The Secret to Marketing Your City

5 min readMay 14, 2018
Image credit: Flickr Contributor Bjørn Giesenbauer

As cities become more knowledge-based and technologically-driven, their strategies for attracting new talent have shifted dramatically. Now more than ever, cities require a firm understanding of their local assets and a way to leverage these assets to appeal to the world’s best and brightest.

To understand where cities go right and wrong when it comes to their marketing strategies, we caught up with Rebecca Gehman, the Director of Talent Attraction at Development Counsellors International, a place-based marketing firm in New York City. On June 6, Gehman will participate in a panel discussion on talent attraction at City Nation Place Americas, a two-day conference co-hosted by the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate.

Let’s start with the basics. Why is place branding necessary to attract new residents?

With unemployment rates at historic lows, companies are fighting a war for talent, and their communities are feeling pressure to join the battle. No matter how attractive a new career opportunity might be, the location of that opportunity can make or break a talent relocation decision. We’ve heard from HR executives that hiring for a job in a city with a negative reputation, or no reputation at all, is a nonstarter for job candidates, regardless of the quality of the job or clout of the company. In the game of talent attraction, companies promote jobs, but it’s up to regional leaders to help them sell the community. That’s where place branding comes in.

Your organization has worked with more than 450 cities, regions, states, provinces, and countries. How does a place branding strategy differ based on the scope of the area (i.e. city versus country)?

At the end of the day, no matter the size of the region we represent, we want to tell the strongest story possible. Place branding is about creating a compelling case for why your location matters. We believe all great marketing is rooted in research, which is why we first want to identify the community’s strengths, weaknesses, and, most importantly, what’s great about it that the world needs to know.

“The media loves to highlight how millennials love craft beer and avocado toast, but you can’t inspire talent to relocate on those things alone.”

For smaller areas, staying targeted with your marketing is imperative to making the most out of your budget. For example, we recently worked on a talent attraction project with a rural county in North Carolina that had limited name recognition. Instead of promoting all of the region’s jobs to all markets across the U.S., we laser-focused on one industry (manufacturing) and one market (nearby Charlotte). The result was a brand called “Charlotte’s Backyard: Cleveland County, North Carolina” that promoted manufacturing jobs in the region and changed people’s perceptions of the manufacturing industry. We wanted to show that working in manufacturing in Cleveland County meant great-paying jobs with great benefits (“Not Your Grandfather’s Manufacturing Job”).

In your experience working with nations around the world, how do you account for various cultural sensitivities or modes of thinking?

We have such an international staff at DCI, so for nearly every continent we have someone on staff who has either worked there, traveled there, lived there, or was even born there. We also conduct immersion tours. As our name suggests, the goal is to fully immerse ourselves in our client communities for several days, not just to see the sights, but to hear from the people. Media audits are another great way to gauge perceptions and sentiment.

Media exposure is obviously integral to place branding. What are some key ingredients to a successful media campaign?

The third-party credibility that comes with media coverage can make or break a place brand. First, talk to reporters on a daily basis about the latest stories happening in your client regions. Before pitching any story to the media, put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask, “Why should I cover this now? Why is this relevant?” Scrutinizing your own story can help fine-tune your messaging. Second, be proactive. Understand you are not the reporter’s priority and they receive hundreds of story ideas each week, so you have to be diligent with your communication in order to be seen or heard. Third, understand that relationships are paramount. Reporters respond to our story ideas because they know we can consistently deliver top spokespeople and quality information. Make sure your media campaign strategy offers quality over quantity.

DCI’s campaign with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation

You’ve written about some of the biggest misperceptions when it comes to marketing to millennials. Where do cities go wrong in their efforts to attract millennial talent?

There’s a huge misperception that millennials are looking for different things when it comes to jobs and locations. In our research report on talent attraction, we found that people across different age segments have the same priorities when it comes to choosing a job and location: They want a well-paying job and a low-cost of living. The media loves to highlight how millennials love craft beer and avocado toast, but you can’t inspire talent to relocate on those things alone (and I can confidently say that as a millennial myself).

When it comes to selecting a new career opportunity, your research finds that salary trumps location. How can smaller cities that can’t afford to extend higher salaries still compete for talent?

For smaller communities, it may be daunting to hear our research that salary trumps location — especially since you can’t necessarily control the salary that companies offer in your region. What communities can do is market take-home pay instead of average salary. For example, the average salary of a software engineer in New Orleans is about $28,000 less than in San Francisco. But a software engineer in New Orleans actually takes home $8,000 more annually than a San Francisco software engineer after factors like rent and income tax. That’s a huge difference. Whether its take-home pay, commute times, or culture, find your unique difference, and market that.

What are some of the best practices or key components of a highly successful talent attraction strategy?

The best talent attraction strategies provide a direct solution to the challenges that local employers face. If your talent attraction campaign is not addressing the exact needs of your employers, then you’re missing the point. We recommend, before starting any talent attraction campaign, that communities engage their local employers to hear their concerns and understand exactly what type of talent they are trying to attract. Then they can produce marketing content based on that research to use when talking to potential talent. Strategic talent attraction marketing can be as big as a one-stop-shop website or as simple as a one-pager of key messages. There is no one-size-fits all strategy.

Rebecca Gehman is the Director of Talent Attraction at Development Counsellors International, a place-based marketing firm in New York City. In addition to co-authoring DCI’s latest report on talent attraction, Gehman has played a pivotal role in the brand development and marketing strategies of more than a dozen economic development organizations.