What went wrong with brand Guadalajara? Part 3/4

This is the third instalment of a series of “systematic problems of placebranding projects” illustrating the roadblock faced by the brand Guadalajara. These essays are intended to help practitioners -both city officials and consultants- to launch more successful and resistant brands. (Read the earlier instalment here and here, and the subsequent one here.)

By using the weak start of the Mexican city’s brand as a case, we are analyzing seven systematic problems of place branding projects.  So far we talked about three problems: officials’ misconceptions about what is a brand, failure to communicate the objectives of the project, and inability to sell the problem. Let’s analyze two more!

Problem #4: Focusing on the wrong feedback

Here is the hard truth: The success rate of place branding projects is less than 15%. Many cities and countries terminate their branding initiative prematurely within a year of introduction. Toronto, Montreal, and Southern Australia are among the well-known examples. It is my belief that those projects died -primarily- because they failed to get their inhabitants engage. That being said, there is probably a second reason why they failed: the officials focused on the wrong feedback.

When working with a place, we have to keep in mind that even the smallest village is infinitely more complex than the largest corporation in the world. The latter has a CEO, a president, a chief marketing officer, etc… Those people have the legal authority to change the brand whichever way they want. As an employee or a customer, you might not like the result. But the most you can do is to walk away.

Even the smallest village is infinitely more complex than the largest corporation in the world.

A place, on the other hand, is completely different. Who owns a city? Its mayor? Its governor? Its inhabitants? In reality, despite the fact that an elected official has the legal power, s/he might not have the authority to change the city’s identity. Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, is an excellent case in point. The process must keep the key stakeholders and inhabitants engaged right from the get go. That’s not optional, but essential. However, once the brand identity is launched -provided that the masses were involved during the process- then, the focus should shift to what matters: the feedback coming from the brand’s desired community!

So many place brands die because the officials are too concerned about the locals’ negative feedback.

So many place brands die because the officials are too concerned about the locals’ negative feedback. Oddly enough, most of the place brands are not created for the locals. They are designed to attract non-locals and foreigners. If that simple fact is kept in mind, then dealing with rolling negativity becomes easier.

I sadly realized that, when you launch an identity for a place, you cannot please the majority of the locals. Place brand expert Jeremy Hildreth says, “It’s rare to have an unqualified victory.” That’s the nature of the beast. Like the force of gravity, negativity, belittlement, and satiric feedbacks are universal and unavoidable. Sadly, the officials have no option but to develop a thick skin to deal with what the locals are saying (again, provided that the masses were engaged during the process!) They should, however, also realize that what they hear the loudest, is just one voice among the many!

The information asymmetry that we discussed earlier exists among locals and non-locals too. Believe it or not, a powerful psychological force shapes the feedback of locals. If the officials understand that phenomenon, then they might have an easier time focusing on the big picture.

In their bestseller book Made to Stick, Heath brothers explain a fundamental defect of the human mind. During an experiment, one group was asked to pick a very well-known song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song. Though the song was a popular one, the success rate was shockingly low (2.5%). But that was not the primary goal of the experiment. Before tapping, tappers were asked to predict the odds that the listener would guess correctly. The predicted odds were 50%!
Why is there such a discrepancy? It is because the tapper had the song playing in their minds and they failed to realize that the listener was clueless. For the tapper, the song was so obvious as they had it running in their minds. For the listener, the song sounded like a Morse code. For the tapper, the audience was stupid because s/he could not guess the “obvious” song. For the listener, the tapper was a Riddler.

Now replace “the song” with “brand identity,” “the tapper” with “locals” and “the listener” with “foreigners,” then you will see why place branding projects get such negative feedback from locals. As a rule of thumb, nobody thinks about your city as much as your locals do. And nobody knows your town as well as your locals do. What might look like a cliché to locals, might be perceived as authentic to your intended viewer?

As a rule of thumb, nobody thinks about your city as much as your locals do. And nobody knows your town as well as your locals do.

As someone who has never been to Guadalajara, who knows nobody from Guadalajara, and who lives far far away from Guadalajara (3,877.28 km. to be precise), I think the visual identity is highly iconic, attention-grabbing, and effective. It is inspired by the famous song, the most-known value of the city. I think the most important part of the song is its last verses: Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Tienes el alma mas Mexicana (You’re the real heart of Mexico!) And to me, that visual identity conveys Mexican-ness to non-Mexicans perfectly.

If I were an official of Guadalajara, before launching the city’s new logo, I would have gotten the locals involved in selecting “some” of the details of the visual identity -like the font. I would then have tested the design with a large enough sample of my actual marketing focus. And once I did that, I would have listened but not overreacted to the negativity coming from the residents and branding experts. I would have constantly reminded myself for whom and for which purpose had this brand been created.

Problem #5: Having a conflicting vision and actions

Ralph Waldo Emerson had a famous saying: “What you do speak so loud that I cannot hear what you are saying.” You can that wisdom verbalized in many different ways: “Actions speak louder than words.” “Lips and tongues lie. But actions never do.” “By their fruits, ye shall know them,’ not by their disclaimers.” Good. But what does that have to do with brand Guadalajara? Turns out, quite a bit.

“What you do speak so loud that I cannot hear what you are saying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

For places, it is important to conduct research. It is admirable to think analytically. It is vital to have a strategic plan. With all that being said, the rubber meets the road once the brand identity is launched. Your success will be defined ultimately by the tactics you deploy. And I believe that’s exactly where Guadalajara has some distance to travel.

If you look closely, you would realize that “all of Guadalajara’s promotional materials” are in Spanish. There is not a single ad, message or explanation written in English (even if there is, they can’t be found easily.) So, as an individual who does not speak Spanish, my chances of understanding this campaign is slim to none -unless I use Google Translate! Not having any English materials is debilitating, because attracting Americans and Canadians to Guadalajara might have been at the top of the city officials’ list. Of course, there is always that scenario in which Guadalajara aims to take a bigger piece from the Mexican domestic tourism pie, or tries to attract tourists and investors from Latin America. But, I simply don’t think that was the case here.

Your success will be defined ultimately by the tactics you deploy.

Like all of the issues we have discussed so far, this problem too, is not unique to Guadalajara. It is an error that many place branding projects commit. For instance, most of brand Colombia’s content too is in Spanish. Usually, there is a disconnect between a place’s objectives and its tactics.

If I were an official of Guadalajara, before launching the city’s new logo, I would have defined very clearly “who I wanted to attract to my home town.” I would have created multiple visitor personas. Then, I would have used those personas as a filter to determine all of my communication efforts.

On the next article, we will talk about problem #6 & 7, which are overlooking the change management leg of the project and lack of clarity over ownership. Comment below and let me know what you think!

This is the third instalment of a series of “systematic problems of placebranding projects” illustrating the roadblock faced by the brand Guadalajara. These essays are intended to help practitioners -both city officials and consultants- to launch more successful and resistant brands. (Read the earlier instalment here and here, and the subsequent one here.)

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