Place Whispering: Every place has a soul.

Places live. Grow. Stumble. Rise. And even dream. 

This is where place branding–or as we call it, place whispering–begins. 

The vital thread running through the fabric of every vibrant place is a strong brand that could not possibly be for anyplace else because it is rooted in authenticity. It’s born from its intrinsic vibe. And its proven through the shared experiences that people will have with that place. 

For 20 years, Prismatic has helped brands tap into their souls and define their brands. 

What is place branding?

What is branding? According to the American Marketing Association:

A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one product, service, or thing as distinct from those of others.

Place branding is more multidimensional in nature, as places are inexplicably linked with history, culture, and its own unique ecosystem of relational products, spaces, organizations and people.

The fundamental difference between branding and place branding is that consumer brands are created outside-in. They are inspired by a universal want or need. Consumer brands study the market, identify a need and work to answer that need. Their origin is the consumer.

Successful place brands are created from the inside-out. They are inspired by their authentic assets. Place brands must study themselves. Through this internal discovery, they can identify an audience that seeks the experiences and vibe they possess. Their origin is their cultural, experiential, and physical assets.

Why is place branding important?

As a practice, place branding began to rise and take on new significance with the emergence of post-industrial society among developing nations because places compete with other places for people, resources, and business. As a result, the race to be competitive, attractive, and economically magnetic began. And this belies the promise and potential of place branding.

Prismatic defines place branding as clearly defining a place’s personality, promise, and proposition. Place branding involves the creation of a strategy for activating a place’s identity and managing perceptions to nurture meaningful relationships rooted in authenticity between people and place.

A place’s brand must be authentic, aspirational, and above all, magnetic to attract the right people and businesses to discover it as their muse, playground, kitchen, storefront, and home.

Downtowns, Main Streets, and districts have always been of interest because of the variety of experiences they provide. But visitors’ expectations for their visit have changed. The former motivation was escapism—an escape from their own daily reality to a place with novel experiences and surprises.

Today, rather than escape, most visitors want to travel to experience the reality of authentic local culture.

People want to experience a place “through the lens of a local.”

Place branding is important because when done correctly, we clearly define that expectation – the promise – that visitors, investors, new business ventures, and others can expect from our place.  It requires credibility and reliability from what is presented in the market positioning of the place to what they actually see, hear, feel, and do when they are there. This is authenticity.

Aspiration is important to place branding as every place has dreams and a future that may look different than today.. It is ok to reach but only if that reach is actively championed and acted upon by the place’s stakeholders. If we market aspiration rather than reality, it will cost us authenticity and the trust of those we need to build relationships with – visitors, customers, residents, and business owners.

Why do some place brands fail?

As we’ve just discussed, the main reason place brands fail is that they sacrifice authenticity and over promise with aspiration. Places that do not stay true to themselves – the very definition of authenticity – pay the price and experience place brand failure.

Forbes magazine has reported that 86% of city branding campaigns fail. 

Why do place brands fail? The answer may be multifaceted and include:

  • Failing to build consensus around powerful driving ideas and the core vision. Places with a calculated, fully baked  vision galvanize support around a clear, powerful driving idea. An idea so compelling that stakeholders want to be part of its achievement and inspires pride from the inside-out.
  • Lack of understanding what is involved in strategy formation by decision makers.
  • Shallow approach that runs only skin deep and fails to ever reach the soul of the place. Often place brand strategies look and feel superficial because they take a simplistic view of what the place offers. Research is vitally important. Place brands demand strategies informed by facts, not guts. 
  • Not allowing the proper amount of time to do deep, thoughtful work. There are no quick fixes with place branding. You cannot cheat the time needed or process required to bring an authentic place brand to life. Creating brands for places is rarely a short-term task. Typically, it can take between six to twelve months, depending on the size of the place, its mix of challenges and opportunities and the scale of its ambition.
  • Failing to adequately fund the strategy and its implementation.
  • Lack of local stakeholder engagement to guide and proof-out the place brand strategy and resulting concepts. A project that does not involve stakeholders like business owners and residents misses out on valuable local insights.
  • Lack of diligent research and testing.

How can you achieve place branding success?

Places cannot be defined by a single image or logo. This is what makes successful rebranding an exciting challenge. Prismatic’s approach to successful place branding involves # steps which we never deviate from under any circumstances. 

Step 1: Crystalize the goals.
It is vital that a clear set of goals, objectives, and desired outcomes be established at the very start of the project. This forms the north star of place branding work and should be omnipresent and clear to help key stakeholders make effective decisions. 

Step 2: Identify what makes your place, your place from the inside-out.
This should include the good, bad and the ugly. This discovery cannot be sacrificed. It is what will form the blueprint for your place brand and enable you to define authenticity and balance aspiration.

  • This must involve stakeholders and your branding partner will need to experience your place from the inside-out, on the ground with your help.
  • Be transparent with your place’s weaknesses, feedback you may commonly hear, and any plans for the future that are actively underway.
  • Examine the current brand (assuming one exists) in the form of a brand audit.
  • Conduct a digital positioning audit to identify how your place currently appears to a completely digital audience.
  • Document experiences and attractions that play a part in your VRIO modeling (which comes later). Defining these core assets are the foundation of success and most often include:
  • History and important moments
  • Residents
  • Geography
  • Architecture and design of the built environment
  • Parks and public spaces
  • Art and expressive experiences
  • Quality of life
  • Culture
  • Main streets and popular neighborhoods

Step 3: Study your competition.
Who are you commonly competing against for visitors, customers, and business investment? Study them. Examine how they are positioning themselves to identify opportunities and gaps that your place may be able to leverage within its own positioning assuming they pass the authenticity filter. Studying the competition must also include brand and digital positioning audits.

Step 4: Identify your tribe.
I’m using “tribe” as shorthand for your target audience. Knowing your target audience is essential and the more you know, the better you can weave their desires into your positioning. A place cannot be the perfect place for everyone. But it can be magic for the right ones. Streamline the specific groups of people that you would like to target and then prioritize them on the basis of importance.

Step 5: Amplify authentic experiences.
Use the VRIO methodology to explore each signature facet of your place – experiences, events, and offerings – and unleash the creative ideas. I’ll explain more in just a bit.

Step 6: Engage.
Part of the brand strategy should explore opportunities to engage the community of people who define the place and who ultimately help determine whether it thrives. People inherently want to be invested. They want to feel a part of things. That yearning is powerful when leveraged as a way of getting the community to help identify, expand upon, chime in, or determine key elements of the place brand journey. Turn the entire project into an opportunity to reach, engage, and inspire others to join and become part of the initiative. Crowdsourcing and upvoting which involve the community and stakeholders in activities designed to inform, refine, and solidify the brand also have a magical side effect: they become a marketing tactic that also promotes the place.

Case in point: Columbia Parc at the Bayou District

Step 7: Mind the metrics.
Defining success is wildly important. This involves setting clear benchmarking standards and methods for monitoring, measuring, and reporting on key metrics. Commonly these may include:

  • The intersection of return on investment and growth over X years is another vital benchmarking opportunity. Branding a place is not like branding and launching an e-commerce driven product. It takes time and a reasonable expectation for realizing ROI is years, not weeks or months.
  • Total Net Impressions of the brand in the minds of the consumer. This can be tricky to measure but one of the most valuable insights for place brand campaigns.  

Amplify authentic, branded experiences.

Events and experiences play a pivotal role in defining a place’s cultural competitive advantage. Taking the time to apply the VRIO framework to those same events and experiences has game-changing potential to activate your place’s brand and amplify its magnetism.

To aid us in identifying and marketing a place’s authentic, local experiences and refine organized events—what we consider cultural competitive advantages—to our savvy audience, Prismatic utilizes the VRIO model within our place branding and marketing strategies.

  • Value: The local experience must be an experience that is of value to a segment of potential visitors.
  • Rare: If other local communities/destinations also offer the experience, then it is not rare and we have parity rather than distinction with those destinations, which does nothing to build visitation.
  • Imitate: If the valuable and rare experience is something that another destination can imitate, then we will not be able to support visitation as other destinations imitate our experiences.
  • Organized: The cultural experience must be organized to create, communicate, and maximize value by providing information on its availability and how to access it. Without organization, the valuable, rare, experience that cannot be imitated will not be discoverable to our audience.

How does this work? Prismatic is currently developing the place brand and marketing strategy for downtown Clermont who is in the process of also becoming a Main Street District. Downtown Clermont has a stunning lake and lakefront that is largely unactivated most of the time. The lake and our potential to be a family-friendly destination adds value but it is not rare: Tavares and Sanford have the same experiences.

Now let’s add in the trail that runs through downtown. Downtown Clermont is at the center of the new Coast-to-Coast trail that is under development, and on top of that, downtown currently features the South Lake Trail which is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and cyclists.

Now let’s blend these assets. 

What if we created a B&B Movie night? Whether by Bike or by Boat, people can glide in, anchor or park, and enjoy an outdoor movie night with local concessions. 

There is value to its family-friendly atmosphere and that it is a free event. It becomes rare as there are no other outdoor movie nights like this currently. It is also not easily imitated thanks to the trail that brings people in by bike. It can be organized with promotion occurring through downtown and city-owned communication and marketing channels.

Adding to that, bike tourism is a thing and downtown Clermont can own it in their brand positioning and marketing. 

As bike tourism experts say, bicycling and bike tourism can save small towns that might struggle to attract visitors in other ways. Cyclists move at a slower pace, off the main freeways, through rural destinations, and they stop more frequently to eat and sleep (and go to the local bike shops.) We can develop a micro campaign that promotes downtown Clermont as the place to bring your child when it’s time to learn how to ride a bike thanks to our beautiful, safe, wide trail and neighboring sweet treat businesses for that post-bike reward. We can also transform the act of getting around into an adventure by providing bikes for rent that are instagram-worthy.

VRIO helps you methodically examine, refine, and amplify the experiences and events that activate your place’s brand and help it stand out separate and apart from other places in the market. 

A place cannot be everything to everyone.

You can’t fake it until you make it. Attracting people through a brand and campaign that is not authentic may drive people into your place, but because you made promises that you could not keep through their experience once they were there, they may not return and even worse, they made turn to social media to express their disappointment.

If you want to create the ideal or most appealing “persona” for a place, you have to first confront and understand what it is today. The good, the bad, and the ugly. No place is perfect and that’s ok. 

Identify all of the positives. Identify all of the negatives. Use that to begin to identify the target audience who find value in the intersection of those realities. 

There are magical possibilities even in the current challenges as they may exist. An intelligent and creative brand strategy can help turn those negatives into novel distinctions. 

Place branding is not a logo. Not a tagline. Not light pole banners. Or a clever hashtag. A place brand exists in the mind of the people.

Place branding is place whispering. It is about finding your place’s soul and honoring it.

View Similar Articles