February 18, 2011

Plumped Promises, The Hollowed Downtown

We’ve been arguing for years that brands are repositories of nothing.
A decade ago Naomi Klein articulated the idea that producing goods was only an incidental part of a brand’s operations …

… what these companies produced primarily were not things, but images of their brands.  Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.

In the decade since, this truth has become more starkly evident.  All one needs to do is look to the developing world’s rate of economic growth relatively to our own to see what’s happening.  Very little remains that isn’t outsourced by the companies that sell to western consumers.  Things are made elsewhere. Period. Our consumer brands are hollow; all skin wrapped around a story; they are nothing but narrative.

But what rich narratives they are. So rich in fact, that as consumers we revel in them. Brand ascendancy is assumed (please argue this, prove otherwise). Brand theory has been applied wholesale to corporate, government and social initiatives alike. As marketers we’ve evolved to the point where we now proclaim that even the smallest mom and pop law firm, the most modest start-up, every social entrepreneur, each municipal agency, each and every person in fact, NEEDS a brand.

Which is bullshit.
And which leads to the point of this article and to a quandary.

If the highest expression of brand is the narrative and not the service or product attached to it, what do our hollowing-out rural cities do?

Yes, it’s a leading question in that it assumes that our rural towns and cities ARE hollowing out.  That said, I don’t know how much disagreement there is.  Here in Stratford, our market square is comprised of one shuttered storefront after another.  Far from new businesses moving downtown; the norm is the opposite.  Far from resources being dedicated to the re-generation of the city centre, fights continue against the erection of the inevitable Walmart on the road into town. And the same is true up and down our highways.

City councils, BIAs and Chambers of Commerce are as cognizant as anybody about what’s happening. The truth is well evident in the strategic reports and RFPs that cross our desk every week; our cities’ guardians are looking for ways to package and promote (in other words brand ) themselves and services.

And down the road they go …
The ground is littered thick with brand agents, consultants and content packagers, all of whom share the common conviction that brand is not only necessary but good; all of whom will properly talk to city councils about authenticity, their brand promise and consumer experience as the cornerstones of a successful narrative.

“If you tell a story about your t0wn, that is authentic (truthful) and resonates with your audience (market), success will follow.”

Fine and dandy, but more bullshit.

Instead, take the rising number of rural cities across south western Ontario where the retail strip has been abandoned to the box stores 30 miles down the road, where manufacturing interests have absconded to Mexico and South East Asia, where health care facilities have been centralized in a town 15 minutes away and no new families have moved into town for a decade. What pray tell is the brand promise? Where is the authentic narrative?

Eighteen months ago, the BIA in a town just down the highway from us released an RFP for a marketing strategy that would address their hollowing out retail district.  The bid was won by a local marketing consultant who know doubt did a smash-job recommending a set of key messages, channel and resource planning, along with sophisticated audience audits. Today the town is as hollow as ever.

In the last six months we’ve seen the strategic reports commissioned by towns across the region come back with curious similarities; one of which is that they engage in a process of attracting Richard Florida’s creative class.  As recent arrival in one of these small cities, I’m all in favour of the initiative.  As  a long time resident of the nation’s biggest city, I know damn well that crafting an authentic message that will attract the creative class is a pipe dream.

The question therefore becomes how you market something that, in its current state, is probably unmarketable. One answer is to emulate successful brands entirely and make your entire community 100% subservient to your brand.  Resort communities do this all the time; Whistler for instance, is as much an idea adopted by audiences (internal and external), and played out accordingly, in every decision made by the city itself … it MADE itself from nothing (well, a garbage dump actually).

Another idea is to ditch the idea of brand altogether.  Forget about creating a narrative about something that demonstrably nobody wants to buy. Save your money. Celebrate yourselves; your artisans and the industry that is intact. Play cards at the kitchen tables and in the pubs. Be who you are internally. Don’t look for outside validation. Be your own skin because if there’s one thing we know, those that live comfortably in themselves are those that we’re drawn to.

Or, pony up.
Put your money where your mouth is.
Stratford is instructive that way.  Already $90,000,000 in debt (gulp, for a town of 35,000) the city builders have invested $10s of millions more into a University Campus, focused on Digital Technologies, a communications infrastructure, and the consequential spinoffs. The result is international attention from foundations and academic institutions worldwide.

The thing is, it didn’t start with a branding project.  Only after the investment was made is the story being told.  And only because the investment was made is the story authentic. And probably most to the point, the initiative was not about brand at all …

Which is perhaps most to the point.

Far from taking the experience of brand success as instructive, our city builders should remain wary of  the processes and promises.  The truth is, if there is a compelling reason for people to choose our towns as a place to live, work and be entertained, they will.  On the other hand, no amount of market research, no big number of ads, billboards or social media pages will convince somebody otherwise if there isn’t something REAL on the ground; a reason …

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