Throw Me a (Geographical) Bone (Part 2)

By Colleen Walton, Marketing Strategist, Brand Acceleration, Inc.

In this multi-part series, Colleen discusses common mistakes in location marketing and gives tips on how to fix them.  Her observations and recommendations are based on her experiences building websites, conducting site visits, and attending conferences and events with other economic development professionals.  You can read Part 1 here.

When I moved to Orlando a few years ago, I found a hair salon I wanted to check out.  When I called to make an appointment, the receptionist asked if I knew where the salon was.  I said no.  She replied, “We’re next door to Dexter’s.”

Dexter’s is a popular bar and grill in the Thornton Park neighborhood of Orlando.  It’s sort of a landmark.  If you’ve spent any time in that area, you’ve been to Dexter’s.  The salon receptionist didn’t give me an address or even a nearby intersection.  She gave me the location in relation to another business.

This got me thinking about the economic developers I meet at conferences and events around the county.  Most EDs from smaller communities acknowledge the fact that the people with whom they’re speaking may not know exactly where they’re located and will say, “We’re ___ miles from [insert city name here].”  The problem I often see is that the city they reference isn’t well-known enough.  While it may be one of the larger metros in the state, it’s geographical position may not be common knowledge among people from outside the area. 

The solution to this is pretty simple:  If you aren’t from a major city (and I mean major like… Dallas or Chicago major), you absolutely need to give your location in relation to a universally recognized locale. 

I hear a lot of excuses for why people don’t want to and, to be honest, they don’t really hold water. 

  • My city is major. – Is it really?  Or is it just major for your area?  I’d venture to say that an average-sized state (i.e. a state other than California, Texas, or Florida) has one major city – a city with a large population, probably a Class B airport, and at least one major league sports team.  

While I was born and raised in Indiana, my family is from Western Illinois.  Whenever I tell people about my family’s town, I give its location in relation to St. Louis – a city that’s over 150 miles away.  Sure, Springfield (the state capital) is only 85 miles away, but St. Louis is the nearest major city.  It’s safe to assume most people I encounter will know where St. Louis is.

In my previous blog, I stated:

When you’re inside the echo chamber of your state or region, it can be easy to overestimate your significance on the national stage.  If you’re the third- or fourth-largest city in your state, everyone from your state probably knows where you are.  But I’m not from your state, and neither are a lot of other people. 

Ask yourself, “Will a person from another part of the country know where this city is?  What about a person from another part of the world?” 

  • I don’t want to promote another location. – Leverage the asset of proximity.  I’ve talked before about how communities can use their states’ existing brands to aid their marketing efforts.  They can do the same thing with nearby cities and metros.

    By giving your location in relation to a well-known city, you are essentially saying, “Its assets are our assets, too.”  Its airport, entertainment opportunities, educational institutions, and more all belong to you now. 

When the receptionist told me the salon was next to Dexter’s, it didn’t just tell me it’s physical location.  It told me about the place itself.  Dexter’s has a… vibe.  To be honest, that whole neighborhood has a vibe.  Based on its location, I could make assumptions about the salon (that turned out to be accurate).  The salon used Dexter’s existing brand to communicate something about itself that it may not have been able to convey otherwise.

Another thing to keep in mind is that bigger cities can have issues when it comes to workforce attraction – land may be expensive because it’s scarce, cost of living can be high, and traffic can be a transportation and logistics nightmare.  If a site location professional is looking for a place to put a huge automotive manufacturing facility, it’s likely that your location near a city but not in the city will actually benefit you.

  • My nearest major city is across a state line. – You know who doesn’t give a hoot about that?  Site selectors.

    From a purely geographical standpoint, you’re just trying to tell people where you are.  Saying your location in relation to a bigger city – either in your state or out – accomplishes that.

    From a brand standpoint, it may help you to be across a state line.  If your neighboring state has higher taxes or unionization challenges and yours doesn’t, you’re in a position to leverage the strengths of your nearest metro while distancing yourself from their weaknesses.  Your message can be, “You’ll have access to the transportation and workforce assets of [insert city name here] with a lower cost of doing business.”

One of the biggest challenges you can face when it comes to marketing your community is conveying your location quickly and easily.  A big step in the right direction is to state where you are in relation to a city everyone knows.  This can be humbling if you’re from a mid-sized city.  When you step outside your regional bubble and take an honest look at how your city fares on the national level, you may realize you’re not major enough.  This in no way diminishes your value or capability to attract business.  It simply informs your audience of your location and allows you to leverage the assets of a major metro.  And that sounds pretty good to me.

An additional note:  Avoid colloquial names like the Tri-State Area, Upstate, the Quad Cities, etc.  Sorry, Michigan, but that includes the UP.