Interview with Todd Babiak on Meaningful Place Branding Through Storytelling

Todd Babiak in this interview takes us on a journey through the world of place branding as seen through the eyes of a storyteller. He shows us how communities can be empowered and reputation enhanced by listening first, and then developing a master narrative which makes people feel proud about their place – strong enough to attract new talent, visitors, investors.

Todd, as a master of storytelling you have advised communities around the world, from Tasmania in Australia to Edmonton in Canada. Do you remember what brought you to the topic in the first place?

Frustration.

Cities and states seemed lost, using the same language and hoping pretty pictures and expensive videos — is it all the same video, over and over again? — would bring talent, investment, and tourism. Every city claimed to be world-class, filled with opportunity, innovation, sustainability, resilience, and love. In the universal video, good-looking people were always eating delicious food, paddling on a waterway, doing something with computers and robots, laughing in a bar, and ultimately running hand-in-hand to the top of a hill in the sunset while soaring music plays.

While it was all true, in a sense, it also seemed these places were missing their most important asset: what makes them different from 1,000 other mid-sized cities, regions, or states? Our company, Story Engine, had been working with corporations, universities, banks, and property developers to create a central narrative that could drive strategy —really based on what Apple had done.

A “master story” can create focus and discipline by engaging our emotions and our intelligence. We can act on it.

This is precisely what I felt cities needed. Rather than complain about it I decided to see if our method could work on cities and one city was courageous enough to let us try.

At that time, late 2011, I had never heard the phrase “place-branding.”

In 2017 you founded Places are People, a boutique consultancy which helps places seize the power of narrative. Can you tell us why narrative is so powerful, and how to leverage it?

We forget most of what we hear, and we’re all bombarded every day by the dead language of advertising and business. World War II military leadership brought us what we now call “strategic planning,” the ubiquitous and abstract mission, vision, and values. Empty taglines and top-ten lists bring randomness into planning and building, which can be dangerous.

Our brains are wired for narrative. We can’t forget a good story, they transfer from person to person like viruses, and we’ve found that every place’s story seems to follow a singular, dominant structure. It’s simple yet specific. It adds more texture than, say, a concept like “opportunity” or “adventure.”

A master story, for a place, allows citizens and leaders to unite around a pattern of success that is true of the past, the present, and an ideal future.

Public servants are mired in complexity. We try to make it as simple and as compelling as possible for them — using research. Every eight year-old knows what a story is and is not. We try to help adults see the power in what they’ve lost, as they’ve made religions out of complication.

Based on your experience, which is the best way to consult and engage with stakeholders, during a place branding process?

We tried, in the beginning, to read everything available, to analyze data and to run workshops: the community hall, the urn of coffee, the cookies and bad sandwiches, a facilitator seeking consensus. It scared us because everything came out bland and universal. I understood immediately why city brand language sounded the same, why it seemed superficial. Group dynamics mean we endlessly repeat the universal synonyms of civic goodness, to impress one another. And there’s something about the people who volunteer to attend such a session. They’re already engaged.

So we began doing one-on-one interviews. Everyone in the company worked in journalism at some point, and we try to be politely relentless. We’re deeply curious. It isn’t a matter of asking a series of pre-written questions. We try to push through clichés and jargon and get to examples, something that can’t easily happen in a group setting. We ask “Why?” a lot. When it seems something could happen in any place, we try to ask our interviewees to be as specific as possible. What could only happen here? When you could live anywhere, why did you choose this place? Why did you choose to stay? What are you most proud of? What disappoints you?

Over time, when you speak to enough people, and different kinds of people, something magical happens. There are iconic stories, repeating stories, that bind the people who live in a place — a uniting narrative. The CEO, the student, the new immigrant, the public servant, the electrician, the poet: they share something.

Looking back at your work so far, is there anything you’d approach differently if given the chance to turn back time – for example in terms of designing the community side of brand management?

We lacked the confidence, in the beginning, to follow our instincts.

Our clients are inevitably government or economic development organizations that answer to government. They’re most comfortable with official brand management bodies with boards and councils. And these boards tend to be populated by the usual suspects: very successful businesspeople and retired senior public servants. Even when we pushed for diversity on the board it was still a board, and primarily concerned with board governance: budgets, hiring and firing, targets and measurement, relationships with the CEO or executive director.

What works better is a more informal committee whose members are relentlessly focused on bringing the story to life, on the brand. We certainly need successful, well-connected businesspeople and knowledgeable public servants. But we also need artists, sports figures, representatives from ethnic and cultural communities, social entrepreneurs, and people who work at other organizations whose success relies on a strong place brand like university marketers and fundraisers. And we absolutely need young people.

We were shy about pushing for this in the beginning, but now we have evidence to show how the latter not only works better — it’s cheaper, more productive, and feels a lot less like an elite club to the rest of the community.

I made the mistake of fighting against the logos and taglines of the past, even if they were ineffectual and — according to our research — entirely wrong. It alienated people. A better method is to let them die gradually, swallowed up by the truth.

Ideally, place branding initiatives are supported by consensus across stakeholders regarding the direction and approach to be taken. In practice this hardly ever happens. Why is it so difficult to get everyone on the same page? And how can place brand managers deal with this?

I like the American television series The Wire. Over five seasons it shows how ego and turf can destroy every institution in a city. There is a fundamental truth in it: people won’t work together on a singular approach because it’s the right thing to do, or logical. The “master story” approach we use always means sacrificing something: the multiple-logo, multiple tagline brand machine that still feels comfortable, that independent communications shop in the city manager’s office, the cool aloofness of the tourism council with its New York ad agency and multimillion dollar budgets, the surrounding towns and suburbs with their own communications departments, the politicians who can use a brand exercise as a wedge issue in an election next year.

Let’s be honest: the best we can hope for, in place branding, is a beautiful failure. Why? Because we’re human.

What we try to do is show our stakeholders, organization by organization, that we are creating a public asset they can use, that will make their work easier, more fun, and more successful. We are here to solve a problem that has been painful, that has gotten in the way of growth, prosperity, and happiness.

Once we have the story, we have to go out and do a road show, inside the city or state, to convince everyone it is not something we imposed from afar. We learned it by listening to their neighbours, by digging, by focusing relentlessly on uniqueness, by building a strategy that was wholly informed by the story. It is theirs, not ours. We have to convince them they can be more creative and imaginative, not less, by expressing that story in their own way, in their own language, and that it is more than communication: it is about encouraging action.

The Great Britain campaign has a brilliant rationale for itself: jobs and growth.

Place branding is not a shiny new veneer. It’s who we always were, at our best. We have just uncovered it. It is an economic, social, and cultural program that benefits everyone. When it works, we feel differently. In that sense it is also a spiritual program, but I don’t usually tell our clients that part. It’s better if they tell us.

In a nutshell, what is storytelling about (in a place brand context)?

Humans are story creatures. We think and feel in myth and metaphor. Every place has a dominant “plot.” Edmonton and Tasmania are oriented around a rags-to-riches plot. Northern Territory, in Australia, is all about rebirth. Austin follows a powerful overcoming-the-monster plot, the monster being the terrifying blandness that comes from globalization.

The iconic examples we learn, and the simple expressions of the story, always follow a repeating structure.

A story is about choices and changes. We want citizens to feel the choices they make, the changes they seek, are in the best interests of their city or state — without it feeling like “good medicine” or that they’re repeating a marketing slogan everywhere they go.

Ultimately, we want to inspire and encourage action. Stories do that better than any other means of communication.

Having worked as journalist for a decade, to what extent would you consider (news) media coverage important in terms of a place’s perceived brand credibility?

It was more important ten years ago than it is now, as we encourage our clients to think of themselves as media outlets. Their most engaged citizens are media outlets. We want to give them something to share, and a way to curate the stories that are “typically Tasmanian,” for example, among the thousands of events they could talk about.

That said, we always ensure local journalists are on the list of interviewees. We involve them in the process and we seek them as partners, not to ruin their objectivity but to seek an understanding. We tend to work in places where image and reputation problems are broadly understood and deeply felt.

It hurts to be underestimated and mocked. Everyone wants to be proud of where they live, and they want a powerful way to express it. As former journalists, we know how to pitch the media. We know what a journalist needs when she goes to her editor with a story: an actual story!

If charged with developing the branding strategy for a medium-sized city in North America, how would you approach this?

We would begin with desk research and data analysis. Most cities have economic intelligence units of some sort, so we’ll ensure we get all of their information. Then we will partner with a local creative agency. They understand their city better than we do, as curious outsiders, and we want to ensure the bulk of the fees stay in the community.

Nothing can ruin a sincere branding exercise like the notion of a fancy outsider coming to town, sniffing around for a couple of days, and invoicing the government for a pile of money from the swish agency workshop back in London.

We put together a list of interviewees: yes, the usual suspects who will be ambassadors for us, but also members of those communities I spoke of before. We can’t leave anyone out, not for reasons of optics so much as for the power of the work. In Edmonton or Tasmania, if we had not spoken to Indigenous people we would have missed some of the most powerful and revealing stories — ancient stories. In a mid-sized city, we will speak to more than one hundred people.

Then we put the story together, improve it with input from our local partners and our client, and begin to share it. How? This depends on the nature of the story. In Edmonton we used a blog. In Tasmania our partners, The20, created a brilliant interactive Facebook page and included a podcast.

We run workshops, not only to share the story but to elicit local, “on-brand” ways to bring it to life. In Edmonton this led us to a community-building program called Make Something Edmonton that resulted in thousands of projects and the direct involvement of over 100,000 people — not to mention the physical improvements to the city and a new way to approach economic development.

We bring the stakeholders together and create the committee that will live with it in the coming years. We create an ambassador program, including members of city council, well-known media figures, athletes, artists, and community leaders. The tourism industry must be a part of this.

Then, and only then, we look at tactical publicity and marketing. Maybe we need a communications campaign. Maybe not. This is a five-year strategy, and at some point we will have to share the story with the world. But we can’t do it until citizens of the mid-sized city feel it is true, feel they built it and own it.

We are finished when our local partners are confident masters of the story. We put ourselves out of business.

How would you advise to measure the impact and return on investment of city branding initiatives?

The socio-economic measures are the most obvious ways: GDP, job numbers, in-migration, tracking the success of major employers. There is usually a problem we have been hired to solve. If it’s talent attraction, that is fairly easy to track.

Companies like Resonance and Bloom Consulting can help with measurement products. We have also worked with the computing science departments of local universities to set up data analytics programs: what are people saying and searching for, on Google and on social media platforms, before and after the branding initiative? What language are they using? These initiatives can be highly focused, and it creates a new, perpetual engine of research inside the city.

This is about jobs and growth. We can track that. But the spiritual side of our work is harder to measure. It doesn’t go well in a pitching session, but I try to reduce the tension around measurement by being honest.

A successful place branding initiative will slowly change the way it feels to live in a place. We will feel prouder, even if many of us don’t know what has changed. That is harder to measure, and harder for mayors and CEOs to present to their boards and constituents, but ideally everyone in the room feels it.

You recently attended the City Nation Place conference in London. Which was your personal key takeaway from the event?

I was really impressed by the way MSP (Minneapolis Saint-Paul) focused on a few key audiences, in their talent attraction initiatives. It’s wrong to think of our audience, in a medium-sized city or region, as “everyone.” We can’t all be New York or Beijing. MSP has the confidence to know who is happiest and most successful in their community, and they targeted them: professionals of colour, for instance, technologists, and interns. They brought them to MSP and created dedicated programs to make them feel welcome.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

This is selfish, and I know anyone who has read this far likely agrees, but I would like to see more Requests for Proposals get beyond the top-down agency approach to place branding. The word brand itself is deeply flawed, and people tend to distrust it. If we do this properly, it’s so much more than a communications exercise. It’s economic, social, and cultural development. It’s rich public policy. That’s why I am such a great fan of The Place Brand Observer, as you elevate this field.

Story Engine uses this same model for corporations, and it works well. But we don’t leave our neighbourhood, our city, or our state at 5 or 6, at the end of the day. We go to it. Our connection to where we live is powerful, even if it is difficult to define.

When we help give people a way to talk about their place, to express what it means to them, and to act in a way that reinforces that story… it’s deeply moving and deeply rewarding.

Thank you, Todd.

Connect with Todd Babiak on LinkedIn and Twitter. Todd is available for keynotes and workshops.


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