Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Flossing A Community’s Image Turn Around

I was lucky.  At the dawn of the 1990s, as I led the jumpstart of Durham, North Carolina’s community-destination marketing organization and guardian of its image, brand and sense of place, the scientific research we used to unwrap a perception issue exonerated any role by Durham residents.

Durham’s ratio of residents who are positive has always greatly exceeded the benchmark for communities overall.  Still, several circumstances made the nearly two-decade turn around very thorny.

  • The negativity was rooted among residents of neighboring communities where two out of three held a negative image of Durham, even though most had never been here.

Because, when it comes to communities, neighbors are somewhat like family, the challenge became how to separate soft negatives from the hardcore 10% who actively marketed against Durham.

  • This was further complicated because those holding half - now 3 out of 5 jobs in Durham, including owners and managers of many businesses - are non-residents who, if not negative themselves, were immersed daily in this negativity about Durham.
  • What further complicated the image turn-around were a few opinion-leaders in those nearby communities who denied there was any such problem on the pretense that they were looking out for Durham because to them to admit there is a problem was to be a victim.

Little known to the public was the paradox that representatives of their interests in Durham made daily requests to us for information that would help counter the effects of this negativity.

A few in Durham were worried by the old adage that “the best way to kill a product with image issues is to advertise it.”  They thought to advertise meant to publicly acknowledge it, but with a background in marketing I knew it meant that advertising as a tool is useless for the purpose of overcoming image issues.

Instead, to separate soft negatives from hardcore negatives, we launched a series of guerrilla communications that promoted a wide variety of Durham positives while always incorporating some aspect we needed to improve and statistical benchmarks to put it all in perspective.

A study published recently by researchers at Stanford and Tel Aviv universities calls this the “blemishing effect” and finds that subsequent mention of a negative actually amplifies the positive, especially with audiences who may be distracted or unaware of the source of their opinions.

Gradually, and sometimes glacially, Durham’s image among those who live in nearby communities greatly improved but though isolated, on average there remain 10% who are negative.

This occurs less in Orange County which is part of the Durham metro and more in a Wake County, part of the Raleigh metro and one of the state’s most populous.

The organization charged as the guardian of Durham’s image must be vigilant to see that this proportion of hardcore negatives remains contained.  However it seems that 10% of the overall population is also responsible for any number of other societal problems:

I thought of the never-ending challenge Durham faces to contain the remaining hardcore negativists in nearby counties when I read a study recently about messages to encourage hand washing and a book about win-lose behavior.

As it has been for many years now, on average Durham continues to be held in higher esteem by external audiences statewide than any other community of a similar size or larger.

Its image among residents of the two adjacent counties, while still on average more than 80% positive, is beginning to show erosion especially in Wake County.  This is further evidence that erecting facilities, however remarkable, is not a solution to image.

Left unchecked, the corrosive influence of those who are hardcore negatives can bring uncertainty to those who are positive.  The lessons of Durham’s image turn-around, while informative, must be updated using research by behavior economists, including some of the world’s renowned who live here.

Durham pioneered several techniques to turn its image around.  It will need to stay on the forefront to keep it that way.

In doing so, Durham should continue to promote its status as a place “where great things happen,” but keep in mind a recent study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard which could be relevant to pursuing visitors including newcomers such as relocating executives and other talent so crucial to continued economic vitality.

Entitled The Preference for Potential, the study finds that, during an evaluation, potential often has more power than accomplishment, because it leads to more intensive processing of why it is a good choice.

No comments: