Place Marketing:
How One Midwestern
City Is Transforming
Its Brand

Place Marketing: How One Midwestern City Is Transforming Its Brand

5 years ago · 4 min read

I recently did a webinar for the tourism and travel industry, and it got me thinking about how in the age of Instagram, every city has to compete like any other brand.

Successful marketing requires creative crossover.

Especially when a fresh approach is needed, top marketers look to other fields for inspiration.

So when it comes to branding a city, which there’s no established playbook for, we have to look to other, related fields—specifically, urban studies.

This is what forward-thinking cities across the country are doing, as was witnessed at the marketing conference Brandemonium in Cincinnati.

Executive Director of Source Cincinnati, Susan Lomax, took us further into the world of city branding and how it’s related to urban studies by introducing the concept of placemaking.

Placemaking is a term that’s mainly been used in the urban studies and urban development world, and generally refers to a manner of planning and designing public spaces to contribute to a community’s happiness and well-being. It’s heavily reliant on taking the unique aspects of a specific community and communicating them through design—in other words, creating a space that feels grounded and specific to the community it’s in.

Using this approach, a park in Kansas City would feel native to the Kansas City community and ecosystem—making it unique from any that you might find in Tulsa, Detroit, or anywhere else.

This makes placemaking a vital component of branding a city. It’s how you compellingly differentiate your town or city from comparable locales, aka, branding.

Though this is a relatively new field, there are a few smart cities like Cincinnati, who are pioneering its application. Here’s what we can learn from them.

1. Start with a viewpoint of inclusion and belonging.

Any placemaking efforts must come from a place of inclusion. Your city and everyone takes its character from the many different groups who live, work, and recreate there.

This means, of course, that it’s also imperative to address any troubling history your city has when it comes to the experience of minority groups or women. Be honest and upfront about what happened in the past, and use it to guide a new and better future.

One way Cincinnati took this on was through creating three separate institutions designed to increase minority startup and business ownership: Mortar (for those in the idea stage), Hillman (a business accelerator), and the Cincinnati Chamber Minority Business Accelerator (for businesses ready to scale). This unique setup is enabling the city to transcend siloed initiatives to support minorities and build a thriving ecosystem.

2. Involve your community in remaking places that matter to them through grassroots involvement.

A critical element of successfully and authentically branding a city is to involve community members—the people living and working and playing in the spaces you’re attempting to brand.

This isn’t a quick or easy thing to do. Substantively engaging a community involves more than holding neighborhood meetings and hosting community events, although those are both essential aspects of driving community engagement.

The people behind a city’s branding effort, from marketers to nonprofit leaders to elected officials, must knock on doors, show up to local events, and become friendly with local business owners.

In Greenville, S.C. local leaders did just that while beginning the development phase of a new, inclusive park called Unity Park. The mayor, city planners, and others involved in the efforts spent years building relationships with the long-neglected neighborhood that the park would affect, involving them deeply in the design and charrette process.

3. Keep a laser focus on the overarching story you want to tell about your city, but be creative about how you tell it.

Placemaking and place branding are highly story-driven exercises. If you think about it, a story is the perfect vehicle for branding something as complex and multifaceted as a city.

The overall “plot” or theme is the main message you want to convey. The “characters” are the individuals, businesses, gathering spaces, and natural features that make the plot come alive. Just as the characters give the plot meaning and action, the plot provides context for how the characters work together.

In Cincinnati, the story Lomax and her team are telling is that Cincinnati is an innovative, energetic, growing city that makes visitors and locals alike feel a deep sense of connection and possibility.

One of the ways they’re communicating this is by highlighting the 1819 Innovation Hub. Here, the University of Cincinnati is actively collaborating with VCs and corporations to solve big problems through the lens of innovation and disruption, as well as to produce research, develop new ideas, and establish pipelines for talent. It’s an unconventional yet highly productive marriage of academia, industry, and talent.

Now, just as any city branding initiatives must be radically inclusive from their conception, so too must the story you’re telling.

It’s not just the innovators and entrepreneurs who make Cincinnati what it is, after all. It’s also the musicians, transit operators, bankers, stay-at-home parents, retired seniors, and all the diverse members of the community that play a part in the larger story. Any city branding that aims to resonate with an audience must ensure that they’re inviting everyone into the table, not just one select group.

Cities establishing a brand have their work cut out for them, but by focusing on a few key ideas and placing diversity and inclusion at the center, any city can develop a unique, creative brand rooted in place and community.