A guide to standing out from the crowd with your place brand strategy

In a world where there is so much competition for attention, what do you need to be doing to stand out and attract the attention of your target audience?

As place branders, place marketers, and place shapers, I’m sure this is a question that you’ve asked yourselves at one time or another. While each city, region, or nation is unique, making your place visible as a prospect to your audience can be a challenge. Ahead of the City Nation Place UK conference [September 19-20th in Sheffield – don’t miss it!], we asked our expert speakers what their best piece of advice was for places looking to stand out from the crowd. So, with no further ado, here's a guide on how to do just that – from place branders, for place branders.

1. Start by identifying what makes your place unique.

Authenticity was very much the name of the game, with several of our speakers stressing its importance when delivering a place brand strategy. “Creating a thriving city or region requires more than just following the crowd,” suggested Kazadi Mwamba, Economy Lead for Surrey County Council. “It’s about being consistent, genuine, and committed for the long haul.”

You have to understand the DNA of your place – what it is that really makes your community tick. At the end of the day, you’re articulating the story on behalf of your community, so taking the time to understand your citizens’ perspective can be your greatest asset in delivering a strategy that resonate with audiences – both internal and external.

However, you have to watch out for falling into the trap of using the same words as everyone else. It’s very easy to say that you’re diverse, inclusive, vibrant, or passionate, but if those are the same words that everyone else is using, they become meaningless. Instead, challenge yourself to showcase those values. As writers say, ‘show, don’t tell.’

Another way to make sure you’re telling an authentic story of your place is to acknowledge that it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. “Whilst we don’t remind people every day of our challenges, we do acknowledge them when the time is right, such as alluding to how our restaurants and bars are struggling amidst a cost-of-living crisis and why supporting your local high street is important,” explained Rachel Bayley, Place Brand Manager for Burnley. “I think I sometimes take reporters by surprise with my honesty (in still a positive way!), but that is what makes Burnley endearing and helps us to get coverage and engagement.”

2. Listen to your citizens – they’re your greatest USP.

Your citizens are the heart of your place. At the end of the day, you might have a beautiful beach or a thriving tech sector, but it is your community that sets you apart from the other places that can boast the exact same thing. “Don’t be afraid to break away from the norm and find innovative ways to connect with your local community on an emotional level,” Surrey’s Kazadi Mwamba told us. “When you involve the community in decision-making, something magical happens – an authentic sense of place is born, and strong advocacy follows.”

Richard Veal, Managing Director – Europe at Simpleview, offered a similar perspective, suggesting that places “make a big feature of local people and project the character of the city.” As Richard told us, when we hear so much about locals being anti-visitors, then showcasing the character of your city and that you’re friendly, welcoming, and inclusive is a huge virtue. “Liverpool did a brilliant job of this in the lead up to and throughout Eurovision,” Richard noted.

3. Engage your stakeholders in the creation, development, and implementation of your place narrative.

Alongside your citizens, it’s also essential that you bring your stakeholders and anchor institutions along with you on your place brand journey.

“If your place strategy doesn’t work for their bottom line then you’re immediately losing a key delivery partner,” Mark Mobbs, Marketing Manager for Marketing Sheffield, explained.  “Your audience should be their audience; and your place strategy or campaign needs to work for as many of them as possible, whilst still being unique, authentic, and identifiably ‘you’.”

This has been a major focus for Sheffield in recent years, including an innovative joint place marketing campaign between the council and their two biggest universities that put the city in the centre of their messaging.

The biggest advocates for your place will always be those who’ve already chosen to invest in it. By working to get them involved as ambassadors for your place, you can amplify your reach and make sure that you’re putting your best storytellers in the spotlight.

“A lone voice is drowned out by the crowd, but a booming choir cuts through the noise,” noted Cristian Marcucci, Assistant Director for Communications for Staffordshire County Council. The council’s place brand, We Are Staffordshire, was launched in 2020 as a partnership that bought together place, business, and community leaders behind an overarching story for the county. And a comprehensive Ambassador programme has been crucial to winning over the business community. “Your people make your place special,” Cristian continued. “They are your best advocates. A ready and willing salesforce in your midst when engaged, involved, and inspired to promote your place. So involve place leaders, influencers, and personalities from the get-go, and build your network of brand advocates.”

4. Once you’ve identified your place brand narrative, put yourself in the shoes of your intended audience. What problem can you help them solve?

The best marketing tends to demonstrate how a product helps you solve a problem. It’s no different for places. “As with all marketing, it starts with adopting the role of the audience / customer in the room to help identify the problem or gap in your location’s offer, that – if addressed – could deliver a positive and measurable outcome for your city or region,” suggested Gavin Smyth, Tech Ecosystem Manager for Glasgow City Council.

Just a few of the questions that Gavin suggested you should be asking include: Why is a destination story needed now? What are the risks if that story is not told? What does the world know about this story? What does the evidence reveal? Why/where is the destination improving? Can this be articulated into a sustainable competitive advantage around which a compelling story can be told?

For example, Glasgow began to collectively address some of these questions as well to understand how they can tell a better narrative about their tech ecosystem. Ultimately, this has led to a collaborative strategy that pools data from existing partners to be able to build a story around a central truth that is informed by city-wide data.

5. Identify new ways to embed place-to-place collaboration in your strategy.

Once you’ve identified your place DNA and understood how you’re best placed to help your audience meet their needs, you can start looking at how you can partner with other places to strengthen both your strategies. One particularly lucrative area is around data-sharing – particularly in the light of evolving privacy laws.

“Sharing permitted data, learnings, and insight becomes even more important, making personalised targeting and efficient engagement essential,” shared Antony Powell, Sales Director at Sojern. First-party data will be essential to tailoring marketing efforts in a post-third-party cookie world, and being able to match this up against data from other places will help you extend your reach.

“Joining a co-op marketing initiative further amplified return on investment through collaboration, sharing resources, and accessing detailed reporting,” Antony continued. “By adopting these strategies, cities and regions can set themselves apart and captivate their desired audience, whilst showcasing the economic value of each investment made.”

6. Finally, a place brand never ends. You need to continue re-investing in what makes your place special.

A compelling narrative about your city or region can help you capture hearts and minds, but you need to watch out for your place brand becoming outdated. “Continuously adapting to the evolving needs of your community is key,” highlighted Kazadi Mwamba from Surrey County Council. “By doing so, you’ll not only stand out, but also foster growth and development, ensuing your city or region remains vibrant and appealing for years to come.”

It is also important to keep investing in your best assets outside from your community. “I think the best piece of advice for destinations to stand out in a busy marketing space is to play into, and invest in, your natural strength and assets,” explained Sheona Southern, Managing Director for Marketing Manchester, referencing their live music, sport, and cultural offer as a few of the cornerstones that give Manchester its vibrancy. “The same vision also applies at business level. We know that our region has a rich heritage and excellent reputation in sectors like advanced materials, tech, health innovation, and the creative industries, so that’s where Greater Manchester is investing and playing its cards to attract existing businesses and nurture start-ups, SMEs, and University spin outs; positioning Manchester as a city to scale up and grow.”

Ultimately, you need to keep pedalling that engagement bike. It’s far more effective in the long-run to keep a finger on the pulse of your city or region than it is to try to relaunch a new brand strategy every ten to fifteen years. After all, a place brand is for life – not just for Christmas (or a single election cycle).

We’re heading to Sheffield this September for City Nation Place UK, where Rachel Bayley, Cristian Marcucci, Mark Mobbs, Kazadi Mwamba, Antony Powell, Gavin Smyth, Sheona Southern, & Richard Veal will be sharing their expertise and insight. Learn more about City Nation Place UK and how you can join us here.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.