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Destination Branding for Small Cities

by Bill Baker / Total Destination Management

Destination Branding for Small Cities
Friday, June 25, 20101:29 PM Tags:no tagsCategories:
The Essentials for Successful Place Branding by Bill Baker of Total Destination Marketing. An excerpt from Chapter 4 Prepare to Start: Mobilize the Forces.

Like an athlete preparing to compete in a major event, you must complete a lot of careful and detailed preparation before getting to the starting line. Let’s look at some of the preliminary actions needed to prepare a sound foundation to generate the support, understanding and endorsement of the branding project.

It Must be the CEO’s Baby

The president or executive director of the DMO must be actively engaged in every aspect of the brand’s development and breathe vitality into the assignment. We have found that the only way for the brand to take off is when the CEO “gets it” and has the passion, energy, skills and vision to make it work. If he or she takes a passive role, the brand will almost certainly fail.

Understandably, there may be many legitimate distractions that consume the CEO’s time. However, the brand is at the heart of what will influence every activity that the destination will be involved in for years to come and thus worth every minute that he or she can devote to it. While the CEO may want to delegate aspects of the day-to-day management of the process to the marketing manager, he must remain intimately involved in crafting the brand strategy. This visible engagement by the CEO will ensure that he or she:

Makes a strong statement to everyone that this is important.

Strengthens their personal relationship, and that of the DMO, with key constituents.

Fully understands and takes an active role in shaping the strategic rationale of the brand.

Can present the brand with authority and enthusiasm.

Ensures that the brand thrives in all areas of the organization and at all critical points of contact with customers.

Leads the educative role in furthering the understanding of the brand.

Take the Lead

One of the unexpected benefits of the collaborative approach is that it provides an unprecedented opportunity for the CVB or Chamber to showcase its role as a community and industry leader. Time and again, we have seen the process become the rallying point to re-energize the DMO, its constituents and the marketing of the city. The challenge is to sustain this heightened enthusiasm and use it as a catalyst to consolidate the DMO’s position as one of the city’s most valuable organizations. It is an ideal time to move people beyond turf building, internal politics and the dated opinions that may have prevailed in the past. DMOs rarely have a better chance to display their value to the community than through this process.

We have noticed that the brand planning process tends to add credibility and support when the DMO reaches beyond “the usual suspects” to canvas the views of a wider range of constituents.

The Greater Tacoma Convention & Visitors Bureau strongly supports the consultative route. The bureau’s Executive Director, Ruthie Rienert said, “The consultative planning process that we used generated incredible buy-in among our Board members, partners and stakeholders. It established the CVB as a community leader and contributed directly toward a better understanding and working relationship. We were able to make changes that probably would not have been possible for years had we not used external assistance and developed a strategy that had been built on collaboration and engagement.”

Great Leaders Lead to Great Brands

Cities are dynamic with myriad agendas, visions, objectives and egos - all in play at the same time. Most cities have multiple centers of influence and while many individuals and organizations are very customer, business, and future-oriented, others may be firmly locked in the past or may not want to see any changes. Others are less concerned about economic benefits as they are about the social and environmental impacts that marketing the community may bring. Still others question why money is being spent on branding and marketing when there are potholes in the streets. Communicating the benefits of branding to local citizens and organizations will help in winning support and boosting community pride.

Great brands are more likely to emerge when leaders step out of their comfort zone and show creativity, vision and courage. Their lead can be a powerful signal to everyone involved and may stimulate ‘out of the box’ ideas and collaboration among some of the most unlikely of partners. Brands are most likely to reach their greatest potential where there is passion, courage, and a strong commitment by the leadership of the city. While local opinions are very important, it is vital for leaders to understand that their external customers are the final arbiters on what will define the city’s most potent brand.

The marketing and branding of cities can be complex and controversial. To avoid or minimize controversy, political and opinion leaders should be encouraged to understand the assignment and embrace the many benefits that the strategy will bring. When they fully grasp and support it, they are not only able to deflect criticism but will also become influential champions and open doors to signal that this project is important to constituents and the future of the city.

At times, achieving the brand vision and delivering the city’s brand promise requires a leader to break from the status quo and exert the influence of his or her office. They may need to support a call for new resources, new organizational structures, a review of some city ordinances, beautification programs, and performance reviews. They may even be called on to slaughter a few “sacred cows” along the way. As I said earlier, in many respects branding is also an exercise in change management and relies very much on healthy relationships, cooperation and a genuine preparedness to adapt to new situations.

Another obstacle to branding cities has to do with turnover in leadership, especially those in cities and counties with term limits for elected officials. “Often, you’ll have political leaders who agree that someone should put the place on the map but then say, ‘It’s not my job’ because they will be out of here in a few years,” says Rod Underhill. “There needs to be sufficient conviction among the other civic organizations and leaders that branding can withstand a turnover in leadership, and avoid stop-start marketing,” he adds.

It may take time, but before the project starts you need to invest the time to encourage the endorsement and participation of the leading executives, opinion leaders, and public officials who are likely to be instrumental in the long-term health of the brand. Some of these people may not be directly involved in the ongoing brand management, but their decisions and support may have profound leverage and influence. They should be exposed to the basic concept of branding and its benefits, and that it is more than an advertising campaign, new logo or slogan. Simply completing the brand strategy, and then presenting it to them is likely to result in a very weak brand or, even worse, controversy.

Brand planning must be based on open exchanges and collaboration to capture the information and insights needed to reveal the strongest brand identity possible. This may call for leaders and managers to break down territorial silos that may exist between, and within key organizations. This helps to ensure that there is no gap between what the city promises and the actual experiences that customers can enjoy.

This holistic or 360° approach to branding may require a break from the age-old way of doing things. Hence, opinion leaders need to be the catalysts and champions for a cultural shift at important points around the city. They also need to be onboard to assist in correcting any misunderstandings about the project and provide their unambiguous and hearty public endorsement.

It pays to be prepared for a variety of responses from individual leaders and organizations. To address their particular perspectives, different approaches and presentations may be necessary for discussions with the Board, community and business leaders, and potential brand partners. Carefully plan for each meeting by considering the benefits, agenda, and perspective relative to each.

Give Them a Voice, Then Listen!

Canvassing the opinions of local constituents not only brings forward great ideas and perspectives, but can also provide important clues as to where the “land mines” or likely trouble spots may be later in the process. Importantly, consultation is extremely valuable in clearing the way to reveal the brand.

Within the community there will be residents, business, political and opinion leaders who will have comments, knowledge, and perspectives that should be considered. After they are identified, the level and nature of their involvement can be determined.

Brad Dean, President and CEO of Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce has some excellent advice for those starting a brand planning process for their city. Brad says, “One nugget of advice that I wish someone had offered me is this: ‘The brand effort does not belong behind closed doors, in an ivory tower or within the boardroom. Involve everyone – the stakeholders, the Web programmer, the mayor, the media – involve anyone and everyone who has a reason to care. Involve your mother-in-law if you have to. Just make certain that anyone who has a vested interest gets a chance to be involved.’ We didn’t do this and, lo and behold, we rolled out the new brand to a chorus of boos and jeers. A few of our county council immediately announced they hated the idea, and the media blasted us. All of this could have been avoided if we had involved some of the key people in advance.”

The task of pulling everyone together in a community with diverse political, cultural and social interests as those found in Santa Monica CA would seem like an impossible task. But, according to Misti Kerns, President and CEO of the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau, “When you can bring together 11 different interest groups, from the right and the left, and have everyone agreeing on a single item, then I’d have to say that’s success, and that’s what our branding experience has done for our community.”

Creating opportunities to participate can range from membership in the Brand Advisory Group, face-to-face interviews, attendance at a workshop, an invitation to complete a survey or periodic briefings about the progress. Don’t sidestep the opportunity to invite critics and even those who may be cynical about such projects. By engaging them, their opinions may be changed, and even if they don’t participate they may have greater respect for your efforts and provide support in other ways.

Over time, some community critics and cynics have been something of a source of amusement to us. From time to time, we have been warned about “Fred” because he is a “dreadful critic and always negative” about the Bureau or Chamber. Frequently, we find that when “Fred” is interviewed one-on-one, he finishes by being very supportive of the process and goals. Perhaps by speaking to an outsider, he can be less rebellious and save face by agreeing with us but not with other locals. In these cases, an outside firm is often a valuable surrogate who can act as a bridge to bring “Fred” to a point where he can make a positive contribution. The lesson is that it’s far better to involve critics where they can express their opinions, be exposed to the brand benefits, and importantly, not disrupt the process or other participants. Even though it may not always be possible to convert critics into advocates for the project, you should at least aim to encourage the naysayers to become neutral and non-critical, rather than remaining negative and potentially undermine the project.

The number of potential participants in the process can be extensive, however we suggest that the following should be considered for inclusion:

Association executives


Chamber and CVB members

Community leaders

Developers and investors

DMO’s marketing vendors

DMO staff

Front line tourism employees


Local media

Lodging and hospitality executives

Not-for-profit groups

Opinion leaders

Political leaders

Religious leaders

Sports representatives

Visitor attractions and services

Volunteers in visitor centers

It Takes Objectivity and the Right Outside Expertise

One of the greatest challenges for those involved in the community’s branding process is being objective and customer-focused. This may be the place where participants were born, educated, and now live. Hence, their bias may limit their view of the places from the perspective of an outsider. This highlights the need for outside advice to lend the impartiality and objectivity that is very difficult to get from within the community, DMO or city government. Many of our branding assignments are for communities that initially attempted to develop the strategy themselves. They found than an on outsider can succeed where stagnation and disagreement may otherwise limit progress because of entrenched attitudes and a reluctance to agree with long-standing opponents.

Engaging outside specialists also allows the community to harness the experience and skills that they may not have in a small city. The outside agency or consultant can guide the group through all of the difficult analysis and decisions that may be overlooked or glossed over by locals. Many cities have an increasing appreciation for the depth of experience and expertise that is needed to address the complexities and demands of destination branding. Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) highlights this in their excellent publication, Destination BrandScience by Duane Knapp and Gary Sherwin, which states:

“Qualified, skilled brand expertise in strategic development is not easy to come by and even harder to identify. Typical RFPs use the words ‘agencies’. While agencies may provide some of the services required for developing a strategy for destination brands, it may be a conflict of interest for the company currently doing the advertising or promotional campaign to do the assessment and create the promise.

Many advertising agencies or graphic design firms believe that they are in the business of brand development, and indeed some are. However, the real question to ask is: What is the vendor selling – advertising, graphic design or strategy? Ask yourself, if you were developing an RFP for a large bridge project, would you solicit construction firms to do the engineering? Of course not. You want the expertise of an independent expert to design the critical elements for success. True brand strategy requires the same high level of expertise.”

Al and Laura Ries, authors of “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding,” also bring into focus the importance of not allowing the brand strategy to be distracted by the tactical marketing programs. They state, “If you can build a powerful brand, you will have a powerful marketing program. If you can’t, then all the advertising, fancy packaging, sales promotion and public relations in the world won’t help you achieve your objective.”

Select Your Brand Advisory Group

A Brand Advisory Group, representing a cross section of community and business organizations, should be assembled to oversee the brand planning process. Their main responsibility is to recommend approval and adoption of the brand strategy. Members should be carefully selected and only be appointed after a list of prospective candidates has been thoroughly evaluated. The group should ideally comprise 8-12 representatives, although there is no “correct” number. However, the more people in the group, the higher the risk that too many unrelated issues may start to play a role. This can slow things down, impair the sense of cooperation and objectivity that is needed, and dilute the brand itself.

It is not unusual for Advisory Group members to develop a strong sense of ownership and pride in their contribution as the brand is defined. Their enthusiasm and commitment is priceless as the project moves forward. Many of them will eventually step forward to become active champions for the brand because they are so engaged and knowledgeable about all aspects of its creation. Hopefully, they will also come to see that the DMO cannot achieve its objectives alone and they all need to work in an active partnership. And most of all, they realize it’s their “baby”!

In the mix of backgrounds and experience that will be represented on the Brand Advisory Group, it’s helpful to invite some who are marketing and brand savvy, others who have a good pulse of the community, another who is politically savvy (and connected), and others who have a perspective of the community relationships with the outside world. This mix can lead to a broad spectrum of ideas, the constructive evaluation of concepts, and ensures that the approach is sensitive to the values and realities of the community.

At least one of the individuals participating in the meetings should be responsible for the eventual implementation and management of the brand. This helps keep things grounded and builds knowledge about the brand - and fosters a greater sense of ownership. We have found that the best Advisory Group participants are those who are:

Objective and participate with an open mind

Looking beyond their own self interest

Passionate about getting the best possible result for the city

Future-focused and not just looking at the short-term and tactical

Well-respected and able to generate acceptance and support when the brand is launched

Open to fresh ideas and eager to think “outside of the box”

Aware that they have a stake in the success of the new brand, even if it is not directly focused on their organization

Able to view the community from the customer’s outside perspective

The Advisory Group’s involvement should be woven throughout the brand planning process, especially at critical milestones. They may not necessarily be authorized to give approval or make major decisions, but they are an invaluable sounding board to provide guidance to the brand specialist and DMO executives. They should be representative of the community and, as a group, recommend approval of the final brand strategy to the client agency’s board. This will ensure that solutions do not lose touch with market situations, resources, implementation capabilities, politics, and the self-image and values of the city.

The Group’s involvement should start with an intensive briefing and discussion on branding, the planning process that will be followed, their role, and a discussion of their aspirations for the project. While some participants may be very experienced in marketing and branding, it still pays to provide this briefing. Starting with an informative presentation about branding cities ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Durham CVB President, Reyn Bowman sums it up well, “It’s impossible to fathom just how much people misunderstand marketing in general and branding in specific. You can’t emphasize enough what a brand is, and more important, what a brand isn’t. Many people can’t seem to grasp much beyond a logo or ad campaign. Advancing the thinking of stakeholders in regard to these subjects needs to be part of all community brand planning programs.”

Who is Your Brand Steward?

A sustainable and strong brand is unlikely to grow in an ad hoc manner. It takes many guiding hands. After being launched, your brand will still need firm, consistent hands to meticulously follow the strategy and encourage players to perform their roles.

In addition to the DMO managing the brand, it requires someone within the organization to nurture, promote, manage, and “police” the brand as it is bought to life across all platforms and partners. This person is the most important friend that the brand will have. He or she is the brand steward and should be involved in the project from its earliest days. We tend to regard the brand steward as the person who is the main custodian of the brand, while the brand champions may be in various key organizations throughout the city and charged with advancing the brand vision for tourism, economic development, education, and so on. Brand champions are well respected individuals who are able to “open doors” and rally support for the brand within the community and key markets.

The brand steward must not only lead the efforts inside of the DMO, but also energize the outreach programs and briefings for members, marketing service vendors, and local partners. The steward is the enabler and protector who is responsible for activating the resources, talent, creativity, focus, and consistency to manage and grow this extremely valuable asset. He or she is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the brand by ensuring that all copy, images, design, messages and experiences conform to the brand objectives and the Destination Promise™.

The brand steward should be a strong communicator, and a marketing-savvy leader with the credibility, experience and vision to successfully guide the brand’s implementation, use and delivery. It is common in a small city for the brand steward to be the CEO of the DMO. This person, while having ultimate responsibility, may work in close collaboration with the marketing manager and possibly a brand management committee to oversee the brand. These responsibilities should be reflected in their job descriptions and have the endorsement of the board to ensure that they are codified within the organization.

It is important to keep in mind that the brand doesn’t belong to any one individual. It is the property of the entire community and its customers. In addition to reviewing internal uses, the brand steward must monitor the many forms of communications and experiences that emanate from the city’s other messengers to encourage brand alignment, consistency and coherence across all applications.

Match Your Goals and Budget

Whether your goal is to attract more visitors, new businesses or students, or to address an unfocused image, you must define your goals and objectives from the outset. Additionally, be sure that you have allocated sufficient funds to facilitate the most thorough brand planning process possible. These funds should be sufficient to engage a branding specialist to lead the process. When requesting the budget, you should also try to secure the resources for the launch and initial implementation of the strategy. This one-off allocation will prove to be a great investment because the brand can then be launched with the greatest impact possible, and without delay.

© Total Destination Management 2010


Rebecca Gardyn. “Packaging Cities”, American Demographics Magazine, (January 2002).

Kurt Burkhart. “CVB Eyes Brand Marketing for City”, Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce Business

Journal, June 5, 2005

Duane Knapp and Gary Sherwin, Destination BrandScience (DMAI, 2005).

Al Ries and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (HarperCollins Business, 1999).


About the Author

Bill Baker is president of Portland OR based Total Destination Management. He is recognized internationally as an expert and industry pioneer in creating brand strategies for destinations and communities. Bill has 30 years of destination branding and marketing experience in more than 25 countries.