A simple online news search for the term “city branding” yields results from cities as varied as Fargo, North Dakota, Wichita, Kansas, and Hermiston, Oregon. While the core of my research focuses on how U.S. cities undertake brand identity strategies, this practice is not unique to only local governments. Public and nonprofit entities of all kinds are taking up this corporate strategy in an effort set their places apart from others. Sometimes, there is backlash against this practice when government agencies spend taxpayer dollars on brand development because the public often sees the practice as a fancy way of developing a slogan and logo.
The question then becomes: how can places ensure the brand identity process is done strategically? Herein, I briefly detail five steps for building a strategic brand identity based on a combination of my research into the topic and scholarly literature regarding marketing and management best practices.
Step 1: Conduct a SWOT analysis. I recommend this as the first step so managers can gain an understanding of the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats facing the organization. The SWOT ideally should be conducted with internal (employee) and external (key stakeholder) groups. Managers are also encouraged to use the same process to conduct an audit of communications materials being disseminated throughout the organization to gain an understanding of the various visual representations being associated with the city/place in an effort to streamline those when the new brand identity is developed.
Step 2: Create brand vision. It is in this step where all the data gathered above is distilled into traits to help create a brand vision. The brand vision includes the organization’s core values and strategic goals because a brand identity should assist in furthering these vital organizational competencies. Brand vision includes the interaction of the organization’s defined purpose and values, as well as its future goals and aspirations (examples – grow local businesses, attract more national corporations, etc.). Once established, top leadership ideally educate employees about the brand vision and why it is important for organizational growth.
Step 3: Set program goals and benchmarks. In this step, managers are encouraged to set meaningful and attainable goals related to the new brand strategy. Setting goals at this stage might seem odd, but strategic management literature suggests that managers should turn any vision into a quantifiable objective before launch to better understand the path forward. Leadership ideally should work with employees throughout the organization to set goals and benchmarks to ensure increased buy in to the overall branding strategy.
Step 4: Implement brand vision. Finally, all the hard work pays off when the brand identity and strategy are communicated externally. I divide this step into three parts: brand communication, brand expansion, and logistics. Brand communication refers to the internal and external information shared about the brand identity. Brand expansion includes leveraging the city’s (or place’s) own brand with other similar organizations or groups. Examples include allowing local groups to use the city’s logo on its marketing materials during a community event. This practice is quite normal but should be done strategically and in line with the brand vision and goals. Logistics means all the internal policies and practices that managers establish to ensure the brand identity and goals are not diluted through overuse or misunderstanding of how and when to use visual components of the brand identity.
Step 5: Brand equity evaluation. Evaluation is listed last, but it is important to constantly evaluate progress toward established brand goals and benchmarks throughout the process. This again is familiar to managers and policy analysts who undertake constant measurements of programs. In this case, brand equity can show organizations how are achieving brand awareness, perceived quality, brand associations, and brand loyalty. Managers can create measures for each component, then results can be tied back into strategic branding goals.
Managers should not feel guilty if tight resources do not allow for all of these steps to take place in practice. I encourage managers to think about what is important to them in establishing a brand identity and focus on those capabilities. More information about these steps is available in my book Place Branding Through Phases of the Image.