For a moment, think of your local government: your city, your county, your municipality. What comes to mind—anything exciting? Most people will probably imagine long lines at bland, overcrowded offices, obscure municipal statutes and regulations, and that drab, gray utilitarian architecture that is the mark of bureaucracy.
But this dull conception of local administration is an inevitable—and unnecessary—result of bad brand story. We conceive of local services this way because this is the story they’ve offered us.
With place branding, local government can change that narrative and thereby change the way we, as residents, feel about where we live, helping people to rediscover and fall in love with local life.
Productizing Community Services
When you’re a “public entity,” you create success only when you understand what your product is. And in the case of local government, your product is the public services you provide.
But the public sector, by and large, does not think of itself as having “products”—not yet anyway. Small local parks and wildlife areas, for instance, tend to be viewed as idle public reserves that don’t require “selling” to residents. But unless you’re Yosemite National Park—which actually has an appreciable marketing budget—in order to encourage residents to see themselves as part of the “local wildlife story,” places have to start branding themselves in a way that speaks to people.
The benefits of this are numerous, but some may find the idea of promoting places and public services, as if they were a product like Coca-Cola, a little odd at first. That’s only because we can’t yet imagine the level of access and clarity place branding provides. By “pitching” public services as products, residents gain a lot: improved access to their community, higher tax revenue and a better understanding of where tax dollars go, a fuller appreciation of everything available to them, and a stronger engagement in their community.
Local administrations have the ability to create a story, as well as a strategic plan, that can break away from that bland old idea of local government and build up community involvement, improve local life, and increase economic development.
Economic Development or Community Engagement?
For municipalities, brand story is the first goal. What are you, as a place? Once you answer this question, and understand the “why” of your “place story,” you’re more than halfway to transforming where you live. This single change will have impact not just in the all-important realm of economic development, but also in community engagement.
If you’re looking for examples, Fairfax County, VA, is a good one. In recent years, they’ve built up their online presence, revamped their website, and begun to reach out to their audience in a fresh and accessible way. This has led to improved engagement, as evidenced by their 250,000+ followers on Twitter (as just one measure). Fairfax also has a much higher rate of constituent use of public services, with a likely concomitant increase in tax revenue.
And in my own work for a large county in the northeast, I chose to draw from my experience with CPG brands. Consumer package goods (CPG) companies are the most identifiable brands out there, providing the free market with the everyday products we need, like toiletries, spirits, school supplies, and more. With CPG, every roll out of a new product requires a fresh analysis of audience and new brand identity.
Our team trained county employees to imagine their services—in health, education, arts, and more—as CPG “products.” We wanted to build consumer-adjacent marketing that was fun and relatable, just the way consumer goods are fun and relatable. If we did that, we could measure our success on how much the client’s services were actually being used by constituents. After a rebrand of the county (logo and brand standards) and an update of their social media presence, we were off and running.
Since then, the county has gained thousands of followers on social media and become a known quantity in the daily life of county residents.
From our market research, we learned that people feel cared for for since they better understand all the county is doing to create a high quality of life. Importantly, it’s also changed how they view the effectiveness of good government itself. One respondent told us: “I lived in Manhattan before and I didn’t want to move to this county—but now I love it and I wouldn’t go anywhere else.” Another noted: “I don’t get angry when I pay my taxes anymore, because I know what I’m getting.”
In fact, our research has so far received zero negative comments from focus groups. That’s a remarkable change—and we’re still growing!
If you’re in charge of a public entity, I want you to know that your public services are not just some obscure local programs, they are exciting products that can be marketed in a way that enriches local life. And, if you are a constituent of such a local municipality or county, I want you to remember that it’s good brand storytelling that will keep you engaged and informed about public services and local opportunities.
In other words, place branding is a win-win for the local government and the local community. When it comes to place branding, the quality of storytelling, and the smarts behind the strategy with which you employ it, is what counts. By doing this, I’m convinced, local governments can create positive energy, increase constituent engagement and help people understand why their community is a place they love to live.