Words matter: Helping your residents understand brand

Frank Cuypers

13 September 2019

We’ve noticed that the word brand makes some people uncomfortable. Has brand become a bad word?

Most people don’t speak the language of marketing. Even if they do, they might not know your dialect of place marketing. It’s smart to assume that your stakeholders aren’t well-versed in the jargon and trends of our industry. You need to be crystal clear when communicating your intent to collaborate on place branding and destination management. 

Words and phrases change with culture.

Take image building, for example. Though some marketers still use that phrase, it’s on its way out. It no longer seems relevant. 

History can tell you why. The days of Madison Avenue (dramatized by Don Draper) were all about building an image through advertising. Agencies were the kings of communication and advertisers controlled every channel: newspapers, magazines, billboards, movie theatres, radio and television. In that context, image building was an illusion supported by mass media. It was the idea that you could gain control of all external perceptions of who you were and what you did. 

That era is gone. 

The illusion of image building has been shattered. Advertisers no longer control the messages sent through most media channels. The days of one-directional communication from authoritative sources are over. Most marketers no longer believe they can control all perceptions about their products. 

Those marketers are correct. Building an image doesn’t work anymore because your DMO can’t control your tourism destination’s image or build its place brand through advertising

That traditional idea of branding says that marketers can shape the brand how they see fit by building it from the outside. Brand agencies are often hired as modern-day image builders. The better your branding, the more exciting your creative output, the more customers you will attract – or so the thinking goes. This idea is no longer valid and certainly not in the realm of places. It’s a recipe for brand disaster

What about the word brand? If your stakeholders get uncomfortable with branding, it might be because they associate it with the image building of old. 

They may not yet see that managing your place’s reputation is a necessity – not a nice-to-have, but a fundamental project.

True destination or place branding is about ownership from within. Your place brand belongs to locals, not advertisers. Who owns the name of a place? The people who work, live and study there. When you respect that ownership, there is only one possible way to brand a destination: by collaborating with locals and residents. 
To communicate that aspiration to your stakeholders more accurately, you may need words that haven’t been contaminated by decades of image building. There are other, perhaps more accurate, ways to talk about an inside-out approach to place branding that respects ownership. 

That’s why we sometimes use the term reputation.

Reputation is a much more understated concept than image or brand. It simply describes the way people perceive your place based on their experiences. A strong reputation clearly communicates your place’s identity (which is why co-creating Place DNA® is an important element of our tourism strategies) so that people who share the same passions or interests as you will visit respectfully or maybe even choose to live there. Reputation is about sharing your identity instead of pretending you’re something else. In other words, it’s your brand.

At Destination Think, we define a brand as an organic, living thing: the sum of all stories told. Stories come from the experiences that residents, visitors, businesses have about your place. Everyone has a role to play.

The best place branding happens in collaboration. Our process for developing place strategies helps places – including cities, regions, and their destination marketing organizations (DMOs) – find common ground with their stakeholders. Workshops with local residents, interviews with community leaders and site visits all provide a sense of the way people feel about how tourism affects them. This way, everyone has a chance to contribute and understand how their actions contribute to the local brand, or reputation.

If you prefer to use the word reputation instead of brand, we support that – as long as your city, region, or DMO commits to working together with your stakeholders, using a strategic, well-researched, long-term approach.

If you don’t like branding, can you avoid it? No. Your place has a reputation, whether you recognize it or not. Don’t be an ostrich, burying your head in the sand, hoping that nothing bad will happen and that people will love your place anyway. It’s up to you to manage that reputation through the experiences people have and the resulting stories. Otherwise, others will do it for you. It’s hard work to communicate properly and provide the visitor experiences that align with your place’s identity. But it will pay off in the end.

Working to build a positive reputation is probably the most important contribution that cities and places of all kinds can make for their citizens and business community because it comes all back to that eternal wisdom: walk your talk.

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Featured image credit: Alexander Schimmeck, Unsplash


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