Why do place brands fail? The mistakes of the consultant. Part 1

NEWS FLASH: 86% of place brands fail within a year of introduction!

Over the past ten years, k629, a place-branding consultancy, has developed a database of more than 5,000 place brands. From that data source, they have found that only 14% of place brands continue a year from launch. They estimate nearly $75 million has been spent on failed place brands. So, the obvious question is: “Why the success rate is so low?” I believe there are two answers to this question. Let’s start with the mistakes that consultants make…

Bill Baker, a place-branding guru, draws attention to advertising agencies. He mentions that companies stubbornly refuse to see the difference between branding a place and a consumer product. In the minds of advertising executives, same branding principles should apply to a soft drink and a city. I think this is the primary reason why place-branding projects fail. Here is the fundamental difference between a place brand and a consumer brand: Great consumer brands are created outside-in. They are driven by need/want. Consumer brands study the market, identify a need and fulfill it the best way they can. In that sense, their starting point is the consumer. On the other hand, great place brands are created inside-out. They are asset driven. Place brands study themselves; their internal stakeholders, values, and offerings. Only then, they find an audience that would be interested in them. So, their starting point is their cultural and physical assets. A city could construct a landmark building within a year or two. But it takes decades to change a city’s culture. As the consultant, you have to work with what you have. Therefore, you cannot build a place brand outside-in. It has to be built inside-out.

Another mistake of advertising agencies is their tendency to reduce place branding to a beauty contest. A brand is more than a logo: It is what people think of you. It is a bundle of meaning that comes to their minds when they hear your name. Therefore, although a yummy logo, smart ads, and beautifully designed visuals are necessary, they are not sufficient to build a great place brand. Successful consultants practice systems thinking.

The third mistake of consultants is to spend too much time trying to fix things, and too little time promoting the good stuff. As Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom mention in The Transforming Leadercommunities move in the direction of what they study, what they focus on, and what they talk about with regulatory. Therefore, consultants should focus on what “gives life” to an organization when they are at their best. They should study the root causes of success rather than the root causes of failure.” This line of thinking is called “appreciative inquiry, ” and unfortunately, it is rarely used.

Finally, consultants often do not understand what their role really is. Once, I heard a respectable advertising executive publically stating that his job was to be a ruthless warrior, taking no prisoner until he makes “them” say yes. Another time, a different advertising executive told me that he perceives his role to be a salesperson, selling ideas. I believe both officials were wrong. In The Mapping the Organizational Psyche, Carol S. Pearson mentions that a consultant can play four archetypal roles: The troubadour, the catalyst, the container and the wounded healer. During the medieval times, troubadours were traveling musicians or poets. They used to spread stories. In that sense, a consultant could tell a place, what other places are doing and how they are doing. He can also help the place see itself objectively. So, a troubadour consultant could act both as an information source and a mirror. As a catalyst, the consultant could stimulate dialogue, not only internally but also among the city’s past, present and future. Thus, the consultant’s role could be the networker as well as a moderator and an interpreter. Moreover, a consultant can also act as a container. Change is a long, painful and ambiguous process. During a time of transition places would need someone to draw and maintain safe and secure boundaries since old rules no longer apply and new regulations don’t exist yet. In a way, in this role, the consultant acts as a parent. Finally, the wounded healer is a type of specialist, who had suffered the same issues that the place is suffering. The consultant could bring empathy and wisdom and act as a caregiver, storyteller and a healer. Every project is unique. Every client has different needs. By clearly understanding its role, the advertising agency could increase its chance to succeed. MJ Braide wrote an excellent article on this topic. On the next article, we will talk about the mistakes that place commit. Our third and last article will focus on human-centered errors.

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