Branding tells a story. It tells your story. In this case, the ‘you’ is a city, county, town, or economic development area; a community.
But why does a community need to brand itself?
Prospective employers and site selectors are trying to match the personality of the community to that of the company looking for a new home. When the community personality and the company personality are at odds, the relationship will always be strained. This is really important when a large employer is looking to locate in a new community.
Community Branding in two Stories
In a former life, I was a manager at a medium-sized manufacturing company that was looking to expand into another part of the country to diversify its operation. I was not involved in the expansion site selection project, in fact, I was transferring to another division of the company, but was an interested onlooker. The company management had determined the general region of the country that made the most sense based on distribution, population densities, growth, logistics issues, and so forth. A nice new industrial park was located in a scenic community. The unemployment rate was high and the general education levels were good. On paper, this location made perfect sense. The Chamber of Commerce and city were more than accommodating and a deal was struck.
You can’t build that here!
The industrial park existed, in reality, only on paper. While the city leaders had options to purchase the land to create the park in reality, the community never thought any of this would come to fruition. What the locals knew that the company did not was the attitude of the community to heavy industrial manufacturing. Even though the unemployment rate was above 15%, this was an extremely green community and they wanted no part of heavy manufacturing. They loved their beautiful scenery and outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and water sports. They weren’t going to ruin that with a giant smokestack in the middle of the area.
How can we help?
In another project that I was a direct part of, a large manufacturer needed to add a location to diversify a parts and R&D facility. Our firm was charged with finding that site.
After narrowing our search down to three areas whose branding did seem to make sense for the company, we did an extensive survey of the areas. We spoke with community leaders, school teachers and principals, youth sports organizers, and regular folks in the community who would likely be seeking employment at the new facility. We verified that the brand of the community was in sync with the actual attitudes or the people. It was.
The company made a deal with the local community and built a new facility, hired lots of workers from the community, and in no time became the favorite corporate citizen in town.
A Tale of Two Brands
The second community was not unlike the first. They had high unemployment, were in a more rural area, and had very enthusiastic economic developers. So why did the first company fail miserably in their new location while the second was a huge community success?
The first company spent more than $50 million fighting lawsuits over building permits, was delayed for two years, and was eventually organized by a hostile union.
The second company gives generously to community causes and is well-loved by employees and residents.
The Brand that Never Was
The first community had not done a good job of branding itself. The Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development staffs of both areas sold their community as an ideal location for industry in their brand new industrial park. But, the town leaders and the town itself were on completely different pages. Even with high unemployment, the community wasn’t willing to solve that problem with heavy industry.
Had they done a good job of branding, the company would never had selected the area to locate and build a several hundred million dollar facility which was not in keeping with the values and personality of the citizenry. They would have selected a more suitable location and not had to fight their way through building a facility that the community did not want.
Lack of community branding caused both the town and the company to be unhappy with the selection. In the end, the company was very unhappy with its selection and their cost of doing business was significantly higher than they anticipated. And while the manufacturing facility wasn’t the horrible monster they imagined, the community was unhappy with the heavy manufacturing facility located in the middle of their town.
While most economic developers in more rural areas are happy to take any new employer, the reality is that a bad fit doesn’t work for the long-term best interests of the community.