Brand Language for Site Visits: How Your Stakeholders Can Support Your Strategy

Listen to this article:

There used to be a common marketing adage that an audience needed to hear a message seven times before they took action.  While science has disproved this particular nugget of wisdom, it has repeatedly shown (pun intended) that repetition helps solidify understanding.  This is why marketers continue to discuss with their clients the concept of “reach” vs. “frequency.”  When presented with the option to either reach a large audience once or a small audience multiple times, most marketers would advise the latter.

Consistent language is the cornerstone of a strong brand – arguably more important than visuals.  It shapes perceptions, reinforces a message, and demonstrates a cohesion among brand partners.  More basically, it speaks to the animalistic part of our brains that wants to be part of a pack.  It gives the impression that, “If everyone is saying it, it must be true.”

Full-scale brand development is a long and complex process (there’s a reason why people hire firms do it for them), I want to discuss developing brand language for a single type of marketing event – the site visit.

My experience has shown me that some economic developers think marketing stops once a company shows interest.  The marketing works, so now all conversations are meetings and negotiations.  While a site visit is technically a series of meetings, it needs to be treated as a marketing event where you continue to reinforce your community’s message.  Everyone who speaks during a site visit is part of the marketing event and is a representative of your brand.  Are they prepared for that?

Step 1: Explain the Vision

The crucial first step is to sit down with your stakeholders and explain how their actions can affect the community’s brand position both positively and negatively.  We all wish we could be judged solely on our merits, but we’re often judged on our vibes.  When I hang out with consultants and my fellow vendors at conferences, many of our conversations end up with us telling stories about communities where the vibes were off. A site visit is about so much more than just presenting the facts and figures.  Your partners should see how a cohesive, consistent message strategy employed by all parties can positively shape perceptions.

Step 2: Choose Words and Phrases

I recently interviewed an economic developer for an SEDC newsletter on business retention and expansion.  They said their team has been instructed to consistently state their gratitude for their local businesses.  Any time they interact with an owner or manager, they express their gratitude for the company – for hosting a job fair, participating in a roundtable, sponsoring a golf tournament, etc.  This greases the wheels of the BRE process by establishing a baseline of appreciation.  When the economic developer goes in for a BRE visit, the employer is more likely to engage positively because they feel valued.

This is the exact strategy I’m talking about for site visits.

Sit down with your partners and ask, “When the business representatives leave, what are three words or phrases we want them to use to describe our community?”  These could be emotional terms like “community-oriented,” “welcoming,” or “supportive.”  They could be more logistical like “well-connected,” “reliable,” or “efficient.”  Or they could be more abstract like “innovative,” “forward-thinking,” or “progressive.”  The words and phrases are different for every community based on your individual brand and what you value.  The more you involve your partners in the development process, the more likely they are to actually do what you ask them to do.

Step 3: Demonstrate Implementation

Once your words and phrases are selected, work with your partners on how to implement them into their presentations and conversations.  I think this is better demonstrated than explained, so I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say I met with my stakeholders, and we decided that our biggest asset is our commitment to collaboration.  We want business representatives and consultants to leave with the impression that we work really well together in order to foster a business-friendly environment.  I’d instruct my CTE director to talk about how the school regularly collaborates with local employers to customize curriculum to meet their needs.  My utility providers should talk about how they collaborate with companies to improve infrastructure and reduce expenses.  And my mayor should talk about how her office collaborates with my office to reduce red tape and foster an environment of growth.  Not everyone needs to use the exact word “collaboration,” but they should use language that conveys the same impression.

Bonus: Banned Words and Phrases

In addition to telling your partners what words and phrases to say, you should tell them what words and phrases to not say.  We’ve all been in a meeting with someone who says something absolutely cringeworthy. So what could your partners say that would undermine your brand?  This can include outdated terminology like “factory” instead of “manufacturing facility” or “vocational education” instead of “career and technical education.” There also needs to be a conversation about potentially inappropriate terms like “grandfathered in.”

An exercise to do with your partners is to ask them, “If you were someone else hearing you say this, what would you think?”  I remember being in a meeting with a mayor who spoke proudly about the fact that the economic development board would only allow companies to come to the community if they “fit in.”  I recognize that he was saying that they only want companies that will do well within the community and could be long-term partners.  Unfortunately, from my perspective, he sounded very isolationist like, “We don’t welcome outsiders unless they’re like us.”

Bonus: Names, Acronyms, and Regional Terms

While this doesn’t neatly fall into the category of brand words and phrases, will you please make sure everyone knows the proper names for things?  I am exasperated.  I once spent two days in a community thinking they had three business parks.  It turns out it was just one business park that people called by three different names.  This goes for recently renamed things, as well.  During a site visit, I met with a handful of stakeholders that called their community college by its old name.  To their credit, the name change happened mere weeks before I arrived.  But c’mon…

Partners should use the full name of things until the visiting business representative uses the acronym and demonstrates that they know what it means.  My site visit notes from over the years are riddled with question marks next to acronyms because I had no idea what they meant.

And finally, regional terms.  Visitors have no idea where the sawmill used to be, that road isn’t called “the blacktop” on any map, and that building has been renamed twice since it was the Goodyear Building that everyone still calls it.  Again, use the exercise of asking, “If I were someone else, would I know what this meant?”

In Conclusion

Your stakeholders are involved in your project attraction process, so they’re inherently part of your marketing team.  When they speak during a site visit, they represent the brand during a structured marketing event.  Beyond ensuring that they know hard data, you need to provide guidance on how they can convey a message consistent with the brand you’ve worked to establish.  When your partners recognize their importance in the brand presentation and know what to say (and not say), you’re more likely to have your visitors leave with a positive lasting impression of your community.  I don’t think you’ll ever be able to fully get your herd of cats in line, but we can at least get those cats on leashes and wandering in the same general direction.