Friday, February 17, 2012

What’s in a Name? The Answer Can be Tricky

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects.

In our client communities, we very often work with regional organizations to develop strategic plans for their areas. In most cases, these regional organizations – be they chambers or economic development corporations (EDCs) – represent broad geographies with multiple component cities and counties. They also – more often than not – contain a central city or cities that hold most of the population and employment concentrations for the overall region. Either that or they contain a city that may not be the largest in the metro but has the most “name recognition.” For example, our client community of Coachella Valley in Southern California contains the city of Palm Springs, even though Indio and other cities have larger populations.  

This is all well and good. Regions can be big and diverse, but are often known for their most populous city. Where it gets squirrelly is when issues of pride or the need to bridge demographic, cultural, or economic differences to bind relationships lead regional decision-makers to market the metro area with a brand that may be familiar locally but is a mystery everywhere else. Case in point; if I hadn’t told you that the Coachella Valley housed Palm Springs, would you have known anything about it? If I mentioned the “Upstate Alliance” would you know where it is? How ‘bout if I called it the “Greenville-Spartanburg region?” Makes a difference, no? However, both the Coachella Valley and the Upstate Alliance brand themselves without naming their most well-known component communities. Having worked in both of these regions, I can attest to the fact that changing the current brands to reflect the communities that are most widely recognized was untenable. Politically, it was just a no-go. Does it hamper these regions’ marketing viability? Probably yes. But without these branding compromises there wouldn’t be the resources or partnerships to do any marketing at all.  

Sometimes political reality trumps logic; we learn that every four years when we elect the U.S. president. So too does the reality of regionalism often trump the logic of what would be the most effective marketing strategy for an area. I don’t think there’s necessary a hard-and-fast solution for this “mystery” region dilemma other than to continue making the case that aligning branding with the “name” community works best and seeing where that gets you. What I find most interesting is that – almost universally and even in regions that don’t brand according to their most widely known community – stakeholders still identify themselves with this core city when telling people where they live. It comes up all the time in focus groups. “I may live in Littleton, but I tell people from out of town that I’m from Denver.” (We’ve never worked in Denver, by the way; I’m just using that as an example.) Funny that when hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars are involved, the same logic doesn’t always apply.