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How to Make Places Matter in the New Urban Landscape

In today’s rapidly changing urban environments, with contentious gentrification battles, an evolving retail landscape, and increasing social dislocation, places desperately need compelling, thoughtful brand stories to forge lasting connections with residents, visitors, and businesses. With over 25 years of combined experience in economic development, urban policy, and brand strategy, Lev Kushner and Josh Levine of urban brand agency Zero Partners share the four stubbornly repeated strategic errors that place managers, from real estate developers to economic development experts, often make (plus one often overlooked rule of thumb).

1. Entitlement Is Sales

Real estate developers and public agencies generally only market a project once it’s built. It’s too late. Entitlement is a sales gauntlet, and in order to more consistently achieve project approvals and reduce entitlement risk, project leads must begin actively touting their projects’ vision and values from the moment of inception. Elected officials, community groups, and permitting agencies are born skeptical. To transform them into advocates, you need to establish credibility through seeding a consistent narrative from the very beginning.

Solution: Whether it’s a building or a park, project development is a multi-year fire drill, so it’s all the more important to have your big picture goals stuck to your forehead from day one. Get your entire project team on the same page by distilling your core values, identifying your target audiences, and crafting your story at the get-go. That way you can avoid wild goose chases and stay focused on communicating your brand through everything you do, from community outreach rollout to predevelopment site activation to design. The brand strategy also becomes your creative brief, eliminating the wasteful back and forth with your design team trying to clearly communicate what you really want out of the project. Hit the ground running and don’t look back.

2. Tourism Brands Are Not Economic Development Brands

Every city with a Convention and Visitors Bureau has a brand and marketing slogan, but repurposing it for economic development is like using a duck call to hail a taxi. While a well-executed tourism brand reflects an underlying personality of place, it is designed to lure visitors for a short, exciting stay, not to convince companies and their employees to put down roots and build community. Cities and regions need an economic development brand that represents a different facet of the same stone that their tourism brand describes.

Solution: Our philosophy for economic development brand strategy is actually similar to what we say to our teenage relatives: Don’t try to be someone else, just be yourself and be proud. Whether it’s luring shoppers or companies, people make their decisions about where to go based on how being there will leave a mark on their identity. And people gravitate towards confidence. Identify the personality of your place, its values and idiosyncrasies, so that your economic development brand becomes a mental landmark that dovetails nicely with your tourist-facing brand.

3. Places Can’t Be Described by Metrics

Market studies and economic analyses are masterful at separating signal from noise, but even the best research executive summary makes a terrible novel. Metrics, from demographic trends to % AMI, at best can support a story and at worst can make the messenger seem detached and sterile. Places are ultimately constructed from their rituals, history, and people, and connecting with your audience requires a narrative that is written in everyday language.

Solution: In the early years of the battle for market share on mobile phones, advertisers repeatedly touted the technical specs of their products such as memory and speed. It was Apple that created an emotional brand platform that ultimately won the market. Which is to say: people make emotional decisions and cherry pick numbers after to back up their choice. It’s the same with luring people to a place. We couple thorough market analyses with insightful in-person interviews to tell the human story.

4. Resist the Siren Song of the Weeds

When stakeholders start to get squishy or challenges mount, the temptation to reach for the numbers and highly technical expertise is powerful, but it often backfires. Just as you can’t describe a place with metrics, you can’t solidify your interpersonal relationships with them either. Maintaining momentum through turbulence requires pointing out that the surrounding universe hasn’t changed, and neither have your values. Never forget that your project team and stakeholders are just people - even if they might not seem like it at the moment - and people are driven by stories.

Solution: Get your values and messaging down from the get-go. Once you’ve laid a foundation by announcing “this is who we are”, you have your north star for navigating through challenges. Put the work in early to build your bank and take advantage of it later when the unavoidable gremlins come out.

5. Belonging is Paramount

Lastly, a note about context that often gets overlooked. American culture is profoundly turbulent right now and people are deeply influenced by this increasing dislocation. But humans are forever tribal and places are the fundamental building block of belonging.

Solution: Every place—your place!—from a single building to a metropolitan region, has the potential to be a key part of a person’s identity, making them feel secure, involved, and valued. This is the ace up your sleeve. To forge lasting connections with visitors, create a brand that is confident, a little bit quirky, and has its arms wide open. For some ideas on how to make your visitors and residents feel connected to your place, check out our White Paper on Retail Transformation.

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