Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Identity ≠ branding or Authenticity is the basis of identity

(Reprinted from last summer.)

In business there is tension between "sales" and "marketing" and between "marketing" and "advertising." Sales makes the deal. Marketing builds awareness and drives people to you. Advertising is one of the ways to build awareness and drive sales, but it isn't the only technique.

T[he] Post has a story about the trend of communities to work on "branding," "Taking a Tip from Madison Avenue, Towns Buy Into Branding." The same reporter also wrote about this a few weeks ago in the Prince William Extra,"Old Town Manassas Looking for a Few Good Slogans," subtitled "Contest Seeks to Give Historic Area a Brand."

We discuss this issue from time to time on the National Main Street e-list, and the conclusion is that communities are about identity. It's not something you can make up. It's about authenticity. And if you read this blog carefully (or not so carefully), this point is one of the basic principles of my approach to urban revitalization--developing and extending your assets.

For example, in the Baltimore Comprehensive Plan revision, they discuss the need to continually add and replenish attractions in the Inner Harbor. Granted such must be done because you can never afford to be stale as there is too much competition already. But part of the reason that Baltimore must do this is because for the most part, the Inner Harbor is a manufactured experience with little in the way of authenticity. After a couple times, people won't revisit, unless there are new things to do.

This is the fundamental problem with "festival marketplaces" and "lifestyle centers" (even though City Walk in Santa Monica works). They aren't real, and after awhile, they can't compete.
Inner Harbor. Oil on Canvas, 1998, By Sy Mohr.

While we all know that P.T. Barnum was right, "There is a sucker born every minute," the fact is that you can't sell what you don't have.

I have been interacting some with some graduate students doing thesis work on identity development and community marketing over the past few weeks, and below is something I wrote a few weeks ago.

Identity development/shaping is but a part of the revitalization process. The first thing you should read is Marketing an Identity for Main Street published by the NMSC. (This came out long after we did stuff on H Street NE in DC). This Main Street News article is open-access, Becoming West Edge: Branding Gives a Nameless Neighborhood an Identity and there is another article on Boulder that's not, but it is published in the above-mentioned book.

Maybe you saw the recent blog entry I did about H Street, East Edge: A better name for H Street NE's developing arts and entertainment district?

People think it's about selling, advertising, and slogans, but at the core, identity development is about developing and executing your vision. "Branding," etc. derives from that. Here is some stuff I've written before:

-- Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"; this is one of my earliest and best blog entries
-- A lesson (good and bad) in city-regional branding
-- More (pathetic?) city branding efforts... (Baltimore)
-- Reviving H Street Main Street; this piece describes the kind of identity development activities Kevin Palmer and I attempted to do in the Greater H Street Neighborhood in Northeast Washington, DC
-- Baltimore: tourism (slogan) revisited
-- brand must = substance or there is disconnect
-- The ABCS of Great Brands; this entry links to the Brand Channel website, which always has excellent papers about place branding. E.g. right now there is a piece up about Belgium.
It comes down to creating a great place. And great places for residents are usually attractive to visitors. This publication is excellent, The Tourism Development Handbook: A Practical Approach to Planning and Marketing, and so are the planning materials from Nova Scotia Tourism such as: Tourism Destination Assessment Workbook.

I haven't read Kotler's pretty old book on marketing places. And I haven't read Simon Anholt's stuff and his new book -- "Brand America: The Mother of All Brands" although it's on my reading list. Anholt's journal, Place Branding, is expensive. This is his website.
I wrote about Anholt's opinion piece in the Boston Globe, entitled "Rebranding America," in March 2005, in this blog entry.

In part this is social marketing, if you are familiar with that end of marketing. (I used to work for a consumer advocacy group, where I was introduced to it, although I had read Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations [Kotler & Andreasen] before going to work there.)

Then there is the corporate end, which I am not a part of. But this blog entry mentions one of the companies that I've come across, that I think does interesting work, Speaking of Making Transit Sexy....

Too often, a focus on brand management for communities glosses over the difficult and wrenching questions that people don't want to deal with:

-- What are we, really?
-- What do other people think of us and why?
-- What do we want to become?
-- How do we achieve this new vision?

This is the crux of the problem for most of the sputtering Main Street programs in Washington, DC.

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