In the UK this week, the Sunday morning BBC discussion programme The Big Questions became embroiled in an illuminating exploration of national identity. It’s a well-aired subject, yet we never seem to move it forward, which is surprising, because it’s not that complicated.  However, this particular debate cast light on some of the key misconceptions surrounding place branding generally and highlighted some of the mistakes we make.

National identity isn’t an either/or thing

One of the problems is that people seem to think of national identity as binary. Of course, in this mobile world, it’s not. This is the thinking that, for example, caused Brexit. It’s also probably contributing to the Scottish independence movement.  (Please note, I am not claiming a position on either of these concepts, merely using them as illustrations!)

So. let’s get a few things straight to kick off with. You can be English, Scottish, or Welsh and British, or British and European. It’s not about division and dual allegiance is nothing new. We align to ideals in this way every day. In fact, it’s fundamental to our personal identity and how we express ourselves.

Where the principle of brand communities began

To understand this better we have to go back to the basics of human nature. The need to belong is ingrained into our DNA. It’s what enabled us to survive and prosper back in pre-history and it’s what drives brands today. Nations are brands and whether we are talking national branding or declaring ourselves Manchester United as opposed to Liverpool supporters, choosing Adidas over Under Armour or Maserati rather than Ferrari the principle remains the same.

Brand communities are critical to success

I understand there are people out there whose perspective of brands is still confined to matters of logos or products. However, the reality is, brands and nations are both communities of people who share values and beliefs.

Success of any business in the digital economy is dependent on its brand community being aligned in this way. A good leader, business, political, or whatever, will leverage this unity to achieve great things. For example triumph over competitors, feed themselves, win wars, defeat viruses or improve life for all.  

The author Greg Satell illustrated this perfectly in his book Cascades. If you are still struggling with this notion I suggest you get a copy and read it. You won’t look back.

Brand communities represent our individual identities

We join communities because we believe they represent us, but our allegiances are rarely confined to just one brand. We align to multiple brands or communities creating a formula that’s unique to us. It doesn’t end there either, because we buy the products they represent and wear them with pride to show the world who we are — Nike T-shirts, Harley Davidson leathers, Jaguar key fobs, even Union Jack caps.

The role of place branding

Over the years I’ve worked with places — resorts, towns, counties and countries — that appreciate the importance of place branding. In the aftermath of Covid it’s all the more important for places to do this. It might be to drive tourism, kick-start the local economy or prevent population migration. In the past few weeks I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with representatives of towns and regions in different parts of the world.

The mayor of one such rural town explained how they have suffered a brain drain that looks set to accelerate in the wake of lock-down. He wanted to establish a start-up incubator, which I also have some experience of. There are numerous challenges to be addressed with such an initiative, but in this case one major hurdle stands out. The town’s broadband infrastructure is pretty awful. Certainly inadequate for the needs of start-ups, who by definition rely heavily on connectivity.

Initially he didn’t understand the role that brand would play in addressing this, but I explained to him how network providers would gain the confidence to invest if the town appeared as a vibrant, tech-savvy, growth-orientated location offering start-ups a unique and viable future.

Once he appreciated this, he was off on his place branding journey, following my Brand Discovery programme I’ll talk about later.  

Unsurprisingly, the attributes that appear attractive to partners like broadband providers are key components of the proposition the town needs to make to start-ups and small businesses and, indeed its remaining four community segments (because there are six segments in total). Consistent messaging is critical to the success of any brand, so this is an important point to get right and starting the town’s transformation by identifying its brand made perfect sense.

I’ve also recently experienced success with an organisation frustrated by their failure to attract large investors. They had investment, but it was nearly all private and small investors. By building their brand and using that to fuel innovation they raised their profile and suddenly became the darling of institutional investors. Ultimately were acquired by a global concern for almost four-times their market value at the point where I became involved.

The process of self-discovery

I start with the programme I developed years ago and have since shared with organisations around the world. I call it Brand Discovery. Note, “discovery” not “dictum”. Far too many business leaders and almost all politicians get confused between discovering their brand and inventing some fictional version that they then dictate to their employees or population.

Forcing square pegs into round holes is never a good idea and this latter approach is wholly unsustainable,. For one thing, it excludes buy-in and engagement. In fact, it usually encourages resistance, non-cooperation, disenfranchisement and public disobedience. Brands have to be authentic and the fact that politicians, all too often, feel it’s their place to dictate an ideal regardless of reality is why efforts by governments around the world to build strong national identities habitually fail.

Brands are not set in stone

This doesn’t mean they can’t change. That’s part of the lifecycle of a brand. New people joining the brand community embed their own traits in the overall fabric of the brand. Furthermore, as the community works together to affect the changes essential for them to prosper in the wider environment, they will change the make up of the brand.

A brand is ever-changing, but that’s just life. More so in the digital economy. The transformation that we must all go through, more than anything else, marks a shift from a state of routine and order to one of constant and ever-accelerating change and one key to staying on top of this is to embrace diversity.

Where brand architecture comes into play

Brand architecture is important too. Some years ago, I was engaged by one of our global car manufacturers to sort out a problem they had created for themselves. Through acquisition, they had built a portfolio of brands that were competing with each other. Obviously, this is inefficient at best and definitely not a situation you want to find yourself in in the digital economy, where efficiency is the absolute key to success.

The principle of brand architecture, in simple terms, involves defining the characteristics of the parent brand then identifying how the sub-brands fine-tune or interpret that formula to relate to specific market segments. We know that brands with narrow appeal have the potential for deeper, more meaningful relationships with all the segments of their community and this is the key to customer retention. However, if an organisation wants broader appeal (more diverse customers) it can achieve this by developing specifically targeted sub-brands.

The DNA of brand architecture

In the case of my car manufacturer they already had the brands, the challenge here was to define them, establish their individual purpose and differentiate them. However, to make brands work for you it’s essential to understand that the DNA of the parent brand is represented, in some way, in every sub-brand. In fact there’s a degree off reciprocity here because parent brands also are influenced by the traits and actions of their off-spring.  

Brand architecture allows an organisation to translate the promise of the parent brand in a way that’s relevant to specific target groups. The sub-brand will add it’s own characteristics to the fundamental components and these may be more, or less prominent, but the parent DNA is always present.

An organisation that does this reasonable well is Unilever. You see their parent brand represented in most of the communications of the sub-brands. What this is saying is that behind the promise of the individual sub-brand there is the additional reassurance of a larger organisation and all it stands for. This message  is interpreted in different ways by the six different special-interest groups that are typical of any commercial organisation, but the message is the same to all of them. Another rule of branding, consistency is vital.

Applying this principle to nations

The same applies to national or place branding. You can be English, Scottish, Welsh  or Irish (and I’m not trying to guess what this may mean) but you will also be British. What you identify as is a combination of the DNA of Brand Britain and whatever country you feel “at home” in.

The same applied to Britain and Europe. Because the governments concerned never understood this principle and had failed to build their respective brand communities, being European became too much of a stretch for most Brits. People felt the need to choose between Europe and Britain, Scotland or whichever country they felt best represented them. In fact had we remained and played our part in influencing the European profile as any sub-brand influences its parent, the chances are, every European might have a far brighter future. As our cave-dwelling ancestors discovered, working together brings rewards that are unavailable to individuals (provided your leaders are smart enough).

If you want to translate this principle into place branding it works the same way. You will have a parent brand like “Spain” for example and town or resort brands that add to whatever local characteristics qualify as “Spanish”. So you might get a golf resort or a mountain village with it’s typical characteristic, very different to a town on the coast, but they all share the art, sun, music, history and literature of Spain.

Sadly, the absence of a clear national identity can only limit Britain’s chances of post-Brexit success. Because, as with any organisation embarking on a transformation (which is what Britain is effectively doing), unless all the disparate special-interest groups that make up a brand community are aligned behind a common and clearly defined brand you’ll end up with argument, procrastination, indecision and expense. Ultimately, the rest of the world could easily leave Britain behind simply because the population isn’t sufficiently single-minded. And single-mindedness is what a brand provides.

Sunday’s debate on The Big Questions was a clear illustration of how far we are from understanding, not only national identity and place branding, but brands generally. However, I remain convinced there is a single and very clear path to success that every organisation, business or place has to follow.

Step One — Define your brand

I do this with a brand model. This has twelve coordinates. Remember this has to be authentic, not your self-image or a wishful concoction.

The great thing about the fluidity of a brand is that it’s open to influence. If you are Johnny No-friends, over time you could win popularity contests, but that means opening your doors to new and diverse community members and accepting their influence. It requires expert planning too, but you can become a reformed character.

Step Two — Build your community

Most brand communities embrace six distinct societal segments, each with their own distinct special interests. It’s your job as a leader to use their common values and beliefs to bring those disparate groups together behind a single cause or objective. This is Internal Marketing.

Doing so facilitates greater responsiveness, higher levels of efficiency and cost savings that enable you to achieve great things faster and more economically. This is the formula for success, if not your very survival, in the digital economy.

Step Three — Spread the word

News of your great community will spread, but you can enhance word-of-mouth with carefully planned and executed campaigns.

For a business this usually means establishing authority that customers use as the bench-mark against which they compare your competitors. If you have authority, you’ll have trust and that’s exactly where you want to be. Places are slightly different.

The current tools of choice for all this is content marketing. I often hear people refer to content marketing as strategic, but that doesn’t mean to say that it can’t be a lead-generator. Every strategic communication has always had the potential to deliver leads. It’s just a question of how good your marketing communications people are. Similarly, every tactical communication carries a strategic message — it’s in the style, tone-of-voice of the piece. This has always been the case.

I work with all my clients to help them harness the considerable power of video content. It could be argued that destinations/places/nations have the most to gain from this medium and not just in the touristic sense. It’s also important to understand that content, like any other tool, is just a component of a larger, more complex, and totally integrated business pipeline made possible only because we now have digital resources to run the whole thing for us.

As we emerge into the new post-Covid world its essential that towns, regions and countries re-establish themselves as desirable places to live, work and visit. To do this you simply have to start with brand development. The end of lock-down may not be clear, but this is no time to sit back and wait or movement. When it happens there will be a flood of activity and if you don’t have your place branding campaign ready to roll you’ll probably be trampled under the feet of people heading for alternative destinations. Now is the time to be doing this.

You’ll need help of course. Any place branding project is complex, involving many very different skills. As usual though, I’m happy to support and advise anyone who wants to look me up. I’m also always delighted to thrash out ideas with people who are involved with projects like this. So, get in touch.

Meanwhile good luck to anyone embarking on a project like this. Let me know how you get on.

Phil Darby
February 9, 2021

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