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What Distinguishes Your Community?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Recently I went through a job change as the company downsized and my position was eliminated.  As that door closed another opened but that is another story for another time. The transition gave me the opportunity to meet and interview with several municipalities.  As a professional planner, I value processes as well as what makes a community a special place to work, shop, invest and live.  Based on this, the interview process opened a door to look beyond a simple hiring process but to see how well community representatives can sell someone on the distinctive character of their community.   How they would sell a candidate on why they should come there to work gives insight into how they would sell potential businesses, residents, grant managers, and others on why they should invest in the community. There were two key aspects I found during the process – most interviewers do not prepare for questions like the interviewee does, and many communities have not clearly defined what makes their community the community of choice. 

As an interviewee I expect questions on what I know about the community, what my strengths and weakness are, or what makes me the best candidate for the position. The interviewers are asking these questions to separate out candidates by see how well interviewees did their homework, communicate and fits their needs.  I found interviewers many times are not prepared to field questions about what they like about the community, what are its strengths/weaknesses and what makes their community unique.  In many cases, the interviewer could not clearly define what made the community distinct from other communities or would give a generic response of good schools or a good place to raise a family. These are important traits but also ones that would apply to any number of surrounding communities. I found in several interviews that I would get different answers from interviewers at the same municipality based on their own personal experiences but not a unified picture of what the community offered. It was surprising how many could not articulate what makes their community special and stand out from the many other competing communities. Having just worked for a private firm it was driven home to us about having an elevator pitch ready, one that can distinguish the firm from its competitors. You do not see that same prepared pitch on the public side.

Most communities are looking to attract talent as well as businesses, visitors, investment, and residents yet they do not have their image, resume, or prepared answers on what distinguishes them. I was struck by the realization during several interviews that the interview process was not used to its full capacity, as it is a wonderful opportunity to gather perceptions from someone outside their community, who investigated their community in preparation for the interview.  Typically, an interviewer, or a firm they employed, has done an internet search of the candidates to give them insight into the candidate’s reputation (personal brand) and see if there are any skeletons in the closet. Little do they realize that interviewees, like potential businesses or residents, are doing the same. By questioning the candidate on what they found and what perceptions they had about the community, is a great opportunity for the interviewer to gather input on their brand image.

We either have a perception of a community when someone mentions the City’s name, or we know nothing about it. We have all seen what happens if we do not take the lead in creating and implementing our brand. A municipality’s reputation can either be defined by those in the community or it will be defined for them. 

That is where place branding comes in. It must be more than a cool slogan or logo.  It links the identity or sense of place, its product offering, the experience of others (visitors, investors) when they visit a place and the perception that people have of a municipality. Municipalities should strive to develop a brand as a way to separate themselves from others, which gives a focus to economic development, attracts visitors, helps find talent that fits, and sets resident expectations. 

Here are my top three keys to guide a municipality in defining a quality brand:

  1. Distinctive 

This is the most important part of the process.The brand addresses the distinctiveness, defining traits and the uniqueness of the place.  What is it that makes your municipality different, what is it that you promise?  What makes the community distinct should jump to mind when the municipality is mentioned. The brand must be a sustainable, competitive advantage based on a unique, distinctive resource; or core competencies that are better than others and difficult to imitate. It must have a narrow focus and cannot be a hodge-podge of factors unless they can fall under one single umbrella that encompasses everything. 

  1. Honest  

A brand is a promise.It is key that the community deliver on that promise.It is important for economic development, recruitment, funding proposals, and new residential growth so that commitment must be met.Failing to deliver on that promise will set a brand image, just not one that the community wants.It should invoke a feeling that people in general can relate to and be proud of.

  1. Integrated

Successful place branding is not a top down process but one that involves business owners, residents, municipal staff, and targeted groups (businesses owners, real estate agents, other agency leaders, press, and developers). It is important to get buy-in and align multiple stakeholders and constituencies to ensure acceptance as well as implementation. Everyone must be on the same page because everyone from residents to real estate agents to business owners are spokespersons for the community. That elevator pitch is key. A community’s brand must be driven through its marketing, especially social media.It must be a key consideration in interviews with potential employees, codes, policies, events, budgeting, design, investment, marketing efforts, economic development and other community actions.

Consider developing a unique place brand, maybe as part of the discussion in your economic development, strategic or comprehensive plan process. Be prepared next time you are interviewing a candidate to explain what sets your community apart and add a question to all candidates on what they see as the community’s unique characteristics and how their skills support that brand.

Thanks for reading

Jim F. Testin, AICP