Place Marketing Isn’t Magic. The Basic Principles of Effective Marketing Still Apply.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021
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Place is the word…

In the world of economic development, there’s no doubt that ‘Place’ has been the word of the last few years. It's now quite common for local authorities to have Place directorates, and an entire vocabulary of related words has evolved, like 'placemaking' and even 'placeness'.

And when you start to explore the subject, it’s easy to see why. The places people live in, work in, invest in, or visit are profoundly important to them; as well as providing livelihoods, they're central to people’s senses of identity and belonging – the very meaning of their lives. So, developments must be undertaken sensitively, with proper attention to this 'sense of place', because failure to do so can lead to unhappiness and alienation, and undermine what makes places attractive to residents, visitors and investors alike.

But what does Place actually mean?

So, Place is important, but when you stop to think about it, it’s not as easy to pin down as you might think. What does this concept of Place actually mean?

Given its association with human well-being, it’s not surprising that the subject has attracted the interest of academics. And some of their insights can help us to find an answer to this question.

According to one social anthropologist, “A place is not an object that can be completely described and measured. Its phenomenal qualities – the ways in which the place is for you as a perceptible entity – might be quite different and diverse, and the way you perceive a place will depend on the intentions you have in relation to it.” [1]

In other words, different people view places in different ways: infrastructure planners, developers or businesses might see a place in statistical terms, while residents or visitors might see it in ways that are more emotional or sentimental. No way of viewing the place is more correct (or 'objective') than any other.

From the perspective of Place Marketing, it’s the final part of the above quotation that I find of particular interest: “the way you perceive a place will depend on the intention you have in relation to it”. Businesses intend to invest, employ and make money; families intend to live happy, healthy lives; and visitors intend to enjoy great experiences and create lasting memories. In marketing terms, we might say that these different groups consume places in different ways, but the general observation provides a useful starting point for considering how we can do Place Marketing effectively.

The growth of Place Marketing 

In the last few years, we've seen an increasing number of relatively less-known places (for example towns, districts and counties) developing their place brands and place marketing strategies. However, I think it's fair to say, many of them have failed to gain real traction.

When we look at these initiatives, we often see a confusion of messages and images, as marketers try to tell everyone everything that's great about their location, all at the same time. On one such place marketing website, we see a photograph of artwork in a museum ('we have culture...') directly alongside another of an industrial unit ('we have space for businesses...'), followed by a random collection of statistics quantifying airport drive times, cultural assets, businesses - you get the idea. 

Being ungenerous, we could say that many of these place brands and marketing campaigns are just confused and disorganised. To be more generous, we could say that they're trying to replicate the kind of multi-dimensional 'live, work and play' proposition that, for example, attracts finance professionals to London or New York (job opportunities, culture, food...). But those cities have powerful brands that developed organically over many years and benefit from huge recognition. We should ask ourselves: is it realistic or credible to try to achieve the same thing, from scratch and with a limited budget, through our town or regional place branding or marketing exercise? In practice, the result is likely to be nothing more than a sculpture sitting incongruously alongside an industrial unit - convincing neither the culture buff nor the company director in search of the ideal business location.

A better approach to Place Marketing 

I think the idea of different groups with different 'intentions' is a great place from which to start thinking about how to do Place Marketing better. And fortunately it aligns very nicely with one of the most basic principles of effective marketing, which is as relevant to marketing Places as anything else - that's 'segmentation'. With this in mind, we should consider the following questions when we develop our place brands and marketing strategies:

1. Who are these different groups (or audience segments) that we want to promote our Place to?

2. What are the drivers and needs (see intentions) of each segment as Place ‘consumers’?

3. How can we align the relevant parts of our Place offer with each segment’s needs and drivers (so they get the information that's relevant to them)?

4. How can we organise all this into a coherent whole, so we’re presenting the right messages to the right people under a credible and flexible place brand identity, without the whole exercise just looking like a confused mess?

5. How can we define measurable marketing success in relation to each of our target audience segments? (For example, inward investment enquiries or visitor numbers.)

Effective Place Marketing therefore requires far more than just splurging messages, images or indeed 'stories' about everything that's great about our location. It requires a structured, strategic approach to presenting the right kinds of information to the right audience segments, to influence their behaviour in relation to our Place (i.e. live, invest or visit here). That in turn requires expert knowledge of those audience segments, extending across both business-to-business (B2B) and consumer marketing specialisations. What data do businesses need to evaluate and select new locations? How can we make prospective residents or visitors love our place? And, finally, it requires the sophistication to develop a Place Brand that can incorporate both B2B and consumer messages without turning off any of our target audiences.  

If it seems confusing, it's probably just confused

In our recent conversations with clients and contacts, in organisations including local authorities and economic development agencies, we’ve noticed two things. Firstly, there’s a strong desire to do Place Marketing – to tell the world all the great things their location has to offer. And secondly, there’s real confusion about what Place Marketing actually is and how it should be done. There’s a sense that it’s a thing of great complexity - almost some kind of magic art. In our view this isn’t the fault of those organisations; it’s the fault of Place Marketing campaigns that look confusing precisely because they’re confused.

As Place Marketing (as well as Inward Investment Marketing) specialists, it’s our aim to make Place Marketing less confusing, more coherent and more targeted, and therefore more likely to deliver results. Because Place Marketing really isn’t magic – it just requires strategic thinking, the right kinds of expertise, and the application of some fundamental marketing principles.

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Author:

Nick Smillie

Managing Director & Senior Consultant

Clarity Business Strategies Ltd.


Sources:

1: Dr Jo Vergunst, ‘Phenomenology and place, or: feeling that you live somewhere’, 2017
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