Protecting a Community’s Brand

The other day, I was reading an article on a newspaper web site and, as is often the case, it offered an opportunity for readers to voice an opinion about the article. I have mixed feelings about such forums. Some of the responders offer positive or constructive comments while a few others are folks who just love to stir the pot with negativity. You know them, they’re Cavemen. Citizens Against Virtually Everything. They’re never happy and they want the world to know it.

I was having coffee recently with a site selection consultant friend and asked him if he ever looks at such forums while in the process of evaluating communities for prospective jobs projects. “I sure do,” he said, “and I sometimes find alarming information.”

He told me that once he has narrowed his list of communities to a handful, maybe three to five, he’ll visit media web sites, looking for stories or forums that might reveal issues that could present challenges to his client. He said he will also listen to streaming television or radio broadcasts to hear which issues are being discussed. “Election seasons can be very revealing,” he said, “all of the dirt is in plain sight.”

He also said that he’ll go to the city or county web site and read the minutes of council meetings. In addition to learning how elected officials handle incentives and other issues, he finds out how they interact with the business community and one another. Do they work together in a positive, community-building manner or do the minutes reveal a tone of incivility that he might choose to avoid? In these days of internet connectivity, your community’s brand reputation is out there for the world, including prospective employers, to see.

Secret shopper site visits
Have you heard of secret shoppers? That’s when a company hires someone to go into a retail establishment, posing as a customer, in order to report back about their experience. Were the employees friendly and helpful or were they rude? Did they offer assistance or were you ignored? How was the food?

Site selection consultants, under contract to find a new home for a prospective employer, sometimes do the same thing. Without the knowledge of the economic developer or elected officials, a person or team of people will show up, blend in, and observe. They’ll eat in your restaurants, stay in your hotels, visit your retail establishments, and interact with your citizens. Are they polite, friendly, and positive about the community or just the opposite?

A site selection consultant once told me about a secret shopper visit when he asked a young man, “What’s the one thing I should see while I’m here?” Without hesitation, the young man said, “The town in your rear view mirror.” Ouch!

While on a secret shopper mission, the team will report on any number of things, such as road conditions, your industrial park, schools, community entryways, the downtown area, and much, much more. Based on their findings, your community can advance to the next level of consideration or be cut from the list if they don’t like what they see and hear. And, here’s the shocker, you may never know they were there.

I’ve often thought there was an opportunity for a Chamber of Commerce to provide a program to inform retail members about how they impact such visitors.

So, who is responsible for a community’s brand? Everyone! It’s not just the job of the county council, the Mayor, or the economic developer. The hotel clerk, waitress, school teacher, store owner, and any citizen can make or break a major jobs deal. When your community is in the top three of five, a site selector has already crunched the numbers and done his or her homework about the financial or workforce aspects of the deal. Any of the communities on the “short list” would work. Now, they’re looking at the little nuances, any reason to take you off the list. It doesn’t take much.

Each person in a community is a keeper of the local brand. At Brand Acceleration, we are occasionally called upon to develop a community pride campaign. Working with local leaders, we develop ways to build enthusiasm and pride in the minds of citizens. We remind them that their town, city, or county is a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family. If such an effort results in one positive comment to just the right person, it could help result in the attraction of hundreds of jobs and a thriving local economy.

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