Once a year or so, I overhear someone say that the Raleigh area doesn't have a brand.

Having been project manager for development of the Raleigh, N.C., Destination Brand Strategy in 2014-2015, however, I know that we have at least one brand platform countywide! The problem is that we haven’t invested in it to the maximum, such that everyday people feel it from inside and—more importantly—outside our area.

Usually the locals I overhear are from outside our hospitality industries, and what I learn from them in follow-up is that they mean that either (a) our area is too factional to have a consistent brand platform, what with 12 cities/towns and the County itself, or (b) there isn’t one _____ (fill in the blank with a communication tactic, e.g., hashtag, hero image, logo design, slogan or tagline) that everyone uses across the board when communicating our sense of place.

In my opinion, both of these reasons are most applicable outside of hospitality/tourism contexts, but let’s explore them here in Tourism Talk anyway. First, there are definitely a lot more “place messengers” in Wake County than in other areas (e.g., Durham, one city/county); while we have one CVB, we have 12 place-based chambers of commerce throughout our municipalities, and some municipalities have multiple divisions of the 501(c)6, e.g., downtown business associations or other economic development arms.

Local governments also have heeded the zeitgeist in recent years to develop their first community brand strategies, through which they structure communications mostly with their citizens and prospective citizens, and one after the other has researched and rolled out a city/town brand strategy recently—Knightdale, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Morrisville, RaleighRolesville etc. These towns’ economic development organizations (EDOs) have followed the lead in most cases.

While it might have been ideal and cost-effective for every single place messenger in Wake County (easily 25+ organizations) to simultaneously chip-in together to research and develop an extraordinarily overarching place brand strategy for all, it’s unlikely that budgets and desired project timelines across the county ever would align quite that way. Still, individually taking on the research and publishing/actioning the results 12-13 times over is progress for communications countywide.

The recently completed, 10-year Wake County Destination Strategic Plan calls upon us all now to compare notes and, in consulting together (city/town/EDO and GRCVB), lock in how each city/town’s unique brand that’s already defined meshes with our overall area’s unique brand promise to visitors as developed in 2014-2015. I see the area’s brand strategy as a sort of patchwork quilt of hospitality, where each patch (town) can appear unique while also merging together in a warm, welcoming design.

Regarding the second reason given, there’s a lot of confusion about what a place brand is versus a marketing campaign or visual/verbal messaging. In many lines of business, especially tech (where some products are delivered digitally), these may overlap considerably; perhaps the brand feeling of a very intangible, digital product is indeed what you say it is, and what you say it is/how you sell it may be its defined brand essence. For tangible products and specifically places, though, this is not the case, because consumers interact with them (experience them) physically in the real world. 

Freeze quote

Consumers have interacted with or heard of places usually for hundreds (e.g., Raleigh est. 1792), if not thousands, of years—building a mental image (whether positive or negative) apart from the influence of any single “place messenger” that’s commissioning a brand strategy today. In fact, like Coke and the other most popular consumer products in America today, places’ product brands aren’t owned by anyone except those places’ customers. (It is share of mind that we are competing for prior to/after a visit.)

So, what is the best-practice approach? Place marketers have to research their destinations’ image/DNA then distill their unique positioning and brand identity platforms from the true data points; only after they research their niche (with locals and consumers) do they develop creative messaging and communication tactics. The best of the best then test their creative to ensure it’s connecting with target customers prior to rollout.

My guess is, because we are so smart, passionate and inventive locally (incidentally, that’s our destination brand positioning), it’s hard for us to resist jumping straight into creative development, and sometimes that does take place in isolated pockets around the county for various projects, causing some past communication tactics/strategies to seem factional or fail to achieve consistent use all around. At the same time, our place messengers are so collaborative and open as people that I feel a new day coming; we continue to put territoriality aside and evolve to more sophisticated strategies as one of the top U.S. metros.

Getting back to hospitality/tourism, the Raleigh, N.C., Destination Brand Strategy redeployed in 2015 already has served us well, increasing visitor awareness of our destination, helping to convert online “lookers” to “bookers” and growing our competitive advantage over places like Charlotte or Durham. The more we collectively invest in it throughout a united hospitality sector, the more we’ll build our outside image.

Many area Passionate Minds, hotels, restaurants, retailers/service providers and museums/attractions are doing their parts to support consistent brand promise delivery—from the beginning of a visitor stay (perhaps at RDU) to the end (perhaps a hotel valet), and our partners are free to design and create their own tactics (truly the fun part—tactics that will work for their staff and stay within their own corporate brand guidelines), simply aligning at a foundational level with the GRCVB-researched destination brand. 

There are many GRCVB tools online, including one-page destination brand PDFs that help our attraction/hotel/restaurant leaders get started in small ways. In addition, Marketing/Communications staff and I are available year-round for partner marketing consultations… and by the way, I’d love talking with more of our non-hospitality allies regularly about the challenges and opportunities that come with place brand management.

Ashley Christensen photo by Lissa Gotwals. Skyline by Garrett Poulos.