The power of ‘we’: Building a place brand strategy with your community

Community sits at the heart of place branding, particularly at the local level. Your people are the heart and soul of your place, and so should be an integral part of your place narrative.

“People do not want a solve, they want to be part of the solution,” shared Jennifer Valencic, VP of Destination Engagement at Destination Cleveland. “We hold this very special ability to bring people together, build consensus, and move positive impact forward. It is our job to build with our community, not for it.”

With City Nation Place Americas right around the corner, we reached out to our speakers to understand how they’re working to integrate community engagement throughout their strategy to ensure that it’s more than just a tick box exercise.

Frameworks to understand community engagement

As a term, ‘community engagement’ encompasses a wide range of activities, from residential surveys to creating an Ambassador programme for residents to building your place brand off the back of comprehensive input from your locals.

“One of the most impactful frameworks I’ve learned that has reshaped how I think about community engagement is IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation,” shared Kian Kamas, Executive Director at PartnerTulsa. One end of the spectrum focuses on limited or one-way communication, such as working to inform your residents about your work. At the other end, is work that empowers your community, where you work in partnership to design a strategy. “In much of our work, we’ve attempted to shift further toward the empower end of the spectrum,” Kian continued.

The Citizen Engagement Toolkit:

The how-to advice, resources, and best practice you need to launch or improve your citizen engagement strategies.

Rickey L. Thigpen, President & CEO of VISIT JACKSON, presented an alternative framework through which to view community engagement, explaining that experience has demonstrated that their work is rooted in the perceived value of the community they represent. “Community Shared Value (CSV), also known as Creating Shared Value, is a business concept that emphasizes the idea that the success of a company/agency is intertwined with the well-being and development of the communities in which it represents,” Rickey went on to share. “Executing tactics congruent to this idea results in long-term sustainability, enhanced reputation and brand image, risk mitigation, access to talent and resources, innovation and market opportunities, stakeholder loyalty & trust, and regulatory compliance & government relations.”

Having a clear understanding of the importance of community engagement within your strategy is also vital to a successful implementation. “This simple act of identifying why we’re engaging people is incredibly powerful for staff – because it ensures they understand what outcomes they’re trying to drive through engagement,” outlined Partner Tulsa’s Kian Kamas, “and also helps to ensure stakeholders and community members understand why they’re engaging with an effort and what impact their engagement might ultimately have.”

Place organisations as a nexus for your community

Both these approaches rely on lifting up residents and ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table. One key way to achieve this is to identify individuals who represent a wide range of backgrounds, who cover a broad spectrum of your key stakeholders, and can speak on behalf of their community. “Our team will convene thought-leaders to overcome challenges and look for new opportunities,” explain Jillian MacKinnon, VP Marketing Communications & Strategic Initiatives at ENVISION SAINT JOHN: The Regional Growth Agency. “Keeping an active and involved network of stakeholders is key.”

Place brand and marketing organisations are uniquely placed to provide a common vision that can rally a broad spectrum of stakeholders to action. Peter Frosch, CEO at Greater MSP, highlighted that they work to bring together the right people by recruiting investors and leaders who represent all business sectors, alongside government, philanthropies, and organisations that advocate for their community in order to co-create their strategy.

For example, with the Med Tech 3.0 Hub, the team bought together leaders from giants in the pharma sector alongside regional healthcare providers, universities, community advocacy organisations, public sector and more to guide the strategic development of the Hub. “Leaders and experts from these organizations are now collaborating to implement that shared strategy, which is focused on building a healthcare system in this country that is more innovative, equitable, affordable and that improves outcomes for patients and ensures the best medical technology is accessible to more people—especially lower-income patients,” Peter went on to explain.

Adapting your strategy to meet the needs of individual communities

As VISIT JACKSON’s Rickey Thigpen told us, “community engagement must be diversified and reflective of the community. We must ensure that the table is large enough so ALL have a seat AND voice.”

At this point, it’s well understood that diversity of thought is key to long-term success. A 2023 report by McKinsey & Co showed that companies with diverse executive teams are 39% more likely to be profitable. Bringing diverse perspectives to the table allows you to see a problem from multiple angles and opens up new avenues you might not otherwise have considered.

As a place-based organisation, it is essential that you’re listening to all your community groups and breaking down barriers to participation because it’s also the route to ensuring you’re telling an aspirational story for your place that your residents can see themselves reflected in.

However, each community is unique and will respond best to different tactics. Britnie Bazylewski, Tourism Development Office for the Corporation of the Town of Lincoln, Niagara Benchlands Tourism, told us that they have placed residents and business stakeholders in the centre of their decision-making processes to ensure that their strategy is guided by the collective visions and aspirations of their community. However, making this work has required a broad array of tools.

“Understanding that effective communication demands versatility, we’ve embraced a myriad of engagement tools, such as in-person roundtable discussions, proprietary online community hubs, and developed sector-centric resources to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for all,” Britnie explained. “By instilling continuous dialogue channels, we’ve enabled real-time feedback mechanisms, nurturing a profound sense of ownership and vested interest among our community members, propelling our collective vision forward.”

Each community and stakeholder is unique, and so requires a carefully considered approach to build trust and engage them effectively in your strategy. We look forward to discovering how cities and regions across the USA and Canada are evolving their community engagement strategies to empower their residents and stakeholders.

Jennifer Valencic, Destination Cleveland, Kian Kamas, PartnerTulsa, Rickey L. Thigpen, VISIT JACKSON, Jillian MacKinnon, ENVISION SAINT JOHN: The Regional Growth Agency, Peter Frosch, Greater MSP, and Britnie Bazylewski, Town of Lincoln and Niagara Benchlands Tourism, will be joining us in Houston this May 14-15th at City Nation Place Americas 2024– find out more here!

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