Differentiate your Place

Anyone who knows me knows that I am crazy passionate about deeply understanding target audiences. Whether at a one-on-one meeting or an industry conference, I am the guy who shows up with a long list of questions. They also know that when developing a communications strategy, the Brand Acceleration team always begins with the audience and works backward, developing a message that we know will resonate. We don’t want to talk at them; we want to communicate with them.

Recently, I attended an economic development conference where there was a panel of site selection consultants who were there so that attendees could listen and learn about their selection processes. One of the site selectors commented that community web sites are beginning to look a lot alike, making the differentiation process somewhat challenging. I know the gentleman and invited him to coffee after the presentation. His comments intrigued me and I wanted to know more.

Once we had received our coffees, I asked him what he meant when he said economic development web sites are beginning to look alike. Here is what he told me:

“It’s not just about web sites, Jim. It’s everything. Everyone is so determined to give us (site selectors) all of their data that they often forget that their community is made up of people. Sure, I want to see the data, but I also need evidence that their town has a personality.”

Always ready with the next question, I asked him to elaborate on what he had said. “What do you mean by personality,” I asked. “How can we add more personality to a web site?”

“Again, it’s not just web sites,” he reminded me. “It’s everything. Let me tell you a story. My company was recently contracted by a mid-size firm to find a location for its second assembly plant and distribution center. The new location, when at full capacity, would employ just under a hundred people. Once a location was selected, a small team of middle managers, about six people, would move their families there.

We had done all of the preliminary work, reviewing workforce data, costs of doing business, available incentives and other key factors. With a short list of three communities in hand, a small contingent, including myself, the company president, their CFO and two of the middle managers, hit the road and visited each one. The first two site visits were very predictable. We saw the industrial park, spoke with a few employers, met the mayor and spent a few hours in the economic developer’s office, hearing about what a great place their town was.
The third place was quite different. The economic developer had orchestrated an amazing day for us, introducing us to the people of the community.

We started our day in their industrial park where they had placed string lines on an empty lot, allowing us to visualize our building there. What an effective idea. We then went next door and were introduced to Bob Harkness, the general manager of a plastics company which was about the same size as my client’s prospective plant. Not only did we spend time with this gentleman, asking questions about worker skills and work ethic, we were taken to their production floor and introduced to Angela Garcia, a young woman who had worked her way up to line supervisor in a short three year period. She told us her story, which included the usual glowing comments about her employer and her job. She also told us, in great detail, about how important the company is to the community and how having it there had changed the lives of her friends and family, including her daughter, Carla, who now dreams of being a plastics engineer.

Our next stop was at one of the middle schools. In fact, it’s the school that Carla Garcia, an eighth grader, attends. There, we saw the outstanding learning labs and met with Mrs. Williams, who has been teaching algebra there for more than thirty years. After teaching several generations of students, she has become something of a legend in town. Everyone, it seems, knows her, her husband and their entire family. She gives extra attention to preparing young people with visions of technical skills best suited for jobs in local industries. “I love these kids,” she told us, “I know their families and I want to see them raise their children here.”

We had coffee with the mayor and two other elected officials, followed by a tour of the town’s incubator, where we met a young entrepreneur and heard her story of start-up business ownership, family, community and business success.

After a short rest in our hotel rooms, we were walked two blocks down the street to a bustling pizza parlor, where we met owners, Rick and Abby De Luca. The place wasn’t fancy and it sure wasn’t the typical steak house site selectors are so often taken to. This place is an institution, of sorts. After more than forty years in business, the De Lucas have become as connected to a community as any business owners I’ve ever seen. They sponsor little league baseball teams, high school basketball, middle school choir and just about anything else you could imagine. The walls are lined with plaques and trophies in honor of their community involvement.

As we settled in and waited for our pizza and beer, Rick and Abby joined us at the table right near the front door. I’m convinced the economic developer set this up intentionally. The entire evening was a constant parade of people of all ages stopping by the table to say hello and to talk about this or that community activity. We barely spoke about business. We were the audience and the show was outstanding, as was the pizza.

On our walk back to the hotel, the economic developer, a natural born salesperson, asked each of the company representatives a simple question; “Can you see yourself and your family living here?” There was very little hesitation and the answers were unanimous. “Yes!” The decision was easy. At every stop along the way, the economic developer had put us into contact not only with business-related leaders; he had also brought us together with the heart and soul of the community; its people.”

“What a wonderful story,” I told my site selector friend, “but how can we communicate such a message via a web site or brochure?” “Your company gets it, Jim,” he said. “You guys probably do it better than anyone else. Web sites, brochures and other communications tools need to show how that community is different and that it has personality. We can’t convince people to uproot their families and move to a town just because it has a beautiful new city hall or because some famous poet lived there a hundred years ago. I want to know why their town is a better place to live and do business than any other place. That can’t be done with a web site or brochure that looks just like everyone else’s. Community is as attitude, not just a cluster of roads and buildings. It’s a bond that people have with one another. When I look at a web site, Facebook page, video, or when I come to visit, I want to feel the warmth that makes the place different and desirable.”

How about you? Are you using your marketing communications tools to promote the warmth of your community? Do your tools convey the spirit that resides in the hearts of your citizens? If not, then maybe we should talk. I’d love to get acquainted and explore how we might give your community’s marketing the emotional boost it needs.

Now it’s your turn. If you have stories, opinions or experiences you’d like to share, leave your comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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