Your City Brand Matters. Here’s Why.

Image credit: Andy Ziegler

From Nashville’s “Music City” to Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird,” city brands communicate a place’s values, offerings, and identity to the world. Effective place brands bring diverse stakeholders together, building local community and external awareness.

But, place branding can be a tricky business; it’s more than a slick logo or tagline. Some cities find success, while others don’t. A city’s messaging should be authentic, yet attention-grabbing; inclusive, yet representative of a distinct culture and identity. Communities must also take care to cultivate a brand that is consistent across life, work, and travel.

Taken together, this is no small task. So, what does it require?

To determine how cities can effectively brand themselves to attract tourists and new residents, I caught up with Chris Fair, the CEO of Resonance, a consulting firm that’s shaping the future of place branding around the world. Chris also teaches a class on place branding at the NYU SPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate.

What is place branding?

Place branding typically involves an assessment of a country, city, or community’s defining characteristics. These characteristics help to determine a positioning strategy and competitive identity that, if developed properly over time, will resonate with particular audiences and encourage people to visit, live, or invest in a place. Unfortunately, for most people “branding” means creating logos and taglines. In the case of a region or city, these actually have very little to do with the identity and success of a given place.

Why is place branding important to cities and communities? Is there economic value?

Understanding and developing a city or community’s competitive identity is increasingly important to their economic success and well being. Location and proximity to resources or points of trade used to determine the success of cities. As our economy has shifted rapidly from the production of goods to the production of services, location-based factors are less and less relevant. And as the mobility of global talent, tourism, and capital grows each and every day, the perceived identity or “brand” of a city increasingly determines where that talent, tourism, and investment flow.

“We want the local community to be proud of the brand, but they don’t necessarily need to see themselves in it for it to be successful.”

Should cities communicate the same message to attract talent, businesses, and tourists?

Historically, cities have communicated different messages for each. But our research shows that the factors people consider when choosing a city to visit are now very similar to those they consider when choosing where to live. As a result, we think cities should align their efforts to develop a holistic strategy for all of these audiences. While there may be different key messages targeted to particular audiences, they should all fit within a common framework.

Your team does an annual ranking of the best city brands. Tell us more about this. Which cities rank at the top, and are there any surprises?

Everybody has opinions about what makes for a great city based on personal preferences and tastes, but our approach to benchmarking and measuring the quality of a city is rooted in a few key factors. These are factors that “Mobile Millennials” — Americans ages 20 to 36 who have traveled in the past year — consider most important in choosing a city to live or visit. The 27 factors we measure include:

  • Affordability of housing and job opportunities
  • Quality of the natural and built environment
  • Quality of key institutions, attractions, and infrastructure
  • Diversity of people
  • Promotion via stories, references, and recommendations shared online
  • Economic prosperity
  • Quality of the arts, culture, restaurants, and nightlife

While many indexes rely on consumer surveys or core livability statistics, our research is the first to use data gathered from social media channels. By analyzing the millions of ratings and reviews produced by both locals and visitors, we are able to benchmark the experiential quality of a city. Based on this combined analysis of core statistics and social media data, London, Singapore, and New York are the world’s strongest city brands. The surprises are often found within the categories. A city like Lisbon, for instance, ranks first in terms of overall place.

Can you share with us an example of a successful place branding initiative? What makes it a success?

Nashville is a great example. The city’s “Music City” brand helps to position it far beyond tourism to seemingly unrelated industries like healthcare. The brand’s success is measured not only by growing tourist visits, but also by the migration of talent and investment to the city.

What role do community residents play in generating authenticity?

Residents play a critical role. They have to believe in the brand and support it for it to be successful. While you can manufacture and impose an identity on a product or service, it’s impossible to do that with a city. You’re not just branding an item, you’re branding a community made up of an incredibly diverse range of people, all with an attachment to the place for various reasons. But it’s important to remember that the primary goal of place branding is to communicate with and influence external audiences. It shouldn’t be to brand the community of people themselves. We want the local community to be proud of the brand, but they don’t necessarily need to see themselves in it for it to be successful.

How do communities get started?

We see requests all the time from cities looking to create a new brand that typically involve a new logo and tagline. Those efforts are almost always doomed to fail from the start. Communities should start with research to understand what differentiates them from both an internal perspective (assets, industries, residents) and an external perspective (talent, tourists, site selectors). This lays a foundation for a strategy that is authentic to the community rather than one that is merely aspirational and unlikely to be sustained or successful over time.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of Research for the Creative Class Group. Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.