is inevitably a group effort. Decision makers want to include everyone – residents, business owners, employees — in the process of articulating their brand. Unfortunately the result tries to be all things to all people and instead is soft, fuzzy and unfocused. “A great place to live, play and work.” Zzzzzzz.

If you actually listen to the marketing professionals and do something assertive, the second-guessers jump in. The minute you define your city as “sporty,” “elegant” or “old-fashioned,” somebody will object. If they’re really peevish, they’ll object at city council meetings, on your Facebook page and to the editor of the weekly newspaper or website.

I doff my hat to the city managers and economic development directors who take action and then have to wait for the positive results to roll in to be able to say “I told you so.”

This Open Forum article targets small businesses but there are lessons here for everyone.


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