At a recent conference sponsored by the Texas Economic Development Council, I attended a breakout session in which a marketing executive, whose firm builds websites and plans marketing campaigns for economic development organizations, told about visiting a particular community in another state.
The marketing exec said it was a very nice community but that she had become a bit frustrated in asking a question in several different ways to several different people and not getting a truly satisfying answer. Her question was this: What makes your community different? How is it unique?
Her point, one which I did not and will not dispute, was for a website or any marketing effort to be effective, the community must differentiate itself from the competition. To me, that makes perfect sense and sounds all very good. But then I thought more about it.
What if, and I asked her this question not trying to be funny or parse words, what if you have a community, which has some very good assets, but there really isn’t anything particularly “unique” about it?
Rewind to an earlier career when I was the skeptical (and cynical) business editor for a daily newspaper. My reporters and I were often pitched stories by people who wanted us to write about their businesses. Whether they realized it or not, most were seeking free advertising or publicity for their respective businesses. Often, they used the word “unique” in making their story-line pitch. I came to view that word as more often than not as being misused.
As journalists, we had to decide whether this story line would have value to our readers. To us, it was a matter of credibility. Do we roll over and write stories that anyone wants us to write, or do we as professionals make decisions on the value of news or the value of this particular story?
Frequently, that word “unique” would trip us up. Often we would find there was nothing unique at all about the business, no real news hook as to why we should write the story. Sometimes the business owner would look at me plaintively as if saying, “But we’re nice people.” Unfortunately (for the business owner), that was not the criteria for getting a business story in our newspaper.
Now back to economic development marketing and branding. It probably should be story-based because people like stories. People are drawn to narratives and history, whether they know it or not. It is in our DNA.
And by telling our story or stories, as economic developers we want our particular community or region to stand out from the competition, to be noticed and judged favorably.
Indeed, our community story may demonstrate that we may have certain assets that some of the competition does not have. It could be an interstate highway, an airport, a community college, a university. That does not make our community necessarily unique or even different, but it still could comprise a formula for success.
I have been in communities difficult to brand. Not that they were bad places. They were not. I learned plenty about the community — its demographics, history, the skill sets of its work force. But nothing really jumped out at me in terms of branding this community different from others, even if it had certain advantages.
So therein lies the quandary. How do you market a community as being different or, gulp, “unique,” when in all actuality it may not be so different or unique.
Ed Burghard, executive director of the Ohio Business Development Coalition, says doing so in most cases is “a fool’s chase.”
“Instead, you need to understand the points of parity, points of negative difference, and points of positive difference versus the competition,” said Burghard, a retired executive from Procter & Gamble with over 30 years of brand building. In short, your community may not be unique, but it may still compare favorably against the competition.
Burghard says a brand is a promise, setting an expectation of what it would be like to work, live or even visit a community. Ultimately, it is the target audience that decides if your brand or promise hits the mark.
We have all seen the cliché attributes by now, those that probably make the eyes glaze over for many site selection consultants – central location (relative to what?), a fine work ethic and a superior quality of life. Mind you, these can be very real factors involved in the site selection process, but virtually all economic development organizations cite these same attributes, thereby deflating the power of their claims.
Too often, communities make the outlandish assertion that they are simply the very best site location for all businesses on planet Earth, period, end of story. They may not be using that exact same language, but they tout themselves in such a manner that their credibility is damaged. And they don’t even know it. It is not just newspaper editors who are skeptical and cynical in this world.
As an economic development practitioner and consultant, I have come to realize that it is what others say about you that has more impact than what you say about yourself. So if you have a good story to tell, one that is interesting, by all means tell it and find those storytellers in your community. If you are lucky, journalists from inside and outside your community will take notice and pick up on that story. And that is when you start getting third-party credibility.
Every community has a story to tell. The storyline may not make the community resoundingly unique or different, but it can nonetheless matter. In short, very few things in this world truly are unique. But if you play to your strengths, and are cognizant of your weaknesses, chances are that you and that marketing professional can devise an effective message for your community.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org