Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Measuring & Influencing Community Reputation

Even if she hadn’t recently telegraphed the response she desired, I couldn’t bring myself to disillusion a new acquaintance from Michigan as she proclaimed to a group of us that a two year nation television advertising campaign by one of the Big Three with Detroit as a backdrop had turned that city’s image around.

Even before scientific studies began to document the gradual and alarming decline of the effectiveness of advertising, that element of marketing had been long discredited as a means to turn image around – simply because it lacks credibility – because it is you talking about yourself.  But one area it still has traction is the sale of vehicles.

A scientific survey last month by Public Policy Polling confirmed that after two years of national television exposure, including spots run during two consecutive Super Bowls, Detroit’s reputation nation-wide is still a net negative by more than 2 to 1 with 29% of respondents unsure which had been predicted by experts in the weeks after the campaign launched.

I’m pulling for Detroit to turn its image around and I’m sure there are people there working extremely hard to do that. I know from experience that the formula for an image turnaround differs from community-to-community and must be based on carefully unwrapping and understanding the specifics related to audiences, internal and external audiences, both nearby and extended.

Things such as mega-events, mega-facilities or “being major league” are proven for far to long to be much too blunt as instruments to have any lasting effect on image. Even those attributed metaphorically with the so-called “billboard” effect, any change is fleeting much like that of the obsolete roadside medium.

Having had a hand in turning Durham, North Carolina’s image around, I’ve already written about how marketing intelligence or research helped us customize a formula here. I can tell you that the things many people signal as signs of the turn-around were a result of that phenomenon more than a cause.

I did take a moment though to compare the results of similar polls to document Durham’s popularity both within North Carolina and nationwide.

Within the state:

  • Durham has been the most popular of the state’s largest five cities since the 1990s with a more than 60% net positive and half the average percentage negative or unsure for the group.
  • Ironically, Durham’s net popularity statewide was 23 times greater than the city where residents were most negative about Durham. Knowing this helped isolate both causes and solutions that, when executed, helped Durham erase all but 11% of the negativity there while increasing the proportion who are positive by more than six times that amount.
  • Nationwide Durham’s favorability has never been a problem except when there is a threat of contamination from pockets of negativity or water-cooler folktales.
  • Durham’s net favorability nationwide is nearly 85% higher than the average for the 21 cities measured by Public Policy Polling but understandably the community is 24% less known and this is something where earned media or “publicity” is much better suited than advertising.
  • Durham’s negative rating nationwide is one-third the average of the Public Policy group and lower than any of the 21 measured.
  • Durham also has a much narrower favorability gap between genders and ethnic groups and I suspect the same would be true among those who live in metro vs. non-metro areas, although that was not measured in the Public Policy as far as I can tell.

There are three corollaries I learned during my decades grappling with community image:

  • Communities are never as popular with external audiences as they believe and only scientific public opinion research provides a reliable benchmark both from which to start and then to measure improvement.
  • When it comes to influencing community image, marketing can be a spearhead but some elements such as advertising and direct sales are far too blunt as instruments and lack credibility.
  • A third is that marketing as a tool to turn-around and promote image must be about much more than applying lipstick. It is a must to admit what must be improved while always putting it into perspective.

Lastly, turning around image isn’t for the faint of heart or about cloning or playing politics.

No comments: