Stakeholder Partnerships for a Stronger Place Brand

Audience Applauding Speaker After Conference Presentation

You have big ambitions for your place brand, but for municipal teams already wearing many hats, you can’t do it all. That’s why strategic partnerships are appealing. With them, you can reach more people, accelerate attention, awareness and raise more funds. But while two heads or more are better than one, unless you have a plan to collaborate – you’ll be left with more work than when you started.

That said, it’s easy to see the benefits of getting it right. Some of today’s biggest, most popular brands see the value of striking up alliances with other organizations, including Spotify and Starbucks, GoPro and Red Bull, Apple and IBM. Not only have these partnerships propelled the launch of new product lines, but they’ve helped these companies increase influence, share resources, acquire new audiences, break into new markets, and more.

Similarly, place-based organizations are often required to band together out of necessity to put on events or launch new initiatives that impact all of their constituents. The key players may include city officials, main street organizations, chambers of commerce, schools and businesses. And while a strength in numbers approach can spark game-changing ideas and opportunities, small differences of opinion and competing interests can ignite disruption. After all, when you’re dealing with organizations that have their own agendas and audiences, playing nice in the sandbox only lasts so long.

So how do you get everyone to unite around a common goal? Let’s take a step back and first decide if it’s even a right fit for you to partner with another organization in the first place.

Should I create a strategic partnership for my place-based organization?

There are a couple of pros and cons to consider before forging a strategic partnership between place-based organizations. 

Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, spoke to the challenges of a co-branding project — Industrial Heartland Trails (or I Heart Trails), which brought together multiple civic-based partners to connect and brand 1,450 miles of shared trails that cross 53 counties in five states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Maryland).

“We knew that a new brand was needed to bridge the divide between all of these separate communities and organizations, but aligning everyone was a laborious process,” said Oberg. “We were dealing with people who have never worked together before, and they didn’t necessarily see the trailway as a shared resource. They were only focused on their individual parts instead of the collective whole.”

We have found that the type of project and makeup of the group can tip the scale in your favor or not. Here are some considerations to help you enter a collaborative branding project with the right mindset.


Much of this comes down to the idea of having MORE people in the room when discussing potential solutions to your community brand’s problems. 

  • Collective ownership. Having multiple stakeholders responsible for the big picture creates a sense of shared responsibility— everyone can pitch in to make sure the end result is aligned with key objectives.
  • Diverse perspectives. The math is simple: two (or more) brains are better than one. When you have multiple people bouncing ideas around, solutions can be more thoughtfully developed and it also helps prevent making rash decisions that could be problematic down the road.
  • A Network of resources. Hopefully, more organizations involved means you will have more money, talent, and connections to pull from to tackle the work.
  • A community of champions. You aren’t “going solo” anymore. With other stakeholders on your side, you can all work together to get more buy-in and support from the community than you could alone.


Similarly, having too many people involved in the decision-making process can hinder some organizations. 

  • Leadership confusion. When you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, it can be difficult to keep everyone on point in a systematic way that allows for progress. Furthermore, in a room full of capable leaders, there can be more than one person vying for ultimate decision-making power. 
  • Political influence. Work politics probably play a big enough part in your day-to-day when you’re working alone—adding multiple organizations with diverse influences to the mix will make your head spin.
  • The decision-making process can be slow, and it can be difficult to get people to look past their self-interests for the good of the group . . . ahem, collaboration means there needs to be some give and take!

Is a strategic partnership worth it to my place-based organization?

Ultimately, the perks of working with a group of partners outweigh the negatives. In fact,  in most cases, the negatives can be managed (we go into greater detail on how do this below). 

Rather than working in a silo, a team built of passionate people with a common purpose can create a presence that is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s what Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has found. 

“Coordination is key when it comes to branding a regional place—you can’t do it in a vacuum,” said Oberg. “Delivering a unified, aligned experience across divisional lines benefits everyone—so why not work on it together?”

Build the Dream Team

Whether you came up with the project idea or it fell into your lap, you need to build a team that shares your vision. If anyone feels forced to lend a hand or disagrees with the proposal, you risk facing stalemate situations for big decisions. 

Even worse, the project could yield bad results if there are members of the team who aren’t engaged in its success. Before digging into the weeds, project goals and expectations must be outlined so everyone is on the same page. 

Action item: Get an external consultant. They may be helpful during this stage to assess the readiness of the stakeholders to take on a large branding project.

Cultivate Collaboration

Are you having trouble building consensus on your team? Here are some quick tips for getting everyone on the same page.

  • Break it up.
    Divide the team into smaller groups, so people feel more comfortable sharing their ideas. Make sure everyone contributes their feedback and writes it down before bringing everyone back together.
  • Break it up again.
    Mix up the groups a few times so people hear varying perspectives and can build new relationships. Make sure that two people from the same organization or area aren’t in the same group.
  • Maximize participation.
    Ensure that everyone participates in the “Discovery” phase of the branding process. This is where the foundational brand work is completed; you want to ensure you get input from every person/organization.
  • Hit the rewind button.
    Always reference the material from the “Discovery” sessions when developing the brand strategy to keep people on track. Remind them of why they are here, who they are working for and what the goals are to keep decisions focused.
  • Assign homework.
    Provide the team with pre-meeting reading materials so meetings can be more efficient and you aren’t wasting time covering stuff that people should know. Time is valuable, and you don’t want to spend a lot of energy going backward.

The Art of Strategic Partnerships: identifying your team 

Next, you need to identify who the team players are, along with their roles and responsibilities. As with any type of project, there needs to be a team captain—a person or an organization—that is appointed to lead the group and communicate expectations, organize meetings and collect feedback. With large projects that involve multiple stakeholder groups, more than one organization may be in the driver’s seat. But regardless of size, leadership needs to be clear and consistent.

“Determining your governance structure needs to be a collaborative decision—you cannot just dictate process to the team,” said Oberg. “If everyone understands their roles from the beginning, you can avoid some big problems down the road.”

Outside of the team leader(s), you need to build a stakeholder group that is composed of people who can represent areas and organizations impacted by the project. They should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of their organization and help keep their own constituents informed of progress. While it’s no easy task to bring such a diverse group together, it’s necessary to have broad-reaching perspectives, especially during the early stages of the foundational brand work.

“When you are working on a large project that spans a big footprint, you are inevitably bringing together people with their own goals and interests”, said Oberg. “You need to get them to realize that they can create something that’s greater than the sum of their individual parts.”

Set the expectation.

Beyond aligning the group around a shared vision and purpose, the spirit of compromise must be embraced by all team members. Sure, everyone has their own interests, but they need to find common ground between their own goals and those of the broader team.

“You need to give people an open platform to share their opinion—whether it’s positive or negative—within the coalition,” said Oberg.

“But eventually, if 98 percent of people agree to a solution, you cannot be paralyzed by the one-two percent who disagree. At some point, people need to concede their own agendas for the good of the group.”

Identifying and aligning around your audience

As the team begins to define different elements of the new brand—the identity, voice and values—disagreements are almost unavoidable. Depending on where they are from or what organization they represent, people are bound to have different opinions on how a brand should look and feel. But ultimately, their perspectives aren’t the most important—the attitudes and viewpoints of their shared audience(s) are. 

What do they think of the current brand? What are their challenges? What direction do they want the brand to move in? Putting the audience’s needs at the center of decision-making is the key to fostering team alignment.

When we helped stakeholders create a regional brand for the Great Miami Riverway, audience-focused discovery sessions helped get diverse community partners to speak the same language.

“At first, I didn’t understand why we were putting so much effort into understanding the audience, but now I get it,” said Stan Kegley, Project Manager for the City of Troy. “You can’t launch a regional brand without drawing connections between all of the different communities’ audiences. It helped us realize we have a lot more similarities than we thought.”

A brand consultant can help you uncover your audience’s needs and motivations by conducting audience identification and persona development exercises, as well as market research (focus groups and surveys). However, you cannot rely on the consultant to define your brand for you—it’s up to you to take the audience feedback and use it to shape and influence the brand along with your community partners.

Everyone on the team must participate in the process of identifying the audience and shaping the brand direction. Not only does it give them a sense of ownership, but it fosters powerful connections between different group members that can lead to the brand’s overall success.

A Win-Win Combination

While the branding process takes time and stamina to get right ahead of time, the end result is well worth all of the effort for both. There’s a sense of empowerment in going through this process, and we talk to a lot of people who feel reinvigorated by collaborating on something that allows them to expand upon their day-to-day roles and work toward something bigger. 

Not only will you have a new brand that connects multiple communities and constituents under a mutual passion and shared vision, but you will also have built great new partnerships with other civic leaders who you can lean on for support. Best of all, you never know when these new partnerships will kindle new ideas that can lead to more revolutionary work.

“It’s the idea of ‘the rising tide lifts all boats,’” said Oberg. “When you are part of a bigger system, you can drive better results—more tourism, more residents, more economic development—that just weren’t possible when you were on your own.” 

Ready to build stronger stakeholder partnerships? Hop on a call with us, and let’s talk about your options. We’re excited to get started.

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