Tips for successful primary research in developing your place brand

By Jessica McCarthy, President, Joy Riot

The importance of brand research 

The goal of developing a successful place brand goes beyond the new logo, tagline, or colour palette. You want to connect with your audience on an emotional level that resonates. To get there, mix yourself a cocktail of art and science. Primary research is the science.

Why is primary research so important?

Places evolve. Engaging with people who are actively involved in the everyday aspects of your community allows you to stay true to who you are. It provides you with data and insights to inform your strategy and the execution of that strategy, as well as hard evidence to support your approach. It also alleviates bias or hidden agendas that could undermine the process.

We’ve seen a lot of places throw away money just trying to “check the box” thereby not putting enough investment or emphasis on the research part of the process. This can lead to a few issues, including:

  1. a failure to launch as you can’t get your own community on board with the final output, and/or
  2. a misrepresentation of the brand, which even if it attracts the right businesses, residents, and visitors, quickly leads to disappointment and a shaky brand foundation which will eventually crumble.

Both have a huge impact on your bottom line.

So how should you begin your place branding research?

Start with qualitative research

Talk to people within your community—key stakeholders, business owners, investors, residents, visitors—through one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and on-the-ground interceptions. Qualitative research generates:

  1. Anecdotal stories that often provide the true insights for developing a place brand or marketing strategy.
  2. The ingredients for a quantitative survey, which puts hard data behind what you hear in the qualitative phase.


Recruit a true cross-section of the community 

During the initial project phase, clients often tell us they’ve already identified their primary audiences. While their instincts are seldom incorrect, we find that a few probing questions can hone those audience types to be more targeted.

For example, you’re not just attracting the catch-all term “businesses.” We want to know what kinds of businesses make sense for your community? Who’s already here, and why? What do you offer certain industries, and why is that important? What supporting businesses do you need to attract the community you want to build?

We also need to think both short term and long term. What are the long-term goals, and the stepping stones we need to get there? Or, what do we want to accomplish now? And how might that evolve?

Similarly, for residents and visitors: understanding your demographic mix is imperative, but also psychographics—what brought them here in the first place? What is appealing to them? What’s not appealing to them? Why should anyone care about what this place has to offer?

In identifying the key groups and selecting participants, it’s not about who has the loudest voice, or appeasing a squeaky wheel. Rather, we need a true representation of the place. Once we identify the cross-sections of the various communities, we prioritize those audiences based on your goals. Those priority audiences will be the focus of the qualitative research. (Don’t worry, we’ll still have the opportunity to reach all of the individual communities through the quantitative research phase.)

To ensure you aren’t (un)intentionally biasing your results, you want to recruit via a random sample. Instead of hand-selecting participants, we recommend using a screener to recruit for the focus group or other scheduled qualitative research methodologies. In fact, one benefit of the interception method is their inherently random nature. 


Mitigate the outliers

We always recommend talking to multiple people from the various groups to ensure one respondent’s opinion doesn’t achieve outsized influence. For one-on-one interviews, that means ensuring there are multiple interviews for each of the different groups. For focus groups, that means hosting 2-3 groups per audience type.

Turning qualitative insights into quantitative data

During the quantitative phase you can turn those anecdotal thoughts into hard data. We ask a similar line of questioning and can pre-fill multiple choice answers according to what we heard in audience groups and in hypotheses put forward by our clients.

Our rule is: If you can’t act on the outcome of a question, don’t ask it. 

Every question should lead to an actionable insight. That may sound intuitive, but we often find clients want to ask “nice to know” questions that add length to a survey without adding value. You need to make sure you’re able to act on any question you ask. For example, if your place is landlocked, don’t ask your respondents if they prefer mountains, valleys, or seas. You can’t give them option three.

Maintaining the cross-section of respondents in quantitative surveys

Sometimes we need to cap responses, and we can set specific audience percentages to various communities to capture a sample similar to the make-up of the particular community. That could be based on census data, demographic data of the community, or other parameters.

Another option is monitoring the number of responses from each group. If a particular group is light, use marketing and communications efforts that target that specific group to provide their input within the data collection timeframe.

We also encourage screening questions, to weed out anybody who will corrupt the reporting with feedback that isn’t actionable.

Finding the brand in the data

You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t know how to take the analysis of that data and turn it into strategic insights that you can act upon, the data means nothing.

There are some insights that come directly from a specific question. There are others that require the analysis and interpretation of a series of questions. There is a method to the madness.

You’re going to have competing opinions. So what do you do with that information? How do you know what to listen to or how to decipher the best next step?

Look for the common thread. You’re going to come away from research with reams of data, mostly in the form of opinions. It can appear as a sea of disagreement. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find the throughline. That throughline is your brand.

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