Monday, October 05, 2009

Durham Image Reaches Milestone

It is no surprise to most Durham residents that collectively they have always had a very high image of Durham. Scientific public opinion polling by NanoPhrades shows Durham’s self-image is 86% positive, or very positive, compared to 10.3% negative, or very negative. Similarly, surveys have shown Durham has a highly positive image nationwide.

Durham’s dilemma is that 3 of every 5 jobs in Durham are held by non-residents. This includes the majority of jobs at the airport and in the news media. Surveys over the years have shown that at times, as much as 40%-65% of the residents in nearby counties had a negative image of Durham.

Durham has turned its image around with nearby communities, thanks to more balanced and even handed news coverage, insisting that accurate locations be attributed to Durham based assets, a relentless grass-roots core of Image Watchers (residents empowered to confront water-cooler fables), defending the brand at every touch point, persistent distribution of balanced information via the Durham News Service, and the 19-organization Durham Public Information & Communications Council as well as buzz created by public and private mega-projects dating back to DBAP in the mid ‘90s.

It is too early to declare victory by any means. Vigilance about image is an ongoing process, and there are bound to be ups and downs. However, Durham has reached a critical milestone where the proportion of residents negative about Durham has been narrowed down to 10% in Orange County, 16.3% in Wake County, and 10.3% among residents in the rest of the state. This doesn’t mean that everyone else is positive but many of the former “soft” negatives have been shifted to “neither positive nor negative” or to “positive”.

Durham is now neck and neck for claiming the most positive image in the state when compared to Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem. Durham also has a very positive or positive image now with 77% of adults in Orange County, over 68% in Wake County, and 72% in the rest of the state.

The 10-15% of people who are proactively negative and virulent can’t be discounted, especially now that they’ve been largely isolated. Their considerable influence is still revealed by the high percentage of people in Orange and Wake counties, as well as the rest of the state, who respond that based on what people say they would expect a negative or uncertain experience in Durham. More than a third of the residents in Orange County, nearly two-thirds of the residents in Wake County, and a quarter of the residents in the rest of the state give this response.

So while the negativists are small in number, they still undermine Durham’s image with large populations. The job of defending a community’s image is never finished, especially for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, Durham’s official marketing agency.

Nor can Durham let up on efforts to improve the personal experience people have in Durham. Even with public and private mega projects like The Streets At Southpoint, American Tobacco, West Village, Greenfire’s city center plans, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, more than 40% of Orange County, more than 60% of Wake County, and half of the rest of the state feel negative or uncertain about their personal experiences in Durham.

There is evidence that far less expensive initiatives such as a coherent community-wide way-finding system and overall appearance may be needed to improve personal experiences by people in nearby communities and throughout the state.

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