How public-private partnership is driving success for Staffordshire

In 2020, organisations who were passionate about Staffordshire’s potential joined forces to create unified voice for the region. Since then, We Are Staffordshire has moved from strength to strength – all with a small (but dedicated!) team and limited resources. We sat down with Louisa Shaw, Head of Place Marketing at We Are Staffordshire, to understand what the foundation is for their success, how they’re engaging the private sector as ambassadors, and what she’ll be looking for in a winning entry at the City Nation Place Awards.


We Are Staffordshire was established as a three-year pilot, from which you have since been renewed to continue your work. What lessons are you taking with you from the past three years in to the future?

To ‘borrow’ the advice that Barack Obama said he would give to his younger self when asked – the key lesson for us is to continue to get stuff done; we have been successful because we have been agile with our activity and had a relentless focus on delivery, saying ‘yes’ to opportunities rather than continually churning strategies. It is important to have a plan – to know why you are delivering an activity and what success looks like at the end of it before embarking on the work – but as a small team, focus always has to come back to the delivery on the ground.

The second lesson is the importance of collaboration and partnership. We simply wouldn’t be where we are without it. We have been authentic in our approach – this is a new piece of work and we’re learning by doing – but taking stakeholders on that journey with us has been key as they have helped us open doors we never thought possible, supported and lived our narrative, and hopefully through that have seen the impact that can be achieved when we work together for themselves.

The third lesson is to focus on the 3-5 things we can deliver and well, whether those things support our mission, and then not be afraid to say ‘no’ to the rest. There is so much we can do, so much crossover between placemaking, capital regeneration, visitor economy, culture, skills and learning – this list goes on. We have a County Council who are best placed to deliver statutory services for our communities, and we are there to market our place to the best effect: having a laser focus on ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’ is key to having targeted impact.


You’ve been very successful in building an Ambassador model to support and drive your work. Can you share a little about how this has been achieved?

Our Ambassador Network is one of the elements of We Are Staffordshire that we’re most proud of, and I’d also say it’s been the easiest things to deliver of our journey so far. Why? Our businesses, our local authority partners, needed a vehicle like We Are Staffordshire to bring everyone together.

We were set up through a genuine desire – not just of the County Council – to raise our head above the parapet and challenge the perceptions of our place. Or to take that further, to define and raise awareness of who we are and what we want to be known for. We are an asset rich but perception poor county and changing that will take time, but the Ambassador Network serves as an incredibly powerful community of like-minded, passionate organisations and individuals that we bring together to celebrate, educate, inform and hopefully, inspire too!

The Network was launched in 2021 with a series of regular events that shine a spotlight on quirky places, businesses and interesting developments; later we added ‘experience’ social events that are more hands-on, a newsletter, and our social channels to engage in different ways. Since then, we’ve taken Ambassadors to the House of Commons, featured them on billboards during the Commonwealth Games – the list goes on! We’ve also partnered with the Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce to host our own ‘Ambassador of the Year’ category – this year over 750 people in the business community voted for their winner.

Our campaigns and activities feature real businesses, real voices, and real people right here in Staffordshire – many if not all of those are our Ambassadors. They willingly give us space, photography and video assets – and their voices! – for free and in return we use that to raise the profile of their business and the county.

The Network is a movement, a community of the willing who support us for no other reason than we’re all in it together to promote Staffordshire.


How can place brand teams build trust with their stakeholders?

For me, being authentic with your story is key, as is regular communication. I’ve lost count how many times I have stood on a stage and openly said “We’ll try XX and if it doesn’t work, we’ll fail fast and learn” and I feel that has honestly supported stakeholder buy in. Whilst we don’t have all the answers, we’re learning together, and we take our partners on the journey with us.

Every place is different and one size doesn’t fit all – launching a new place brand and marketing effort means trying different activities, learning what works and what doesn’t – including what your stakeholders feel is valuable or what isn’t. We can think a campaign is great, but if our stakeholders don’t feel it supports our mission, or isn’t a good use of time, then it’s probably not going to work. We use different types of listening tools across our activities/various points in our journey to measure stakeholder sentiment and I can honestly say the feedback we receive shapes the work we take forward.


What is the secret to telling a cohesive story about your region, whilst still allowing the individuality of cities and towns to flourish?

We represent a large county and, including Staffordshire County Council, 10 different local authorities. Whilst we want to speak with one ‘Staffordshire’ voice and brand, it is incredibly important that we celebrate the individuality and sovereignty of the towns and cities within it and by providing a platform to support our partners, We Are Staffordshire has truly managed to harness that ‘more than the sum of its parts’ mentality.

We ensure that uniqueness and individuality shines through by ensuring each piece of marketing collateral we create offers sections for each area within Staffordshire, that our Ambassador Network events take place all over the county and feature speakers that not only represent different sectors, but different parts of the county. All of our campaigns seek to pick the jewels in the crown of each place, so our rich history and culture shines through – from JCB to pottery, to brewing and everything in between – and facts, images, testimonials and information are actively sought from the respective areas to ensure they are fully represented.


Finally, what do you think will be the hallmarks of a winning entry at the City Nation Place Awards?

As I’ve waxed lyrical above about the importance of telling an authentic story, that’s what I’ll be paying particular attention to when judging the awards. Stand out examples for me will be those campaigns and strategies that truly harness the uniqueness of their place, its opportunities or the challenges it is addressing at that moment in time. Estonia’s campaign in 2022 is one that will always stick in my mind.

What I love most about the Awards is their global nature – the fact that a town can compete against a country, and £million budgets go up against strategies delivered on a shoestring. For me it’s about the message, how the project makes me feel and how it challenges or supports my perceptions of a place that are the markers of success, not the scale of the place or budget. Of course, the results and measuring longer term impact is also key, and that’s often the hard bit about what we do!

Finally, I’m personally so excited to read the categories for individual efforts for the first time at the City Nation Place Awards. I have had the honour of meeting and learning from incredible place leaders from all over the world, and in this still quite niche area of marketing and economic development, it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate and support each other. Understanding how individuals have grown, the ideas they’ve harnessed and reading a few supporting testimonials or two will be a real joy. The community is what I value most about our involvement with the City Nation Place.

That’s lovely to hear, Louisa, because that’s exactly what we strive for! Thank you for sharing that with us, and we look forward to having your expertise during the judging.

Want to learn more? We Are Staffordshire are also featured in our latest report: Structure and Governance for Successful Place Branding and Marketing. Download this free report to explore the pros and cons of different approaches and how places are adapting their structure and funding to better support their objectives.

The City Nation Place Awards are open for entry! Enter now to share your work and impact with the industry, impress an international panel of judges, and earn recognition for your innovative initiatives.

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