You’ve just spent a small fortune and hours and hours on a branding strategy. So now what?

By Glen Loo. Reprinted from Municipal Monitor magazine

StorkLet’s say your community has decided that municipal branding isn’t a crock after all. You’ve sweated and strained and developed a brand strategy that can effectively communicate why your target audiences should be doing business with you. Your strategy is going to tell your audiences about what they can expect when they interact with you. You’re expecting them to get a warm and fuzzy every time they encounter your messages and the implicit core values and promises encapsulated in your brand. Your municipality has developed a product personality that gives a “human face” to your community and you’ve got a unique selling proposition that your audiences care about that sets you apart from your competitors. You just know that you’ve got a real winner of a branding strategy. It was a hard slog and municipal staff and stakeholders sweated over every detail. It is now the morning after and in your connubial bliss you are starting to wake up to the age old question of one-night-stands…so now what?

For many communities, the initial effort was so exhausting that there won’t be a second serving. And actually, for many communities, the effort is enough because it gave everyone a chance to struggle with the ideas. It got lots of people thinking and talking about how you present yourself to investors, shoppers, visitors, and tourists. Now everyone can go home and go back to business as usual. Some communities are focused on a logo or slogan (it is an easy way to get some closure to the deliberations) so they never get to the implementation of the actual branding strategy.

Unfortunately, if you stop here you’ll never get the full benefit of all the grunting and groaning to develop the strategy. Conceived but not delivered. You’ll never get the opportunity to see if he has your eyes and his ears. Too bad because, it is the day-to-day living and the accommodations, big and small, that really determines whether you are back on the dating market again.

In this article we’re going to midwife your delivery. We’ll look at the ramifications of the branding strategy on the different aspects of your community’s contacts with your primary target. And we’ll take a look at how the City of Vaughan and the Town of Shelburne developed and implemented a branding strategy to sell their communities to investors and visitors. And just so that we are clear, when we talk about a branding strategy, we are not talking about logos, slogans, workmark, sound signatures, or some corporate identifier. These come later when we look at the best way of getting across the points of the branding strategy.


The Theory

There are some implicit assumptions that underlie the development of a branding strategy. The most important one is that your external interactions (and internal communications), all the contacts between you and your target audiences, are consistent and meaningful to them. That is, you have endeavored to ensure that you are not presenting mixed messages; that there is both internal consistency in the messaging as well as among the many messages that your audiences will get from different sources. Remember: those sources are more than just what they heard, see, or read from printed material, radio, newspapers, speeches, and special events. It also extends to tax schemes, customer service levels, relationships and every other way they might come into contact with you.

The diagram below shows how you might think of promulgating the branding strategy and what your community might strive for.

Wheel of branding

The implementation of a branding strategy travels through three basic phases. The first might be called the story that we want to tell our audiences. These are the basic decisions that are made as part of the development of the branding strategy. It is the underlying messages about your community’s core values, the promises that you make to your audiences, the personality that the communications will have as well as your unique selling proposition and the benefits to your audiences from doing business with you. The second phase of the implementation has to do with the way that your community conveys these messages to your audiences. In a way, these are more mechanical in nature.

The third phase is the structural changes and organizational culture changes that are the real meat of your long-term interaction with investors, residents, visitors, and partners. These require a deeper commitment by the municipality because you will endeavour to change the nature of your relationships with your target audiences so that every corporate activity aligns to the branding strategy.

From the exhibit, you can see that some activities sit naturally within one of the phases; others straddle phases. The further the activity from the centre, the more likely the need for a structural change in the organization. This might include changes to departmental functions, the addition of responsibilities to departments, the change in the interface with the public, investors, tourists, and residents. At the same time, the further from the centre, the greater the need for a change in the corporate culture. At the extreme, staff and elected officials may need to change the way in which they work, communicate, and interact with their audiences.

The focus of this article is on the second and third phases. The first phase is covered in an earlier article published in Municipal Monitor. Go here to see the first phase.


The Reality

Perhaps the best way to understand what an all-encompassing branding strategy can do for you is to take a look at a familiar non-municipal example like McDonald’s Restaurants first. Just from your own experience, you will have seen that every contact with a customer, potential customer, supplier, partner, or anyone else gets a consistent message. Marketing messages, uniforms, the menu, the way individual units are built and fitted out, the way McDonald’s pays its bills, the staff that are hired, the operation of the Ronald McDonald houses—they all flow from their branding strategy (which in turn reflects their corporate mission and vision). It means that there is consistency in every message and interaction. Each interaction builds strength from an earlier interaction.

Now let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn from Vaughan, a city of 245,000 within the Great Toronto Area. It is one of the fasting growing communities in Canada but its economic development work falls under the huge dark shadow of the City of Toronto. For many, Vaughan became a part of the popular culture when Frank Miele, the commissioner of economic & technology development & communications introduced the rather snappy slogan, “The City above Toronto”. But it was more than just a snappy slogan for behind it was the thinking that came out of the development of the branding strategy. Back in 1991, Vaughan needed a way to distinguish itself from Toronto to both investors and visitors. There was a need to identify where the dickens Vaughan was and to say that Vaughan is your first choice, not your second for investment. So from this need, came Vaughan’s branding strategy. Over the years, the City has worked to ensure consistency in its work in the first and second rings of the Branding Wheel and has made steady progress in aligning the actions they take in the third ring (or phase).

About the long term implementation of the branding strategy: Miele notes the most critical but most difficult actions has to do with staff taking on board the branding strategy and understanding it. It points to the importance of creating and maintaining staff buy-in through the internal communications process and ensuring a proper orientation for new staff as well as the longer term reminder-based communications with staff. The front-line staff is especially important in the communications process. At the most basic level—can the front-line staff and others articulate your community’s branding messages? If they can, then you have a very good sign that your implementation is on track.

One of the remarkable aspects of Vaughan’s branding strategy is that what was once just a great economic development slogan has become part of the community psyche. What was once a scattered amalgam of communities forced into one municipality has taken on a unifying identity. According to Miele, the average Joe and Joan has taken the slogan and the ideas behind it as a matter of pride and as a way to distinguish the community from its neighbours in the GTA, all to good effect.

One of the most difficult issues you will have to deal with once your strategy is completed is the actual roll-out. The Town of Shelburne is one community that has always been very proactive when it comes to economic development work so it was quite natural for them to start worrying through a branding strategy for the municipality. According to Dean Allen, a volunteer member of the Town’s economic development committee, the success of the branding strategy’s roll out hinges not just on the nuts and bolts of the strategy but perhaps even more so on the passion that the people involved bring to the implementation. It affects the timing, how deep and wide the branding strategy permeates the organization, and the resources the municipal government brings to the programme. Realizing this, the community has worked patiently to bring stakeholders and residents up to speed and has taken incremental steps to ensure that when the strategy is in place that it sticks.

The one downside to being deliberate with the implementation of the branding strategy, especially in a smaller community, is that much of the work is done by volunteers working with municipal staff. According to Allen, what happens is that both volunteers and staff have plenty of other responsibilities fighting for their time. And as the individuals involved change, as often happens, there is a constant need to bring people up to snuff. Just as importantly, the dynamics of the group change as people bring new points-of-view and ways of doing things. In a small town setting it means there needs to be a high degree of perseverance and buy-in to the very idea of the need for a branding strategy as well as the idea that it will positively affect the lives and livelihoods of the community’s residents. There’s that passion-thing again.


Can you be just a little pregnant?

Ultimately, the implementation of your community’s branding strategy is a sweat inducing, long term effort that aims to infuse every facet of your municipality’s relationship with its residents, potential investors, existing businesses, visitors, potential partners, other governments, and everyone that you want something from. If you can get past the old clichés of being a friendly town or having a great lifestyle and actually identify a meaningful unique selling proposition, the development of the strategy is really the easy part (no matter how sweaty an exercise it was). That’s because it turns out the really hard part is changing thought to action—actually having and raising the baby.

Between inertia, an ingrained corporate culture, the difficulty of changing habits, and getting buy-in from everyone from council to front-line staff, a community needs to take a long hard look at whether it is worth the time, money, and effort to develop a branding strategy. The interesting (and fortunate) thing is that for many communities, the process is more important than the outcome. Even if you don’t ever put pen to paper, the opportunity for a community to review its market position, struggle with new ways to define itself, and get the involvement of different community stakeholders is a positive and useful outcome in of itself. The process itself can lead to developing many of the bits and pieces of a formal branding strategy without ever getting labeled as such. The downside is continuity over time as the players change and the difficulty of ensuring consistency amongst all the communications with your target markets. It’s a worthwhile endeavour nonetheless; even you don’t actually call it “developing a branding strategy”. And this is why, for once, it really is possible to be just a little pregnant.