It might be obvious to those who’ve worked in place branding for years, but if you are just getting started, a question which will very likely come up is this: how do you create a brand communications strategy, and how to generate key messages? Here’s what our panel of place branding specialists thinks. If you like any specific answer or approach, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the person. Most of our panel members are available as advisors.
It has to start from the citizens (bottom up), but all city branding must be guided by leadership. Without leadership a brand can’t develop.
Tension is always key between centralised and decentralised communications, to build a great brand!
Don’t forget branding is a process. Be ready to learn from your audiences, and update your messages.
The key to any brand communications strategy is a deep understanding of the target audiences’ wants, needs, dreams and passions. A DMO’s role is to create, identify and/or package experiences which match these dreams and passions, telling the city’s story brilliantly.
Brand communications have become an integral part of managing the development of many countries, which results from the increasing global competition and the necessity to take actions for retaining and attracting residents, tourists, highly qualified human capital, business and investments.
Creation of a brand communication strategy presumes a planning process, which consists of several consecutive stages:
1) Country brand diagnosis – analysis of collected information that leads to definition of major characteristics of the country and elements of national identity, which create the potential for country brand communication;
2) Country communication audit and strategic recommendations. This step presumes a review of country brand communication activities. The analysis of the communication activities provides answers to questions about management of place communication and the level of integration of communication activities. For this purpose it’s essential to get information about organizations which deal with the promotion of the country, strategic recommendations and communication activities (campaigns, events etc.).
3) Country brand idea and identification keys. Establishing a clear brand idea enables communication with different groups of stakeholders on the long-term and facilitates the creation of coherent communication programs.
4) Composing of country brand communications program. As far as key messages are concerned, they come from a city’s brand story. When there is a brand story, one can easily spot emerging and recurring themes – things about history, people, unique facts, events, places, etc. Some of those themes can be distilled into values and from there we can build key messages. Extracting messages from the brand story makes them powerful and purposeful and totally true to a particular city or country.
When generating key messages, here is a fact every professional should keep in mind:
According to the Mental Noise Theory, when we are upset, anxious or experiencing stress, our brain’s ability to capture and process information is reduced by 80 percent. Today, we live in a perpetual state of mental and emotional emergency. So, the key characteristic of key messages should be clarity, brevity, and precision.
I recommend a four-step process for building a messaging matrix. Your first task is to identify your stakeholders. Make a long list of all your constituencies, then categorize them based on their power and interest. High-power and high-interest people are your key stakeholders.
Your next task is to understand your key stakeholders better. Your primary objective here is to humanize your buyers. In other words, you must create personas.
Then, generate a list of concerns and questions of those stakeholders, so that you can understand the most pressing concerns of each constituency.
Finally, write down three short, positive, and clear messages per stakeholder, back them up with proof points, validate your work by people, and re-calibrate your messages.
The important thing when developing a brand communication strategy and generating the key messages is to have a solid and consistent methodology that allows determining what the real needs of the brand in question are, how the competitive environment behaves and which are its audiences, among other important topics. Likewise, it is key to focus not only on the fulfillment of objectives but also on the differentiation of the brand, which to a large extent, though not solely, is given by its personality.
When talking about “differentiation” of a brand, an important aspect are the key messages. And here it is necessary to understand that key messages not only refer to verbal aspects of a brand, but to what the brand does and doesn’t represent, which is also a message.
Get all the stakeholders together and make them feel important. It’s not enough to make them part of it, they have to feel that they are playing a big role in it. So, work shoulder to shoulder with them. It’s always advisable to find someone to create a creative atmosphere, and maybe some communication consultant to guide the sessions.
The role of place brand positioning is to answer the fundamental question: Why choose here? Creating the brand value proposition is about identifying the most differentiating, authentic, relevant and compelling ideas that, as a set, help answer that question. Think of them as drivers of the narrative about what makes a place desirable. Generating key brand messages is about adapting the core narrative for specific audiences. Why choose here… to live, work, visit, study, invest and so forth.
All the best practices for marketing and communications apply to place-based brands as well. The major difference is in managing the brand as a shared platform that empowers diverse stakeholders with tools, resources, communications and feedback mechanisms.
To define a communication strategy, one has to start with the message. The first and most paramount rule here is HONESTY. Most failures in place branding arguably result from three types of self-deception.
1/ We are unique. Variations: we are special, we have everything.
Everything and everyone is unique. The statements above are simply expressions of your love for your place, which is great. Yet emotion is not content.
2/ We are better than you think.
Some old industrial towns on a new lease on life, and gentrifying areas, especially in the Americas, vie for the attention of the young creatives from the neighbouring places by claiming they have changed, or at best, making fun of their old stereotypes. This can capture attention, briefly. And maybe bring some people in.
But not necessarily hold them – because, ultimately the message of ‘we are better/fresher/newer” only means that you have a good life infrastructure. Good infrastructure is not a viable foundation for a place identity. It is not competitive enough on its own (many places have good infrastructure now) and does not create an emotional connection to the place.
3/ We are what we are not.
It is an ironic fact that proves every time that when you ask the locals about their strengths, people tend to name the opposites of what they are, or what they have in small amounts. Maybe we all strive for something we don’t have. Maybe it takes most of our effort. Focus groups with locals result in shy people saying they are outgoing, calm people saying they are contrasty, creative people saying they are well structured, hard-focused people saying they are fun. Agricultural areas will uphold whatever industry there is. Newly built towns will stress historical assets. As if what they are is not enough. As if they are not good enough. As if they must have some glitter otherwise no one will look. Not true. A massive part of our work is giving confidence to places that their way of life, the most mundane and obvious things for the locals are in fact the most interesting and useful for others.
So, to generate place brand messages, start from experience, not assets. Not “What do we have that might be of interest?” but “How can a person feel here?” Will they be: relaxed, inspired, energized, cleansed? What is so special about the way we live? What do we stand for? What are the life values and mentality of our people?
It helps to think along two types of axes:
- are we more individualist or collectivist?
- are we process-oriented or result-oriented?
We ground our place identity platforms in archetypes: common themes in the collective unconsciousness that people grasp intuitively and relate to immediately. Clients usually do not have that expertise, so if you can afford external help, it is worth hiring place brand consultants because they will be able to see your place with a fresh eye and locate it in a global context. If you cannot afford to hire professionals, discuss your ideas with the most knowledgeable person you know, someone with a broad and philosophical mind.
When you have defined your values, put them in a tight and abstract core idea. It is a word or a phrase that can be true for every type (and I mean, every) of experience that a person can have in your place. They are fairly abstract, e.g.: One Step Up, Sun in the Palm of Your Hand, Plug In!, Land of 1001 Delights.
From the core idea, grow the ideal place personality. What are its real strengths? What is its character (most neglect the character which is very important to bring place identity to life)? How do they translate into verbal and visual communication?
Once you have done your research and thinking, these questions will be fairly easy to answer. The brand communication strategy will almost shape itself.
Messaging needs to be ideally connected with actions. You really need to do something. As the former head designer of IKEA said, design is the new marketing. Content is king – show what you are doing.
More about our panel and previous answers to frequent questions on place branding here.
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