Your brand already exists in the mind of your citizens.

It’s a truism generally understood by brand managers and product marketers.  When it comes to consumer goods, we marketers agree that a consumer’s perception of a brand is the sum of his or her experiences of the product, or service. Brand perceptions are shaped by experiences in quality, reliability etc, including any emotional associations with the product.

The same is true when it comes to branding your city, community or country. Every citizen has a perception of the place in which they live.  The actions and beliefs expressed by citizen’s show very clearly what they think of a brand.

For example; if people complain about city services, they probably think the government is no good at running them.  Judgment is based on experience. If the experience is poor, they have a poor perception.  It’s really that simple.

First listen to the perceptions held by your citizens. Look at the livability (functionality) of your place and the quality of life (citizen experience). See what shapes citizens’ perception of their place. It may mean you have to look beyond the marketing and communications departments and connect with planning, parks and recreation, and general city services to consider all the variables that shape.

From there you learn how and where to enhance citizen experience.  This is what I call the functional relations model to community and economic development. It’s a challenging and exciting process that, when done well, will bring multiple departments like planning and services, into alignment on how best to build and brand your place.

The result is a very real story about your city’s, or community’s, identity and where it is headed.

I’ve spoken with PR departments and marketers about their place branding campaigns who hoped to gloss over their challenges simply using new “key” messages.  But key messaging won’t stick unless it’s reinforced by the city planning and services that support it in action.

If you want to brand your city as open and diverse you need to have infrastructure, programs, and a community to underpin it.  If you want to brand your city as creative you need proof that it inspires your citizens to create.

Of course city brands can be aspirational, but they must be genuine and reflect what is already perceived as a representation of your city or country.  Changing citizens perception of place is not easy, but nor is it impossible.

In the city of Kryvyi Rhi, Ukraine, BSC managed to do just that. It wasn’t an easy ask.  Over an 18-month period following my Place Branding – Marketing Intensive we listed to the community, researched their experience, then developed “Life-long City” – a campaign that immediately connected with their citizens and set aspirations for further city development. We achieved this using our Messaging Matrix  – a concise set of phrases and attributes to work into the conversation when local government staff advocated for their city to investors, stakeholders and residents.

When “Life-long City” was presented to the community, citizens immediately took ownership and began sharing stories of how their lives had flourished in Kryvyi Rhi. We had successfully shifted their perception. Many artists began painting the campaign logo and tag line in public parks and on their homes.

“Life-long City” not only shifted citizen perception, it also gave direction to city services.  Following its launch, the City Development Institute began hosting excursions and community programs that further educated and engaged citizens with their city, and reinforce the life-long messaging.

This is an example of a truly functional approach to understanding and shifting place brand perceptions.

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