The Power of Place-Based Storytelling


Stories are the currency of our lives. They’ve been a part of society since the beginning of time, shaping not only our intellect and memories but our emotions and the lens through which we make sense of the world. Given the sheer power of storytelling, many brands use it to influence their audiences and have given it a 21st-century name: content marketing. People are bombarded by information daily, and stories cut through the clutter to connect with them on a deeper level. That’s why civic places can leverage narratives to transform themselves from a black-and-white picture into Kodachrome – colorful, experience-driven destinations. Here’s how to transform your clutter of information into a tangible story that your visitors can experience just from a social post or a well-written email.

Who is the hero of your place’s story?

Unlike brands that offer tangible products, cities and communities have the challenge of promoting things like economic development, community culture, and lifestyle, to name a few. Furthermore, where people seek out tangible products because there’s a need, many people do not understand the value of what their city or community has to offer and may not proactively look for the information.

So how do we create story loops that spark interest and action? The same way that all stories do…by introducing characters (people). When a story is told about a person, or through their lens and experience, it’s easier to relate to. A new beginning, personal triumph, heartfelt introspection, or a compelling plot – there are many combinations and approaches to storytelling. 

With so many options for going about this, it’s important to ensure that all your story’s elements are grounded in strategy. Without one, you run the risk of creating a series of uncoordinated narratives that don’t connect to big-picture goals. That’s just going to confuse your audience. We want them enthralled, not questioning why they’re here. 

As you develop your strategy, here are some important areas to consider:

  • WHY — Ask yourself a not-so-simple question: Why do we persist? What purpose do we serve? The answer should not only crystallize your place’s ultimate mission but also communicate what you’ve overcome and how that has shaped who you are, who you serve, and your mission.

    Think about the City of Cleveland. While the place once referred to as the “Mistake on the Lake” is experiencing what some people call a rebirth, you can’t appreciate the city’s current success without understanding its industrial roots, economic ups and downs, sports heartbreak, and neighborhood redevelopment. When brought together, these individual pieces create a compelling story about a city that has risen from the ashes.
  • HOW — Your storytelling needs to illuminate How your place creates value for people. Think of the “hows” as categories – the types of things that support your Why. This may consist of new business resources, events, parks and recreation, safety, and, yes, even fun things like waste management. Crafting stories around these features and services help you demonstrate your community’s purpose and gain buy-in for important initiatives.
  • WHAT — Finally, ask yourself: What types of stories are we going to tell? This is the most tactical portion of your storytelling strategy. It’s also the place where you’ll be able to make some decisions on which tangible stories will align with your messaging.  Like a good marketing plan, you need to document your story ideas, authors, key messages, distribution channels and publishing schedule to keep your team aligned, organized and accountable. Here are a few examples of story formats to consider:
  • People profiles (residents, entrepreneurs, mayor, city staff, visitors, etc.)
  • Neighborhood profiles
  • Success stories 
  • News stories
  • Timeline of events 
  • Photo albums
  • Social media posts and hashtags

Your stories don’t have to be written the same way or from the same point of view. When you take a diverse approach to story development, you’re positioned to create a more vibrant collage of your place. 

Stop selling your story. Tell your story.

Stories don’t just generate intrigue. They help you communicate – but only if you’re not overtly selling to them or becoming too dry and statistics-based. People inherently understand the narrative formula (problem, climax, resolution, and conclusion), and city stewards can leverage it to communicate their ideas and illuminate the greater context behind their engagement, planning, and economic development efforts. 

Master plans, ballot issues, and tax levy proposals are tough topics that need to overcome misperceptions and skepticism.  Instead of throwing boring statistics, financials, and sales-y advertising at your constituents’ faces, use storytelling to highlight different perspectives and draw connections to other like-minded communities. Not only will your cause pick up steam, but you’ll build community brand champions in the process. 

Many cities across the U.S. and around the world have done a remarkable job of using stories to build loyalty, attract new visitors and jumpstart economic initiatives. It’s easy to point to places like Chicago or New York City with all they have to offer, but we’re proud of Cleveland for using brand storytelling to rise up from its underdog status and create a culture of hometown pride. 

The city has even inspired user-generated content through its #ThisIsCle social media campaign where people are encouraged to share images of themselves around town with the popular hashtag. And, similar to Amsterdam’s popular “I Amsterdam” tourist spot, the city has placed “Cleveland” signs in different locations to give residents and visitors the opportunity to take photos and create experience-based stories of their own. In our opinion, those are the best kinds of stories.

The best way to get started? Just start. 

If you’re having writer’s block or don’t know where to start with your place’s storytelling, talk some of your ideas out with your team and people in the community. Also, you need to review your strategic priorities and identify relevant stories that can help you fill in the lines. Are there new restaurants opening? What’s happening within the school system? Is there new construction? What about upcoming events? You don’t have to churn out long, robust narratives every single week. Sometimes, a social media photo and post is enough to get some attention. 
Radio personality Ira Glass once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” Storytelling is a long-term investment in the health of a place brand. And hopefully, like any great novel or series, you’ll have people turning every page with anticipation of what’s going to happen next.