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A Good Tourism Brand is Only 15% of the Answer

If you’re an average American destination city, tourism produces about 15% of your revenue. So how come cities only hire branding firms to goose production from that one pie slice? They should be crafting a story about the entire city, which increases the size of the entire pie, but they don’t. Cities all across the country have a Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), and those CVBs all have contracts with a branding agency to lure tourists and conventioneers. But the greater story of the city is going untold. Why?

For starters, tourism branding is simpler. Would you rather try to convince a small family to come visit for a weekend, or would you rather try and sell a CEO and her C-level team on the logistical benefits, cultural amenities, and quality-of-life that you have to offer her broad range of employees? The former is far easier and further, there are more potential small families to target than there are major corporations. A second reason is that it’s habit: cities are late-adopters.

And when you look beyond these historic reasons and think about the positive spillover effects a citywide urban brand strategy creates, focusing a city’s energy and money on tourism-centric branding looks even crazier. As we’ve written elsewhere, effective urban brand strategy should reflect a city’s true personality, and that personality should be explained differently to different audiences (such as tourists or locals). A tourist-facing brand advertises the adventures that can be had in two to ten days. A citywide economic development brand talks about what the rest of your life will look like if you come live and work there.

Communcating your city’s personality to various audiences is a cornerstone of successful urban brand strategy. In Edmonton, Canada, for example, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) is a non-profit outside of the city’s standard hierarchy, allowing it freedom of messaging that sometimes isn’t possible within a city bureaucracy. EEDC contains divisions that focus on tourism (think: families), conventions (business trips), business attraction (relocating companies), business retention (keeping your existing companies happy), and startup incubation (starting new ones) - the full range of audience types that are generally encompassed by economic development, all of whom need to know your city’s personality. This umbrella organization means that the urban brand of Edmonton - the place’s personality - is infused throughout Edmonton’s economic development narrative, something that is sorely lacking in cities that have different cooks in the brand kitchen. You can’t tell corporations that Edmonton is a buttoned-up, white-picket fence community while you tell tourists it’s Canada’s Las Vegas. Talking out of both sides of your mouth catches up with you eventually. With EEDC, there is a common thread running throughout all their messaging.

Additionally, a compelling citywide narrative is something that everyone can buy into. It targets a long-term audience (residents and people considering moving to town) as opposed to only a short term audience (tourists). No matter how successful you are at luring tourists, they rarely make any lasting relationships on their visit. But by talking to your own residents about their strengths, you can foster the civic pride and relationship building between individuals and organizations that cues up small-scale business growth and cross-pollination. A well-crafted urban brand strategy creates a feedback loop between self-confidence and entrepreneurship. It’s the citywide version of holding up a mirror to someone and reminding them what they’re capable of.

For example, consider the hypothetical city of Los Rios, home to a few regional successful manufacturing businesses. It’s a small city that has had its struggles, and residents often compare themselves to their bigger, more successful neighbor to the north.Residents of Los Rios - like every human everywhere - tend to transpose those relative shortcomings into a statement of meaning about themselves: because Los Rios is perceived to be a step below the competition, Los Riosans are a step behind as well. Feet drag and embitterment settles in in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A thoughtful brand strategy looks to break that cycle by finding the unique stories of that place and refocusing attention on their own city and themselves. Pay attention to the quirky events, characters, traditions, and companies that have sprung up in Los Rios. Cambridge, England prides itself on having a free-roaming herd of cows throughout the city. Stockton, California recently had a video go viral that demonstrated their proud diversity: neighboring house parties, one Indian and one Mexican, filled a street with an impromptu dance competititon with each ethnic group trying to transpose their dancing styles onto the music of their neighbors. In Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania they named their minor league baseball team the IronPigs to celebrate their steelmaking history, something that in today’s industrial downturn could easily have been a trait they tried to hide.

Whatever the idiosyncracies are, let them rise to the surface and become emblematic of Los Rios’ personality so that residents focus on themselves and not their competition. This urban brand strategy creates the story that draws attention, pulls people out of self-defeating habits, and encourages forward-looking perspectives. It becomes the scaffolding on which successful cities thrive, offering a key way to arrest and reverse the self-doubt and inferiority complexes that plague cities emerging from hard times.

So sure, go ahead and get yourself a tourist brand. There’s money to be made there from the folks who come and go. But find the stories that reflect your city’s personality and invest in your residents and those thinking of putting down roots, because those are the long-term investments that pay off.

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