Interview with Andy Levine on the Keys to Success in Place Marketing and Economic Development

Today we take you to New York to hear from Andrew Levine, President and Chief Creative Officer at Development Counsellors International (DCI), a public relations and communications agency specialized in marketing places.

Learn about:

  • The main difference between product brands and places;
  • The top ingredients for a successful place marketing strategy;
  • The difference between marketing and branding;
  • The key to success in marketing;
  • How to measure the success of economic development marketing initiatives;
  • Andy’s advice to early career place marketers.

Andy, your most memorable moment in 20 years of marketing places?

Working for the South African Tourism Board at the time when apartheid was coming to an end was an amazing experience. I remember being asked to write a small portion of a speech that Nelson Mandela was giving at the National Press Club. I was 34 at the time and that was pretty awesome.

From a marketer’s perspective, which are the main differences between working for countries, regions, cities, or destinations?

The product is completely different. A place is a complex, multifaceted product and the client organization – whether it be a Chamber of Commerce or a Convention and Visitors Bureau – rarely has much direct control over it. It’s totally different than marketing razor blades or wine coolers.

Which are the top ingredients for a successful place marketing strategy?

Great question. I’ve often used the phrase “Ready…Aim…Fire” to describe a successful marketing campaign:

  • “Ready” begins with a deep understanding of the product, your key messages and overall brand promise. It’s essentially “what” you want to communicate.
  • “Aim” refers to your target audience. You need to understand “who” you are trying to reach with your message. Economic development marketing usually involves a very narrow audience of corporate decision makers and influencers. Travel marketing reaches a much broader consumer audience.
  • “Fire” is your campaign – “how” you are going to deliver your message to the target audiences. Given that the place marketing space is incredibly competitive, creativity plays a major role in the success of any marketing campaign.

How do you distinguish between place branding and marketing?

The differences between branding and marketing are frequently misunderstood. So here’s a simple way to think of this.

Marketing is the activities or tactics that you employ to create interest in and promote your community. Your website, special events, missions to target cities, advertising, social media activities and media relations are examples of these tactics. You own your marketing.

In contrast, your target audience owns your branding. Depending on the mission of your organization, that target audience might be prospective investors, potential visitors or talented individuals that might relocate to your community. But their collective impression or gut instinct about your community and its unique attributes is your brand.

Marketing is a “push” tactic. It’s pushing out a message to win sales. Branding is “pull.” It should precede and underlie any marketing effort.

Are there any significant differences between economic development marketing and travel marketing?

The differences are enormous. Travel marketing is broader consumer marketing that plays heavily on emotions and feelings. Economic development marketing is business-to-business marketing that is more data-driven. It appeals more to the head than the heart.

How can place marketing support sustainable economic development?

Let’s start with a definition, courtesy of the International Institute of Sustainable Development:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Marketing that successfully attracts investment and talent which supports the long term growth and progress of a community without mortgaging its future is the key to success.

Your key insights as member of the board of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC)?

I’m very proud of both DCI’s and my own association with IEDC. Sitting on the board over the past five years has been incredibly rewarding. There are lots of very smart people tuned in and debating important issues at each meeting.

How do you measure the success of economic development marketing initiatives?

There are really two indicators that stand out to me:

  • Is your organization “moving the needle” with regard to improved perceptions of your business climate? Pre- and post-campaign surveys of your target audience – usually corporate decision makers within a community’s target industry and site selection consultants – is a tremendous barometer of success.
  • Is your marketing campaign generating “leads” or helping to move existing leads in the sales process? Often this is more difficult to track.

Which accomplishment at DCI are you most proud of?

When I started at DCI in 1991, we were a public relations firm of eight people. Twenty-four years later we’ve expanded in size to 53 staff members. But more importantly, we’re offering a much broader range of marketing services to our economic development and travel clients.

In your view, which has been the most significant change in place marketing since your father founded DCI?

That’s simple – the internet.

Much of your work is about telling great stories of places and communities. How do you choose a great story and the right storytellers?

We tend to approach things the same way a journalist would. You have to start by asking and answering the question, “How can my readers or viewers profit by this knowledge?” The needs and interests of the target audience should drive everything that you do.

In terms of storytellers, we are always looking for credible third parties within the community who are strong, confident communicators.

Which (social) media do you follow for economic development insights?

I’m a bit of a LinkedIn junkie. The Economic Development 2.0 group that I started three years ago is approaching 9,000 members. In terms of general business news, nothing beats the Wall Street Journal. I know this is very “old school” but I read it cover-to-cover on my commute each morning.

Andy Levine President DCIYour advice to early career place marketers?

Find a mentor. Someone you deeply respect who is committed to helping you grow in your new position. Listen carefully to their advice but don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Increasingly our clients are concerned with talent attraction. “How can I attract a skilled workforce that my stakeholders need to keep the community growing” is a growing concern among our clients.

Thank you, Andy.

Connect with Andy Levine on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter. We also recommend his Forbes.com column on marketing places.


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