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Capturing Your City’s Spirit: How to Create a Successful City Brand


Tourist spending in all categories keeps going up, with “local experiences” topping the list of things people want out of their travels. But how can you be sure your city’s “local flavor” will draw those travelers to you?

“Keep Austin Weird.” These three words get straight to the heart of the Texas community’s spirit. It’s a brilliant example of a winning city brand, the power of which cannot be understated. While destination branding usually starts with the travel and tourism bureau, the role of the brand is much more fundamental than attracting tourists. When a city’s brand hits the mark, it can also increase investment, attract new residents and workers, and bolster civic pride.

Last year, one out of every five people planned to take a “health and well-being” trip, and in 2016, 43% of business trips were lengthened for “leisure purposes.” The value of LGBTQ tourism continues to rise, making up more than $211 billion in 2016 alone. Tourist spending in all categories keeps going up, with “local experiences” topping the list of things people want out of their travels. But how can you be sure your city’s “local flavor” will draw those travelers to you?

In Austin’s case, the line was purportedly used by a listener during a local radio station’s fundraising campaign. It was then picked up for use in a “shop local” campaign, and before long, it became a beloved tagline for all Austin residents. Of course, not every campaign will be that successful. A recent study by consulting firm k629 found that 86% of city branding projects fail - that’s enough to make any travel pro considering work on a city brand take a step back.

But it’s far from hopeless; with the right approach and long-term commitment, you can increase your chances of launching a successful city brand. Here are some key steps to get you started.

1. Define your audience.
Different travelers want different things from a leisure destination, so it is critical to pinpoint your specific target audience. Young parents are looking for something very different from older, culture-seeking couples, for example. You can start this process by identifying what your city has to offer to whom. Be clear about what makes your city distinct. If it boasts a unique attraction or claim to fame, then own it. But don’t forget that some of the most successful city brand strategies are based on a personality trait, an emotion, or an attitude. Whichever route you take, ensure that your brand positioning is credible and based on something locals will readily embrace.

2. Involve all the stakeholders.
Before you can move forward in developing a branding campaign, you must understand where your city stands today. How do visitors currently perceive the city? How do those perceptions differ from the ones held by the people living and working there? Who does your city currently attract? Do you want to attract more of the same people or new types of people? Do you simply want current visitors to stick around longer? For a well-rounded image, your research must go beyond the members of the tourism board. All stakeholders in the city have voices that need to be heard.

3. Be authentic.
We all crave authenticity. If you position your city in a certain way, a visitor’s experience needs to live up to that promise. A new city brand won’t be successful if your intention is to use it to gloss over serious issues. A fancy logo and witty tagline won’t hold up in the face of empty shopfronts or frustrated citizens. Sure, some campaigns can help change the public perception of a location if they give residents something to rally around while they address concerns — New York City’s “I Love NY” campaign did just that in the 1970s. But visitors and locals alike will quickly dismiss a new brand that simply exaggerates the positives and ignores the negatives.

4. Measure your progress.
You need to know your goals from the outset. How will the new brand be judged? Are you just trying to improve brand awareness? Turn a negative perception into a positive one? Increase the number of visitors or the length of their stays? Whatever the goal, you need to conduct research before you launch something new so that you have benchmark data, then commit to repeating the research on a regular basis to track progress. It’s vital to gather the right data at regular intervals from relevant partners so you know whether you’re making progress.

5. Think outside the ads.
Creating a successful city brand isn’t just about identifying the spirit of the place or creating a new logo. New branding should move beyond advertising to actual events. If food is an important part of your city’s culture, incorporate food and wine festivals or farmers markets into your brand. Or boost your creative city’s profile with art installations. From there, recruit local residents and businesses as ambassadors to help strengthen the brand and, in turn, increase your city’s attractiveness to visitors.

Creating a successful and valuable city branding campaign isn’t a process you can complete overnight. Give yourself time to follow these steps - and set expectations with stakeholders that the change won’t be instantaneous. With your team on the same page, you’ll be able to start building an authentic brand for your city that will impress residents and visitors alike.

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