Leveraging your place brand to create a framework for recovery

A clear place brand strategy is more than a nice accessory - it creates a framework for how your destinations should respond to unexpected challenges. Clare Barnett, Director of Economic Development & Culture for the City of Brampton, explains how they have centred their place brand identity at the heart of their COVID-19 response, and how a clear communication strategy and policy advocacy is enabling them to support their private sector through the crisis.

Brampton has a great story and we’re keen to get into the details of what work you’re doing currently, but it’s interesting to see that your role encompasses both economic development and culture. Can you tell me a little more about how that works?

Brampton was very much a bedroom community – people lived here, but they didn’t necessarily work here. We’re very close to Toronto, as well as a number of other major cities, so Brampton residents were leaving our city every day to go to work. Then more recently, people started to invest in Brampton – there was lots of innovation in the city, and our business community and economy began to grow. And so did a new culture.

Where we’d been a suburb – a bedroom community – we now had people living and working in the city. And we began to attract new generations, like millennials who wanted to live close to work in an area that had a funkier vibe.

Being able to foster this new funkier DNA in the city – that was all rooted in our diversity. We have over 234 cultures and more than 115 languages spoken in the city. Maybe for someone in London, that’s not unusual, but for Canada? That’s unique. We attract businesses from all around the world, and we use this cultural link to help us grow economic development. Right now, we’re looking to build an Innovation District and we’re inviting companies to be a part of that. And then that will bring in art galleries and local cafes which in turn reinforces our cultural DNA and helps to drive more investment. It’s really helped to make us more distinct. For Brampton, economic development and culture are intrinsically connected, so it made sense to put those teams together in our organization, to help us maximize the synergies between the groups.

We’ve noticed that a lot of downtowns across North America are getting a new lease of life. Is your brand identity influencing your plans for your Innovation District?


Exactly. Downtowns are going through a new generation – what can a downtown mean to a city? For us, innovation is a huge part of our cultural identity, so we’re aiming to foster that by developing our downtown into an Innovation District. We have the four classic corners of downtown with banks on each corner, but we’re evolving our understanding of the area and what the possibilities are. We are putting all the components in place to build an Innovation District which will support entrepreneurs in every stage of their journey. Currently, our Innovation District will be built around one street, with our co-working space and a Cyber Security Centre of Excellence. We also have Ryerson University which is setting up an innovation zone to help small companies grow and become the next Canadian Blackberry. And we’ve got a research and innovation centre to help businesses scale up.

What we’re doing now is attracting international start-ups to make Brampton their home base, and then we’ll help support them throughout their journey – like providing them with co-working space. We’re also able to facilitate the visas they need to set up a business – we work with Federal Government to provide that service and that’s a special partnership that not many cities are able to have.

What we’re working on now is the brand and developing the personality for the area, which we’ll launch after COVID-19 when we’re able to gather again.

Your culture has grown quite naturally it seems, but what are you doing to develop your place brand?

As we’re already quite a cultural mixing pot, the brand developed very organically but there’s more work to be done in gathering data. Diversity and talent is the greatest part of our identity, but being able to express that in our marketing is key. We know we’re the second youngest city in Canada – we have an average age in the city of 36. And every year over 14,000 people come to live in Brampton, which is phenomenal growth – and they come from all over the world. So we can offer young talent, and diverse talent, and we’re putting that at the core of our marketing.

We’re also fortunate to have very young and diverse political leadership right now. I’d say the average age was early 40s, if not younger, on the council and they come from many different backgrounds and cultures. So even at the government level, their culture is helping to drive that energetic, fast-paced and culturally diverse conversation which is amazing.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work? How have you been supporting your existing investors through the crisis?


We’ve got a number of balls in the air at the moment to help us support companies on as many fronts as possible. The City established a Mayor’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force for example, with representation from the Federal and Provincial governments, as well as a number of business and community partners. And we’ve been running a number of one-to-one personalised consultations for businesses of all size. We’re piloting a virtual co-working space as well.

We’ve also had a number of businesses that have grown during the pandemic, and we’re helping them to expand. And we’re running Tele Town Halls as well with key employers, small businesses and the restaurant sector to discuss issues and potential solutions we can implement.

Tele Town Halls? How have they been working?


The Mayor has a Tele Town Hall meeting once a week, alongside the Region’s Medical Officer of Health, our Chief of Police and our Chief of Fire and Emergency Services, and the director of our major hospital, and citizens can call in and ask questions of the relevant authorities. We are seeing about 15,000 people call in each week, on average.

Then my team has Tele Town Halls with different sectors of the economy – the last one we ran had over 500 businesses involved. It’s like a conference call; they call in and we connect them to representatives from the federal government who can provide details on eligibility to certain programs or other new policy changes.

We also have 100 large multinational employers in the city who are sharing their experiences through this because they’re facing many of the same challenges. We put out a call to help them share their experiences with each other and to help us to understand how we can help them with policy advocacy.

We have strong sectors in Brampton and we’re working to support them as best as we can. We’ve been trying to help companies hire during COVID-19 for example, and we’re ensuring that even as our bus system decreases their routes, they still service the routes which go by the largest companies. Or in the restaurant sector – where they can’t run their usual dinner services, many of them have transformed to do take away or roadside pick-up which we’ve been promoting.


Is there one initiative that you’re particularly excited by?


I think I’m most excited right now by the companies that have pivoted their businesses to help the city during the crisis. They were some of the first in the country to do so and I think that’s really special. It shows innovation, and a willingness to support the greater good. It’s a great business culture to have, to be able to work with companies who genuinely want to help. We’ve had companies – mostly from the manufacturing sector – and entrepreneurs who would typically run hackathons or work on blockchain who have stepped and asked us how they can help. That’s not a moment we’re likely to have again.

For example, one of our companies transformed themselves to start producing PPE to help meet the growing need of the city. The provincial government have put them in a partnership with one of the largest automotive companies in the country which is a partnership that just isn’t likely to have been possible at any other time. We’re showing that our businesses can be agile, and that’s what businesses are looking for – talent that can adapt and be nimble. And the businesses as well have shown that they can pivot, and the Canadian government is demonstrating that we’re willing to support that. I think there’ll be quite a long tail to that. Now that that we’ve shown that we can do it, people can trust that we’ll be able to do so again.

It’s interesting to hear you mention policy advocacy. It’s a huge part of good Aftercare – and it’s more relevant now than ever. Have you seen much impact from the actions you’ve been taking?

Yes, we’ve actually had quite a lot of success. We were advocating for insurance companies to lower their car insurance rates during COVID-10 because people weren’t driving to work as much. So we worked with provincial government, and they’re now having conversations about announcing lower rates. And we’ve advocated to credit card companies to lower interest rates and they’ve done that too.

From my office, there have been a few core things we’ve been focussing on. One was to provide rent relief for small businesses. There needs to be a loan or a grant programme for companies who have had to close because they’re not deemed essential, but still have to pay rent – or else we’ll lose so many of the SMEs who help to make us such a diverse and interesting city. Just last Friday, the federal government announced it reached an agreement in principle with all provinces and territories to implement the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) for small businesses. This program will lower rent by 75 per cent for small businesses that have been affected by COVID-19.

The other thing that we’ve been advocating for is the businesses that are falling through the gaps. In some of the federal government programming, there were a few companies who didn’t make the eligibility for some of the support. But we’ve advocated for them and they’re lowering the payroll from $ 50,000 to $ 20,000 and that did a lot. It wasn’t Brampton alone doing this, but I think we were the first – and we’ve seen some really positive results.

Since this is a challenge that everyone’s facing, there’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration between cities to find new solutions. Is this something that you’re exploring?


Absolutely - we’ve noticed the same thing, particularly in food sustainability and the food supply chain. There’s been a new economic development group put together across the Greater Toronto area to understand how we can work together – now and in the future. One of these challenges will be logistics across the food sector which is something that we never would have done. We were very competitive for investment. Now though, we’re looking at how we can augment the value for a foreign investor by promoting a more cohesive Toronto area.

The other thing the group is doing is sharing data, which is very important. What we’re seeing, what the hit is going to be to the bottom-line, what policy and advocacy issues we can work on together. I would say Canada already does a good job on collaboration in FDI – there’s Invest Canada and Toronto Global and the big cities especially already collaborated under those to compete for investment. And when we go out into the world to promote Brampton, we start with Canada. It has a natural brand to it and such a positive image that we begin there and then move the conversation towards Brampton. But it’s exciting to see how we can improve that collaborative approach more in the future.

Looking longer term, how are you building your recovery plans around your brand strategy?


Well, the diversity piece is consistent across all our marketing. That’s the one thing that links it all together. Destinations are looking towards their domestic audiences primarily because people won’t be able to travel for some time. We’re doing the same, but our key message is that even if you can’t travel far and wide yet, if you come to Brampton you can see the whole world right here. From our restaurants, to our shops– and even to our performing arts. We have three theatres, and we recently announced that quite a well-known Canadian-Pakistani actor would be doing Hamlet and that brings a fair bit of cultural diversity.

The diversity theme is particularly strong for FDI and we’re aiming to continue connecting with companies that have international ownership in regions where we have strong international links. 30% of our population is South Asian, for example, so we connect with a lot of Indian companies.

Doing business with the city will certainly be more efficient in the future. We’ve created new online processes as a result of COVID-19, like online building permit applications, which will help facilitate investment. And we’re working to build momentum around the spirit of collaboration that the crisis has created, and facilitate more opportunities for cross-sector communication and collaboration.

COVID-19 has been a harsh reminder that supply chains have become dependent on too few partners, so we’re working to bring those closer to home as well. There’s major competition still from low-cost jurisdictions other than China such as Mexico and Vietnam, so our focus has to be on skilled labour, land availability, energy prices, and other investment readiness factors. But I think that our brand and the work the city government has been doing throughout the crisis to support companies will provide a strong foundation for this message.

Thank you for joining us, Clare.

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