How Branding Supports Economic Development

Sandusky Downtown 2.2.23 Website Post
Investing in your municipal brand is more important than ever

There’s no question that branding is the king of the corporate world.

A thousand companies can offer the same products and services, yet the ones that survive and thrive have established a strong brand foundation and strengthened it over time to meet their consumers’ evolving needs.

So, why shouldn’t municipal governments do the same? After all, they’re not just selling a commodity that enhances your life. They’re selling an opportunity to build a life.

You already have a brand

So many of our municipal clients say, “We don’t have a brand.” And we have to break it to them that they do. Your brand is represented in many of the experiences you offer and in people’s feelings and perceptions after those experiences. It’s more of a matter of what you are doing to cultivate your brand, manage where it shows up, and how consistently it’s being used. If you are using your logos or seals inconsistently and poorly, if every department is managing their own social media channels, doing whatever they want, if finding important information on your website is a chore for people — your brand is showing up — but not well.

“Community branding isn’t new — we’ve been doing it forever through our communications, signage, and community events,” said Keith Benjamin, community services director for the City of South Euclid. “However, cities are realizing they need to update their brand identities to look more professional and reflect their evolution and story.” Branding can provide guidance and structure to what everyone is communicating and how they present themselves in a clear, welcoming, and helpful way.

Before the pandemic, we saw municipalities refreshing their brand identities to build equity in what they offered. Since then, that focus has continued, with attention to improving engagement and communication with people. They want to refresh antiquated logos, modernize core messages, revamp communications tools, and create unique opportunities and experiences that help them stand out. Some people may question if they’ve been bitten by the branding bug — one that leaves them with a new logo and tagline before they move to the next shiny initiative. But, we think they have their sights set on something more important. 

“Many small, historic cities are centers of commerce and activity, but they’ve been devastated by people and investments leaving for big, metropolitan areas,” said Eric Wobser, former City Manager for Sandusky, Ohio. New challenges and changes have occurred since the pandemic; with the increase of remote work and the ability to work where you enjoy living, these smaller, less hectic communities have a new opportunity to attract people and businesses. “It’s about creating a better value proposition.”

Some communities have wrapped branding efforts into long-term master plans and economic development strategies. Like their corporate counterparts, they compete against other cities, including those with big budgets and nationwide recognition, for residents, investors, and visitors.

“If you think about it, cities are products,” Wobser adds. “People can choose where they invest, shop, and buy homes. Addressing your city’s branding helps you honestly look at yourself and determine why they should come to you.” In other words, they must clearly define who they are today and where they’re headed to attract new audiences and investment.

“You can’t expect to grow by staying rooted in the past,” said Sean Hughes, economic development director at the City of Delaware. “Externally, people saw us as an old community that lacked diversity and economic potential. Our brand became the nucleus, helping us shift perceptions and build a quality reputation reflecting our evolving population, schools, neighborhoods, and business district.”

“You can’t expect to grow by staying rooted in the past…”

-Sean Hughes, City of Delaware
Own your brand promise

Branding allows communities to define and own their position — who they are, what they do, and how they’re different — in the “marketplace” so they can confidently seek new opportunities instead of passively reacting to them.

Most importantly, it helps them answer the question, “Why should people and businesses call this place ‘home’?

The answer has nothing to do with a new logo or tagline. It’s about their brand promise or the kind of experiences people can expect from them over and over again. Fortunately, the brand-building process can help them identify and articulate that brand promise so that they can be smart about how they keep and communicate that promise. These “hows” may include programs, initiatives, communications, legislation, wayfinding, events, and more. “Our brand is only successful when we back it up with action – programs, regulations, marketing efforts, and more – that reflect our promise,” said Benjamin. “Our tagline, ‘Come Together and Thrive,’ doesn’t mean anything without initiatives like sustainability programs, community gardens, LEED-certified homes and stores, and non-discrimination ordinances.”

In other words, a civic brand has vast, long-term implications beyond a fresh logo. It’s a vehicle that helps to steer your economy, public policies, safety, business development, and user experience forward. Benjamin adds, “Now, our tagline is more than a tagline – it’s a motto that guides every decision.”

“…civic brand has vast, long-term implications beyond a fresh logo.”

It takes a village

It’s important to remember that municipal organizations can’t develop effective brands within silos. People, meaning residents, business owners, institutional leaders, and visitors, have to be part of the brand-building process. After all, they have a role in driving the experience forward. How can you expect anyone else to buy in if they don’t believe in it?

Brand stewardship drives growth faster than any financial incentives or tax breaks. Discounts only go so far in the corporate world, and the same goes for municipal brands. Sure, you can throw a lot of money at people, but they need to trust that your brand experience is sustainable and worthy of their long-term commitment.

“Your brand is absolutely worth the investment, but it’s one part of an overall community development strategy,” said Benjamin. “You can’t just paint a pretty picture and expect people to come and be a part of it. Everyone has to work on it every single day.” In isolation, an unused and unmanaged brand is either nothing or damaging. But as part of a plan and commitment to drive a community forward, it is a powerful tool.