Brand is Not Enough
July 15, 2022
Adopting an audience-centric and market driven approach to place marketing.
With increasing frequency, DMOs and similar tourism organisations are investing significant resources in developing well articulated, modern place brands. These destinations are rightly realising the important role storytelling and shaping perception plays in their overall success. However, we’ve noticed a surprising pitfall that has arisen in tandem with DMO’s enthusiasm for branding projects. Most organisations are not investing a proportionate level of resources in outbound marketing and communication efforts that effectively reach target audiences. Organisations that fall prey generally fall into two categories.
First, an organisation, consciously or unconsciously, has adopted an “if you build it, they will come” outlook when it comes to marketing. They are confident that because the positioning has been articulated and the messages developed, the target audiences will be persuaded. The organisation believes they don’t need any formal outbound marketing or communications strategy. The right people will find them.
Second, organisations think the branding work IS the marketing work, as opposed to a tool of their overall marketing strategy. This is due to the increasing conflation of “branding” and “marketing” as concepts and organisational activities. By the time organisations realise the need for outbound marketing, they’ve often exhausted all of their resources on brand development.
DMOs who fall into either of these traps do so because they have centred themselves in the conversation - “this is how great we are” - as opposed to the needs of their target audiences - “this is how we can help you be great”. This approach almost always alienates the target audiences, if the messages even reach them in the first place. To be successful, destinations must hold the needs, wants, and desires of their target audience at the core of every branding, marketing, and communications effort.
Place Brand vs. Place Marketing
Although often treated as such, branding and marketing are not synonymous; these terms existed well before their application was extended to encompass places. The article "Place marketing & place branding: A systematic (and tentatively exhaustive) literature review” outlines the gradual merging of the terms place branding & place marketing in the body of literature related to this field.
The application of brand and marketing theory to place is a relatively new area of both study and practice. However, the research is siloed, and “makes few references to classic marketing literature” (Vuignier 39) which has resulted in “[...] a lack of conceptual clarity, diverging definitions and a weak theoretical foundation” (Vuignier 38).
In order to improve the field, and thus the practice of place branding and marketing, Vuignier recommends “[eliminating] the lack of conceptual clarity that enables an array of almost magical effects to be attributed to branding.” (40) and “[discourages] a silo mentality in the field as it prevents authors who work with different approaches from referencing (and thus reading) each other”. In other words, academics and practitioners of place branding and marketing could benefit from applying the theories and techniques of the broader field to “prevent constant reinvention of the wheel” (Vuignier 40).
Generally, marketing is defined as "... the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large," (Definitions of Marketing) while branding is a "marketing tool associated with perception, image, mental associations in the mind of target groups, awareness and reputation" (Vuignier 5).
More specifically, place marketing is the "coordinated use of marketing tools supported by a shared customer-oriented philosophy, for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging urban offerings that have value for the city's customers and the city's community at large" (Eshuis 153-154). By contrast, place branding is "...an element within place marketing that involves influencing people's ideas by forging particular emotional and psychological associations with place (Eshuis 154-155).
Key conceptual differences, side by side:
How benefits are communicated
Leverages marketing, communication, and public relations strategies
Short- to midterm focus - aligning with target audiences
Who and what creates a place
Requires strategic decisions, investment, collaboration, and buy-in from all community stakeholders
Long-term focus - building reputation
Brand and marketing, while discrete concepts, work in conjunction with each other to form a successful marketing effort. Each alone falls flat. The role of a place brand cannot be understated and does play a critical role in a place marketing strategy. Place marketing without an articulated brand will be ineffective, uninspiring, and ultimately a waste of resources.
While place branding is ultimately inward-focusing, it is critical to continue to focus on target audience needs. When diving into what can be “supplied,” continue to gut check to ensure there is even a “demand.” A producer of consumer goods - shoes for instance - would not continue to produce styles that do not sell. Likewise, the investment in place needs to be focused on areas where there is a demand; for a certain experience, community, lifestyle, etc. This is even more critical for place, as it is often public funds that are invested.
With this approach, the destination can be assured that the brand messages and story can be effectively and persuasively articulated through positioning, content & copy, advertising, images, and more, to the right audiences in the right places at the right time (Difference Between Place Branding and Place Marketing). Focusing on supplying what is in demand by your target audience will not only make branding and marketing efforts more successful, but will also keep the good will of internal stakeholders.
Deliver on Brand Promise
The most important part of any branding or marketing endeavour, place or otherwise, is delivering on the promise.
A brand promise is "a value or experience a company's customers can expect to receive every single time they interact with that company" (The 5 Building Blocks of an Effective Brand Promise). The closer the experience of a customer is to the promises made by the brand, as articulated in marketing efforts, the stronger the brand value and credibility.
In Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions and Downtowns, Bill Baker argues that:
"Delivering outstanding experiences is more important than ever. However, product development or experience design are frequently missing from many place branding strategies. Their inclusion is essential to ensure that the brand is tied to fulfilling a valued Promise, and it remains relevant and competitive." (191)
A brand is not just about making promises or telling stories. It's about making good on those promises and providing an experience that reinforces the stories being told. Ultimately, the more closely aligned the stories a destination tells about itself are to the lived experience of visitors and residents, the more validated and credible the brand is seen to be.
Address your Audience like Customers
It may be tempting to try to address everyone when marketing a destination, especially when one of the goals is to improve overall perception & reputation. Place marketing efforts should always focus on audiences that have needs that a destination can realistically meet, whether it is business investment or personal interest, travel or making a home.
The term "customers'' is not normally used in the context of place marketing, like it would be when selling a more traditional product or service. It’s productive to contextualise audiences as “customers” because this frame of mind keeps at the forefront the reality that what is being proposed is an exchange of value, however intangible. For example:
Tourism: the exchange is tourism dollars for a once-in-a-lifetime outdoor adventure
Place: a desirable lifestyle change in exchange for contributing to the growth (and tax base) of a community
Business Development: a lucrative new market for an expanding business in exchange for more services and convenience for citizens
Addressing audiences as potential customers will make marketing efforts more successful. Messaging, imagery and other assets should be tailored to what will surely resonate with the audience. For most organisations, resources are limited and campaigns need to focus on audiences that can have a positive return on investment. This could be in the form of increased tourism, business investment, or new residents. Simply, an audience-centric, “customer” focus, that delivers on its promise is what will allow a place brand to take root.
There is no scenario in which simply developing a brand will ultimately move the needle on the bottom line KPIs that matter. While investing in brand building is certainly a welcome and beneficial trend for destinations, places, and attractions, it is only a single part of a larger picture. It should never be considered a replacement for, or exclusive from, outbound marketing efforts.
Centring the audience in all branding and marketing activities ensures that an organisation's resources are applied effectively. Organisations need to be intentional about their marketing efforts beyond their brand to ensure they actually reach their intended audiences. No one is going to come to your party, however lavish, if you don’t send any invitations.
Adobe Workfront. “The 5 Building Blocks of an Effective Brand Promise.” Adobe Workfront, Adobe Workfront, 7 May 2018, www.workfront.com/blog/the-5-building-blocks-of-an-effective-brand-promise.
American Marketing Association. “Definitions of Marketing.” American Marketing Association, American Marketing Association, www.ama.org/the-definition-of-marketing-what-is-marketing. Accessed 15 July 2022.
Baker, Bill. Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions and Downtowns: The Essentials for Successful Destinations. Independently published, 2019.
Eshuis, Jasper, et al. “Place Marketing and Citizen Participation: Branding as Strategy to Address the Emotional Dimension of Policy Making?” International Review of Administrative Sciences, vol. 80, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 151–171, doi:10.1177/0020852313513872.
The Place Brand Observer. “Difference Between Place Branding and Place Marketing: Quick Guide.” TPBO | The Place Brand Observer, The Place Brand Observer, 14 Apr. 2018, placebrandobserver.com/difference-place-branding-marketing-explained.
Vuignier, Renaud. “Place Marketing and Place Branding: A Systematic (and Tentatively Exhaustive) Literature Review.” https://www.researchgate.net/, Jan. 2016, doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1164.9529
Micah has been working on the web since 1999. In 2002, he co-founded Lift Interactive. Since then, he’s lead hundreds of successful projects for non-profits, technology start-ups, destinations, and attractions.