Place branding expert Malcolm Allan of Placematters shares this case study and example of region branding and marketing of Cork in South-West Ireland.
This brand strategy is the product of twenty months hard work by a brand development team led by Colliers International Destination Consulting (Dublin), with Fuzion Design and PR (Cork), Location Connections (London) and Placematters (West Sussex).
- The client, objective (brief), and key stakeholders;
- The brand problem Cork city region;
- The strategy used to enhance the branding and marketing efforts of the region of Cork;
- Auditing (current perceptions of the Cork city region);
- Development of the brand proposition;
- Final testing, refining and briefing of Cork’s city region branding strategy.
The client for the project was a public private partnership of major stakeholders in the region consisting of Cork City, Cork County, Cork Chamber of Commerce, the Port of Cork, Cork Airport, Cork Institute of Technology, University College Cork, the South West Regional Authority and Fáilte Ireland (the national tourism development body).
The objective was to reach agreement among stakeholders, informed by consultation in the community, on a galvanizing vision for the development of the region that would inform the development of a brand strategy – a focused brand proposition that would encapsulate region’s key value propositions for existing businesses, potential investors, local and migrant workers.
The brief for the brand development team, which has evolved and expanded over the period, required it to:
- Assess current (2013) strategic messaging on the offer of the Cork Region.
- Identify who was marketing Cork and how Cork performs in various international rankings and indices.
- Develop of a Brand Proposition for the region as a spur for its economic development.
- Test and refine the emerging proposition.
- Prepare a Brand Book for all stakeholders to market the proposition in a coordinated way – singing from the same hymn sheet!
- Brief stakeholder’s staff on how to make creative and effective use of the Brand Book.
- Provide advice on the organisation, responsibilities and work of CORK INC – a new body to manage the marketing of the brand proposition and its future development.
The key stakeholders recognised that Cork needed to:
- Elevate awareness of its offer domestically and internationally.
- Think and act more strategically in terms of its branding and marketing.
- Identify and promote its global credentials as a location for business development.
- Not rely on others to promote it – e.g. the Irish IDA.
- Have more focused conversations that deliver investment and business expansion for Cork.
- Help stakeholders sing from the same hymn sheet in promoting the region’s offer and experiences.
Tool: Placematters Brand Compass
To undertake the work the brand development team used the Placematters Brand Compass, a proprietary tool that enables places to envisage their desired future place and chart a pathway to get there and make a reality of their vision.
In summary, the assessment of current messaging about the region’s offer by key stakeholders indicated that:
- It lacked the passion of the people and business of the region.
- It was functional, not engaging and largely not effectively targeted.
- The propositions were not clear and messages were not doing justice to the region.
- The region was failing to capture the great stories of the place and its people.
- Communications were not inviting potential investors to share their agenda and needs.
- There were a lot of unconnected messages.
- There was too much detail in the messages.
- Communications were failing to exploit regional, national and global connections.
- There was a great story failing to be heard because of too much noise and babble – a Tower of Babel effect.
To complement the audit of communications the team extensively used social media to solicit views and opinions on the current offer and experience of the city region. Overall the responses indicated a large sense of satisfaction with Cork as a place to live, learn and work, especially satisfaction with the quality of life, with learning and job opportunities.
The team used these results to consult with a number of businesses in key sector groups and communities throughout the county of Cork to identify what people considered to be the core of the region’s economic development offer that might form a brand proposition.
The team then carried out an extensive audit of the offer and experience of the region that had been identified through the consultations and its own research – of its assets, attributes (the things it is good at) and its range of attractions, for example, its offer to inward investment companies, to expanding local businesses, to young people wanting to take courses in further and higher education, and to people considering coming to the region to work.
The results of the audit enabled the team to construct a “proofed” brand proposition for investment in the economic development capacity of the region – all propositions being identified and proved to be accurate. The essence of the proposition is that the region has the right mix of offers for people and business to make a success of their careers and their firm’s development, based on four brand pillars – an extensive economic support menu, a great quality of life, a great learning environment and a significant cultural, heritage, leisure and entertainment offer, as important to local people as it is to visitors and potential investors.
This draft proposition was then tested locally in the region, in Ireland and internationally through the Colliers International global network of offices. A summary of the draft proposition – a Brand Descriptor – was posted on the internet with a questionnaire for respondents to record their views. A significant majority of respondents validated the proposition and many suggested ways of strengthening it which was helpful in refining and finalising it.
A Brand Book was then prepared to explain the agreed proposition to the many organisations and businesses in the region who would be individually and collectively responsible for marketing and promoting it and a copy can be downloaded at www.corkbrand.ie
Following the launch of the brand stakeholder’s staff were briefed on the proposition and how to make effective use of the Brand Book and work is now underway to create a new organisation – CORK INC – which will be responsible for managing the promotion of the brand and its future development.
Audit: current perceptions on Cork Region’s offer and experiences
In mid-2013, the first tasks in the agreed work programme to develop a unifying and strategic brand and marketing strategy for the city region were to:
- Assess local people’s views about the city region and its offer and experiences.
- Assess the views of those in the business community about the economic development attributes of the region.
- Review the current messaging and marketing being undertaken by a variety of stakeholders in order to establish what messages were being transmitted about its current offer and experiences, the extent to which there was commonality and alignment of messaging, or a lack of it and where mixed messaging existed.
Assessing people’s views
The team’s past experience was that local people and local groups need to be involved in the development of place brand strategies – given opportunities to voice their opinions on the place, opportunities to suggest ideas for the development of the brand and opportunities to participate in its delivery.
When the team commenced work few of the key stakeholders were able to say categorically that they fully understood what Cork people thought and felt about the place and its offer so we started the project using a simple online questionnaire using LinkedIn and Twitter which asked “What do you love about Cork? and What do you like about working in Cork?
This generated a range of very largely positive responses which identified a number of important factors which the team subsequently took into account in developing the brand proposition:
- The scale and accessibility of the city of Cork is a really strong factor in attracting and retaining people in the region:
“The city is small, you can do it ALL on foot” / “All the suburbs are within c.15 minutes commute” / “Its size – It does not have the vast urban sprawl of Dublin, with congestion, confusion and consternation.” / “It has the intimacy of a big town with the possibility of a ‘largish’ city.” / “It offers both urban and rural in its identity of being a place which has great third level education, beautiful scenery and rich land quality.”
- The quality of the environment of the region attracts and retains people; it’s not just about jobs and business support services:
“The scenery and mountains. Cork is a nature lovers and outdoor pursuit’s paradise.” / “The amazing sights and locations in west cork. There are some stunning unspoiled beaches for really getting back to basics and great bars for tasty pub grub followed by a crisp glass of vino (or 3). Long strand, Glandore, Rosscarbery, Clonalilty. It has it all Surfing for my main man and heaps of fun for my little angels. West Cork for me Rocks!!!!”
- The nature of the welcome given by Cork people and organisations to visitors and newcomers is a powerful factor in attracting and retaining people and business, one that has often been overlooked in previous city brand initiatives:
“The people are incredibly friendly, the city, though small is pretty and has everything within walking distance. It’s got a great vibe.” / “The places are great and beautiful, and they are populated by the friendliest and warmest people I have ever met. #Lovecork :-)” / “From the lovely guy who serves me my coffee in the morning to the bus drivers, taxi drivers & cashiers in M&S, they are positive, bubbly & go above & beyond.” / “Cork people…are very friendly and cheery. You can even hear it in their singing accent. I believe what makes them so friendly though is, they are so proud, and want to let everyone who’ll listen, know. Proud of their achievements, people and places, and how fantastic Cork is.”
Identifying place attributes for Cork City Region
This work helped to identify a number of key and important attributes about the place which would influence the development of the brand proposition and its parallel messaging strategy – powerful things we would be able to say about the place and its offer, messages reflecting what local people believe and say about the place, messages which could be “proved:
Friendly, their humour, their positivity, their pride in the city, their distinctive accent, their laid back character mixed with a strong work ethic and getting things done, their friendliness, their multicultural character.
The scale of the city, its accessibility, the nearness to water, the varied nature of the city, the surrounding towns and villages, the scenery and the quality of the built environment, the feel of a big town without its congestion, the ease of access to the offer.
The atmosphere and the buzz of the place, the food offer, the pubs, the Cosmopolitan nature of the place, the culture and art offer, the range of festivals, the sports opportunities and access to a large range of outdoor activities, the great choice of things to do.
The results indicated to us just how much local people believed that Cork was BIG on the quality of life, BIG on friendly, BIG on size, BIG on access, BIG on choice, BIG on atmosphere.
It also alerted the team to the existence of a powerful menu of offers and experiences which, in different combinations according to personal or business needs and preferences, served to attract people to the place and retain them as learners, employees or as entrepreneurs wanting to start up their own businesses. This would, after much more assessment and debate, become the essence of the eventual brand proposition.
A major benefit of using social media to enable local people to express their views on the place and its attributes was that we had primed a lot of people to take an active interest in the brand development process who responded to our draft Brand Descriptor which we put online to test the brand proposition some months later.
Consultations with sectors and communities of interest
To complement the social media conversation the consultancy team met with representatives of the business community in north, east, south and west Cork and with the South and east Cork Tourism Sector to hear their views on how the place worked, what constituted its offer and experience and to understand how they were promoting the region.
Alongside these meetings we worked with the Cork Chamber of Commerce and the local Enterprise Boards in the region to establish their member’s views on the strengths of the region’s economic development and business support offer.
The team also conducted a number of one-to-one conversations with key stakeholders in key growth sectors – technology, bio-pharmaceutical, engineering, agribusiness, cultural tourism, hospitality, education, sports and development sectors. The results of these meetings were fed into our assessment of current messaging and marketing.
Assessing formal messaging
The third element of the initial work undertaken was to identify and assess the range of messages that agencies and groups were then promoting about their elements of the city region offer. These included messages from the City and County councils on economic development policy and resources, from higher education institutions on the learning and training offer, from the local airport, from the port authority, from the local offices of national agencies dealing with inward investment, business support and tourism, as well as messaging by individual private companies and organisations on their service offers for investors, businesses seeking to grow and for visitors.
Dee Waldron of Fuzion analysed our findings about current messaging using a Google Word Cloud tool and concluded that there was no consistency and little overlap between individual messages about the region’s current offer.
Summary of place brand audit and messaging
In summary the results of the audit indicated that formal communications about the existing offer of the city region:
- Lacked the passion of the people who had responded to our social media conversations.
- Were functional, not particularly engaging and largely not effectively targeted.
- Were often not clear and not doing justice to the city.
- Failed to capture the great stories of the place and its people elicited through social media.
- Were largely unconnected.
- Failed to exploit the local, regional, national and global connectivity of the region.
- Lacked the unifying effect of an agreed brand proposition and marketing strategy.
In summary the overall messaging could be characterised as being fired by a blunderbuss when a rifle-shot was required.
More positively we concluded that Cork had a great story to tell but it was being lost in too much noise and babble; there were too many “voices of Cork” competing for the limited attention of the rest of the world and they were not agreed among each other on what was most important to say about the offer of the place. In addition, there was no agreement on priority target market audiences.
In short, Cork needed to be a lot clearer on what it offered, to who and what it stands for. Cork stakeholders needed to be more collegiate in their messaging and more united in the creation of a brand.
Development and testing of brand proposition for the Cork Region
Following analysis of local stakeholders and community interest group responses to our consultation on the marketing of the current offer and experience of the Cork Region, the consulting team used the results to construct a draft proposition for a Cork region brand strategy using our Brand Compass.
Since our work aimed at elevating the Cork Region as a successful European Region and location for business success, our key focus was on ensuring that the Cork Region attracts and retains business, enhancing the development of indigenous businesses and the inward investment market.
At the same time we sought to appeal to talented people through the life opportunities of an attractive living, learning and working environment, a unique commercial and cultural heritage plus the personality of the Cork people that provides a special Irish spirit.
In our view regions increasingly need to consider themselves as a business, as a plc. A key aspect of this is their adopting best practice in terms of the clarity of their brand offer and marketing strategies for communication to target markets and how they are reached.
Our phase 1 work on the existing Cork Region Strategic Messages highlighted that there are many Cork messages and little sense of coherence between them.
In this context we believed that the key stakeholders needed to decide on a strong and achievable driving idea that would inform and epitomise the brand in action. This would be one that is:
- Grounded in the realities and authenticity of Cork and rigorously “proofed”;
- A brand offer that is clearly distinguished from competitor and comparator regions and identifiable as being really different;
- Consistent with the desired and planned positioning of the brand as a driver of the regional economy;
- Easy for people to “get” and understand.
Having agreed these criteria with the key stakeholders we then assessed with them, in detail, the range and type of existing offers and experiences that the consultation process had identified as well as proposals and ambitions for their improvement and extension through the lens of the agreed economic development and investment focus.
We were asked by the key stakeholders to look at four areas that they considered to be crucial to the economic development of the region to identify existing value propositions which could be combined and potentially embodied in an overall brand proposition, as summarised below.
The driving idea for the brand proposition
What we found, reflecting Ireland as a whole, was that the Cork Region does have an extensive and attractive offer for investors, for existing businesses, for local residents, workers and learners. A strength and uniqueness of the Cork Region is that the breadth and depth of this offer and experience is contained in a relatively small area.
During our consultations and research many people remarked that in Cork many small things add up to something much bigger and better. We concluded that there was an opportunity for this comprehensive offer to be assembled in different mixes according to the needs of individuals, businesses and organisations; in other words a tailored fusion of what the region offers to enable them to prosper in the region by picking their own mix of resources and support services – the right mix for their personal and business success.
This then was the driving idea that led the development of the brand proposition which became the essence of the brand offer and promise, an idea that encompasses personal, business and organisational growth and prosperity, an idea that would drive the economic development and well-being of the region, an idea that would drive a vision of the place as a successful region in Europe and globally. Ireland wants to be the best small country in the world to do business and, supporting this ambition, Cork wants to be the best small region in the world to do business.
Supporting value propositions
To support the driving idea we assembled four specific categories of value proposition which were embodied in the brand proposition. In combination they help to drive a degree of focus and uniqueness that supports the elevation of the Cork Region nationally and internationally. They are:
- The core and central Economic Proposition – summarised as an energetic place of entrepreneurial global and local business networks.
- A supporting Education Proposition – summarised as a tradition of independent learning, great ideas and contemporary innovation.
- A supporting Quality of Life Proposition – summarised as a very liveable cosmopolitan and connected place with a great quality of life.
- A supporting Visitor Proposition – summarised as great city and townscapes, landscapes and seascapes, steeped in shared international and Irish history and culture.
We arrived at these propositions through extensive conversations with groups and communities across the County of Cork and in Cork city who helped us to “proof” our and others ideas about what the current offer of the region was that supported economic, business and personal development.
The core economic proposition
This core proposition of the brand reflects our finding that the Cork Region currently hosts clusters of global companies in growth sectors – exemplified by bio-pharma, technology, agribusiness & food and energy sectors. They are attracted by the value for money, the talented people and successful businesses already operating in the region and that the region has a number of indigenous growth sectors, exemplified by the agribusiness & food sector and the tourism sector, both with a reputation for high quality products.
We identified that many smaller domestic businesses increasingly collaborate with these global companies and the region has a comprehensive range of professional services serving international and domestic clients.
We identified that Cork has an active and effective business support network, a strong Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Boards and easily accessed national government decision makers and concluded that the region is a is a low risk location for existing and new enterprises, where new start-ups and the biggest corporates feel supported and the region can provide fast speed access to European and global markets. It offers capacity and space to locate, expand and grow. There is a stock of land and buildings available for occupation and land zoned for commercial use offering a choice of locations, a choice of types of accommodation and good value for money.
The supporting education proposition
This proposition supports the core economic value proposition, as domestic and global business look for a talented workforce when moving to a new area or expanding within one. We identified that the Cork Region offers learners and businesses the skills and resources of a number of high quality applied and business orientated Further and Higher Education Institutions.
This includes Cork Institute of Technology, University College Cork and the National Tyndall Institute. These are institutions with a strong international reputation increasingly attracting students and advanced researchers from around the world. Many people commented that Cork City, as a large student city, was safe, convenient, enjoyable and easy to access.
In addition to the higher education institutions the Region has various commercially orientated research and development organisations. These institutions are actively partnering with many of the existing small and big businesses providing them with access to clever thinkers and innovators to develop new ideas and products. The regional economy is characterised by innovative business knowledge sharing networks and there is effective collaboration between higher education, R&D institutions, businesses and government agencies, with initiatives such as IT@Cork and Energy@Cork being good examples of this collaboration.
The quality of life value proposition
This proposition supports the core economic proposition as it has an important role to play in attracting and retaining talented people. Cork has a reputation for being welcoming. Its people are characterised as being amiable, approachable, helpful, friendly, quick-witted, open and independent minded. We concluded that it is a place that people can quickly feel part of, make friends and connections and put down roots.
Cork is a place of dramatic natural landscapes, riverscapes, harbours, bays and seascapes, a place of mountains, river valleys and coastlines with an abundance of activities to undertake on land and water – rivers, harbours, bays, the sea, the countryside, city, towns and villages. All of these amenities are close by, quickly and easily accessible, for people to explore and enjoy.
People commented that it’s a place to relax away from the stresses of modern working life and that you don’t have to travel far to find them. Cork has an enjoyable stimulating and healthy lifestyle experience where people are able to explore new places and activities. The region has many attractive places to live that have enticed sizeable communities from across Europe and further afield attracted by the quality, choice and affordability.
People like living in Cork because there is the range of public services, community facilities, programmes and events typically found in cities of a much larger size. Cork is easy to navigate. It’s not too big and not too small. You can do more in Cork.
And Cork city centre offers an excellent, special and unique urban environment that is being continuously improved. Cork is a place that’s culturally rich and vibrant. It’s a place with a wide range of cultural facilities, events and activities, contributing to the cosmopolitan feel of the region’s city and towns. There are festivals throughout the region with an international reputation, all of which add to the rich quality of life enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
The visitor proposition
The visitor proposition has an important role to play in supporting the core economic development proposition of the region. As a general rule of thumb we have found that places that are attractive to visit attract and retain economic migrants and also have lots of other things going for them.
The region has a very rich, cultural, social and commercial heritage. It has many truly authentic places, buildings, centres and sites of interest to residents and visitors alike.
Reflective of a long and proud maritime heritage it can tell a wealth of stories – military, trading, political, cultural, commercial and social. From centuries of global connections there are many shared international stories, especially with Britain, that have helped to create a unique Cork spirit. The region is a playground for visitors and locals alike with an abundance of activities offers and experiences. It is Ireland’s food capital and for centuries was a provisioning port as the British Empire expanded, sending food around the world that was known and valued for its quality.
This continues today with internationally recognised agricultural producers, artisan businesses, restaurants, markets and leaders in the Irish and international food industry whether business or consumer. The region, Cork in particular, has an extensive independent food, drink offer – and the heritage, provenance and quality of food and beverage in the Cork Region is world-class with the English Market in Cork City being an internationally recognised showcase for our Regions produce.
Brand testing, refinement and briefing
This section summarises how we tested and refined the brand strategy and how key stakeholders and their staff were equipped to market and promote its brand proposition.
Market testing with a brand descriptor
Having reached agreement with local stakeholders in the region on the content of the brand proposition it was obvious to the client group and the consulting team that the draft brand proposition had a range of offers for a mix of local, regional, national and international market audiences and that the testing process required more than a traditional round of meetings with local stakeholders, sector and community groups.
In addition to a local audience of local people and businesses we wanted to test the proposition more widely in Ireland, particularly on Irish state agencies and major corporates located in Dublin, on representatives of the Irish government in selected embassies in target countries (people who could introduce Cork to foreign audiences) and target sector audiences in certain countries – IDA Ireland offices around the world, Irish Embassies in key target countries of UK, USA, Germany and France, the embassies of UK, USA, Germany and France in Dublin and contacts accessed through the Colliers International Corporate Network and its Research Group, e.g. the Invest Shanghai Agency .
Despite having created a draft brand proposition which we knew had a lot of buy-in from those who had participated in the process we knew that we needed to test it out on people and organisations that had not participated in its development.
It rapidly became obvious to us that we needed to develop a cost-effective way of reaching those audiences around the world. Our solution was to create what we termed a “Brand Descriptor” – a highly visual online summary description of the brand proposition and its principal value propositions accompanied by a short questionnaire that respondents could complete to provide feedback from any location in the world.
It meant that local people who had participated in the initial consultations to assess the current offer and experience of the region and those who had contributed to the formation of the draft brand proposition could either attend a further round of face to face consultations or respond on-line and quite a number did both.
By creating an online brand descriptor we increased the buy-in from local people and business to the brand development process. No one was excluded from consultation to test the brand proposition and individuals could respond more than once if they had additional points to make.
We had a good response from people in target audiences locally, nationally and internationally to requests for face to face meetings and meetings with sector groups. The team led and facilitated round-table workshops with a Generation Y/Millennials group, a creative sector group, various individual key stakeholders (influencers/decision makers), with the Cork Chamber “Thought Leadership Council”, with various Cork Professional Services groups, with Dublin Professional Services, with the Cork SME sector and Cork business sector groups, with landowners in Cork’s South Docks, with elected councillors, and with national stakeholders – state agencies and national business organisations.
A total of around 350 people expressed their views on the draft Cork Region brand descriptor through these meetings and through the online brand descriptor web pages. The round-table workshop meetings had a total of 104 attendees who completed the questionnaire and provided feedback through group workshop exercises that explored the proposition.
In summary the highlights of the consultation were that a significant majority of respondents:
- Agreed with the brand essence (The Right Mix for Your Success) and found it compelling (79%).
- Ranked the economic proposition in the top one or two priority (61%) and even more supported the overall economic value proposition that Cork is an energetic place of entrepreneurial global and local business networks (73%).
- Agreed that Cork does have the resources for people and business to prosper (93%).
- Ranked the quality of life value proposition as the number one or two priority (70%).
Although there were no significant negative responses to the “Right Mix for Your Success” and the overall work, there were some reservations, and positive suggestions were made to meet them. Primarily these were concerns over:
- Arrangements for the actual delivery of the brand proposition.
- Not enough attention being given to the role to be played by the people of the region – their friendliness and welcoming attitude to visitors and people moving to the area.
- The importance of quality of life which is seen as a real differentiator.
- The need to place more emphasis on the character, size and scale of Cork – it’s easy to access and get around, is locally responsive and global in outlook.
- The language of the proposition – it needed to be more emotionally powerful to really engage audiences.
- The need to include “Proof Points” for individual value propositions, assertions and messages.
The Team used the results of the brand testing process to refine and finalise the brand proposition. The principal change was to rank the Quality of Life value proposition as second in importance to the Economic Proposition, thereby ranking the Education Proposition as third, with the Visitor Proposition as fourth. Overall the proposition was strengthened with the addition of new ideas on offers and experiences to be included and the deletion of a small number that were not well supported.
A Brand Book to brief stakeholders
Having refined the brand proposition the Team and the client group decided to create a brand book that would:
- Explain the brand proposition in detail to local stakeholders.
- Provide a top-level introduction to the Cork Region, its offer, experience and desired reputation as a place for economic development.
This book, which is available at corkbrand.ie , was designed by Fuzion PR and Design through an iterative consultation process with the key stakeholders on the client group and a number of key stakeholders in the community. It describes, in images and words, the key value propositions of the overall brand proposition and the four individual propositions.
The team briefed the staff responsible for planning, marketing and promotion in the key stakeholder’s organisations on the book through a number of workshops and it has been made available to key officers and executives in the public and semi state sectors, regional and national media.
The book explains what’s in the agreed Cork Brand Proposition, what makes Cork unique and attractive and contains information on a range of individual value propositions and messages about them to enable stakeholders to communicate, promote and share this story with the world. The book can be used to by local stakeholders marketing staff for briefing marketing or design agencies to ensure that their specific marketing messages and promotional activities reflect the overall story Cork wants to tell the world about doing business in Cork, working there, learning there and living there.
It will be particularly useful to organisations wanting to communicate with potential investors in the Cork economy, people wishing to set up in business in Cork, businesses wishing to expand there, and people thinking of coming there to work, to study or train in a new skill.
It will help organisations to consistently portray Cork in words, imagery and print in a creative, imaginative and effective way, enabling them to communicate a set of strong and attractive messages about the region.
Malcolm Allan can be reached via PlaceMatters.co.
Pictures provided, Brand book design by Jonathan Leahay Maharaj of Fuzion Design and PR.
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