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Place brands exist in the mind of the citizen

/ January 22, 2013

Place brands exist in the mind of the citizen

Brands exist in the minds of the consumer.  That’s a truth ubiquitously understood by brand mangers and product marketers.  In the world of consumer goods we understand that a brand is the sum of all experiences related to the product and service. Meaning brand perceptions are shaped by functional experiences like quality, reliability etc., as well as emotional experiences associated with the product.  This is no less true in place branding: the place brand exists in the mind of the citizen.

Every citizen in your city, region and nation has a perception of that place.  Through their actions and beliefs they express the brand.  In fact, research has shown that how citizens of a country perceive their nation’s brand influences how others view that particular nation.

Thinking about brands this way for cities, regions and nations strips the notion that creating a catchy tagline and smart campaign can brand your city.  It means we have to look beyond our marketing departments and consider a whole host of variables that are shaping our citizens’ interactions, engagement and perceptions of your city; like planning and services.

Complex brand perceptions about place are created over time and through functionality and experience.  That means looking at the livability (i.e. functionality) and quality of life (i.e. citizen experience) of our cities, and understanding how these shape our citizens’ perception and what they believe to be true about place.

I’ve spoken with communicators about their city branding campaigns who hoped to gloss over the city’s challenges with new “key messaging”.  But that messaging won’t stick unless it’s reinforced by city planning and services that exemplify it.  If you want to brand your city as open and diverse you better have infrastructure, programs and a community to support that.  If you want to brand your city creative you need proof that it inspires your citizens to create.  City brands can be aspirational, but they must be true and reflect what is already perceived and reinforced as your brand.  What citizens perceive is tough to change.  It starts with listening.