The Secrets to Creating a Successful Municipal Brand

By Nancy Marshall

Sanford Maine municipal brandingAll municipalities need a brand.

A brand is more than a logo or a tagline. It communicates what makes a municipality unique and appealing through a combination of visuals and words. A strong brand can help boost economic development, tourism and the sense of community residents enjoy.

Think about how many choices businesses have when deciding where to locate. People have just as many options when it comes to shopping, dining and choosing a place to live. Use your brand to tell them why your municipality should be their first choice.

There are a number of Maine municipalities that have successfully used branding to help reinvent themselves and their economies. The best example is the branding initiative of former mill towns Lewiston and Auburn with “LA, It’s Happening Here.” Sanford, another former mill town, also recently adopted its own brand, developed with Nancy Marshall Communications, as a tool to build awareness of its assets and promote new economic growth.

Branding Basics
A brand platform, at minimum, should consist of a logo, tagline and brand manifesto that support what your city or town represents and what sets it apart from other municipalities. Sanford’s logo is a sweeping “S.” Its tagline is “Explore. Create. Grow.” Together, they evoke the creativity and willingness to adapt that represent Sanford’s history and its future.

A brand manifesto is a municipality’s story. Do you have a rich history? Are there influential businesses that have chosen to locate within your boundaries? Is your downtown home to architecturally-significant buildings? Do you possess exceptional cultural offerings? Is there anything unique or quirky about your area others would find interesting? These are all things to consider including in a brand manifesto.

Brand manifestos are written in narrative form. You want readers to be able to envision what it is like to work, live and play in your city or town . . . and imagine themselves there being part of it all. It’s also important to be authentic. Cleveland, Ohio’s brand manifesto, part of its “This is Cleveland” branding campaign, is a good example of how it is done. Like many Maine cities, Cleveland was hit hard by the decline of U.S. manufacturing. Cleveland’s brand manifesto doesn’t gloss this over. Rather, it embraces the city as a hip, gritty place to live that also happens to have great architecture, culture, sports and a growing food scene.

Other branding tools include a message map and style guide.

The message map breaks the brand manifesto down into a graphic consisting of one central message surrounded by secondary messages that support it. It includes all important points your municipality should be conveying to its target audiences. The message map is used by all within your city or town responsible for communicating with the media, business prospects, public interest groups, economic developers, and other key audiences. It helps ensure everyone is singing off the same song sheet, no matter who they are communicating with or how they are communicating.

Once you have all your brand elements in place, you want all organizations with an interest in promoting your brand — such as the local chamber and CVB, local businesses, and economic development groups — to use those elements and use them consistently. A style guide will protect the uniformity of your brand by providing specific guidelines regarding its usage. These include the minimum size at which the logo should appear, brand-specific colors and fonts, and usage guidelines for specific mediums, including Web and print. Style guides can be simple or highly detailed, depending on the number of entities that will be using a brand and the mediums that will be used to convey it.

Getting Buy-In
Brands almost always fail, and fail epically, when those at the top don’t seek input or involvement from stakeholders.

Think about the great pride Mainers feel for their home state and communities. People don’t like it when officials dictate how their home will be represented to the outside world. Critical letters to the editor begin appearing in the paper, the mayor’s inbox is flooded with angry messages, and community members begin countering with their own unsolicited branding ideas. We’ve all seen it happen.

Involving stakeholders is well worth the extra time and expense. Those who feel they were part of the process are much more likely to embrace the brand and its purpose.

To set the stage for approval and acceptance, involve residents and businesses in the branding process from the beginning. This can be achieved through focus groups, email surveys and town meetings seeking input and, later in the process, vetting the brand with a committee including representation from each stakeholder group before it becomes final. Keeping the media informed of the branding process as it progresses is also a good practice.

Setting the Stage for Success
Your municipality has chosen a brand and successfully unveiled it to the public. Everyone is pleased and proud. Now it’s time to put that brand to work.

Having a good strategy for promoting a brand is equally as important as having a good brand. Start with a clearly-defined goal and supporting objectives that are realistic and measurable. For municipalities building a brand from the ground up, increasing awareness is often the crux of the goal.

Since brands take time to gain traction, consider developing a strategy that spans three years, setting annual benchmarks that will help meet the overall goal by year three.

Tactics should represent an integrated, multi-platform approach. Remember, the more times people hear and see your brand and the more ways in which they are exposed to it, the more likely they are to remember it, talk about it, and act as a result of it.

Depending on the resources available to you, tactics can encompass traditional marketing, Internet marketing, social media, media relations, advertising, public speaking, sponsorships, community outreach, and special events.

In addition to the actual methods you will use to promote your brand, the strategy should also include a timeline broken out by month or quarter, a detailed budget and measurements of success tied to each tactic. These components will ensure implementation stays on track. You’ll also be able to gauge what tactics are working the best and what approaches may need to be adjusted as you execute your plan.

Recruiting Brand Partners
Identifying partners to promote your brand and outlining potential opportunities to collaborate (allowing you to maximize your budget and effectiveness) should also be part of the strategy. Partners can include local businesses, economic development entities, nonprofits that serve your municipality, regional and state tourism associations, and the organizers of festivals and special events held in your area.

Through partnerships, Sanford’s brand has been successfully integrated into the work of the city’s growth council, administration, airport, recreation department, public works department, industrial development corporation, and chamber of commerce. Its logo has been used by the Sanford School Department, occupies the outfield fence at Goodall Park, decorates a city-wide trails map, and is featured on light post banners downtown. It has also been added to the branding for Synergize Sanford and the Sanford International Film Festival.

The most natural brand partners are your own residents and businesses. They’ve already made the choice to locate within your municipality and recognize the benefits of being part of your community. Encourage and reward their enthusiasm, and they will become your biggest fans. While no substitute for face-to-face contact, social media is a great time- and cost-efficient tool to engage them. Followers who actively engage with your municipality by liking, commenting on and sharing your posts via platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest will boost your exposure and appeal while encouraging more social media users to connect with you.

Branding and Your Website
Your website is the single most important investment you can make in your brand and in your marketing overall. Look at your website as the hub of the marketing “wheel” with all other marketing efforts serving as the spokes, helping to drive traffic to the site.

It’s a vital information source that can improve people’s perceptions of what you have to offer them and how they interact with your city or town, providing them access to information about your municipality whenever and wherever they want it. The great thing is you have full control over how your brand will be represented through the content and design of your website.

Given the importance of the Web, website improvements (or website creation if you don’t have one) and ongoing website analytics to determine how visitors are interacting with your site should be essential components of your strategy. This will provide a strong foundation for promoting your brand and improving the experience users have when they visit the site.

Having a user-friendly website is also good customer service. According to Forrester Research, 72 percent of online consumers prefer to use a company’s website to get answers to their questions rather than contacting them by phone or email. If you are competing against another municipality for a business development project, a family looking to relocate, or visitor dollars, the more information you can offer online the more attractive your locale will be.

Content users will appreciate includes up-to-date information about meetings, permits, licenses, your educational system, a listing of municipal departments and officials, services, and shopping, dining and tourism amenities. For economic development audiences, include information on the cost of doing business in your area, tax credits and grants, open commercial sites, and testimonials from local businesses. Organizing information by audience — residents, business, and visitors — will make it easy for users to find exactly what they are looking for quickly.

Building a Community Around Your Brand
Good branding will make your city or town shine. Don’t assume everyone, even your own community, already knows about its distinctive qualities. Get out there and tell your story. Embrace those that already love your area and recruit them to help spread the word. Once you’ve got the creative pieces in place, the key to building a powerful brand is establishing a long-term strategy that outlines the tools and methods you will use to promote it. Even if you’re operating on a shoestring budget, you can make a substantial impact on awareness by forging partnerships with the many entities and individuals that have a stake in your municipality’s success. Consider Lewiston-Auburn and Sanford. Neither could have accomplished what they have without the buy-in and support of their stakeholders.

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