Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ironic First Step to Reclaiming Durham’s Story

It took a few months to figure it out. But 25 years ago as we jumpstarted Durham, North Carolina’s first community branding and marketing arm, one of our first challenges had little to do with Durham.

Back then Raleigh, a community south and east of the airport co-owned with Durham, was desperately over-reaching including expropriation of the assets and identities of other communities.

It was obnoxious but as with most place-related desperation it was fueled by insecurity, an observation made to me as we departed a meeting by the scion of a family that had owned the newspaper there for nearly 100 years.

It became clear to me that one of our challenges, if we were ever going to reclaim Durham’s story and give its brand some much needed oxygen and sunlight, it would be doing something that had nothing to do with marketing Durham.

Ironically, if Durham was ever going to get its due, we had to make the case to Raleigh that it could stand on its own.

As a friend who had worked for the New York Times told me when I accepted the challenge of my fourth destination marketing start-up, “one of those places may just as well be Tulsa and the other Kuala Lumpur.”

Her point was that while they each co-anchor a polycentric “family of communities,” they have very distinct cultures, and as I suspected at the time of her comment, distinct brands, primarily obfuscated only by misuse of the name of the jointly-owned airport located midway between.

Part of my challenge in those early news interviews was to first persuade Raleigh-based media that there was a “there” there in Raleigh while setting the record straight about Durham.

It is hard to believe now but in meetings with counterparts there at the time, I repeatedly had to make Raleigh’s case to Raleigh promoters, officials and residents.

In marketing, this is called lowering barriers.

The work of any holistic community marketing organization is 1/3rd promotion and 2/3rds lowering or eliminating barriers.  All too often ignored, the latter is the “heavy lifting” of successful place marketing.

No amount of promotional energy alone is enough to overcome barriers.

Eventually, new Raleigh allies emerged who understood that if Raleigh learned to stand on its own, not only would it produce better results for each community, but the vast poly-centric region encompassing Raleigh and Durham, now two distinct metropolitan designations, would be better served.

Marketing Durham presented many other challenges but research quickly confirmed that it had one of the strongest identities and senses of place anywhere in the nation, an asset no amount of marketing can create.

Among residents, the sense of community pride and passion here was off the charts.  Far too many communities settle for residents being “pleased” if they measure resident awareness at all, but this is the weakest sign of a connection with place.

As a whole, we didn’t have to worry about Durham residents being able to deliver on our marketing promise.

We also didn’t have to dig down very far to uncover three of Durham’s most enduring values and personality traits as a community, elements that may not be unique, but clearly distinctive in the way they were manifest here.

A little more than a decade later, a two year process facilitated by place brand recovery expert Bill Baker drilled down much further into every part of Durham, which helped us excavate and confirm with research a full range of overarching community traits.

But grasping that Durham’s intrinsic traits included being “genuine, authentic and textured” (now elusive aspirations for many brands) that gave us enough to anchor those first marketing efforts at the dawn of the 1990s (one of the first brand marks shown in this blog.)

Unfortunately for Raleigh, it has never dug down to understand its true brand.  Like so many communities that get the “cart in front of the horse,” the focus there even now is on a logo, a superficial and disposable ingredient that is only valuable when created on deeper, community-wide self-refection.

Impatience with what it takes to reveal a community’s inherent brand is reflected in use of the term “rebrand.”  You don’t rebrand a community because its true brand is intrinsic.  You might “rebadge” it from time to time with a new logo or tagline but that isn’t branding, just a quick change of clothes.

I hope Raleigh does uncover its true brand personality one day.  It may not live up to hype or official expectations or titillate the local media there but it would be far more enduring and effective all around, a beacon for community self-preservation as well as appeal.

Recovering a community’s truly intrinsic brand or personality is a diagnostic process.  Not every trait will be viewed as positive but when accurately distilled, will resonate to “stickers” and “boomers who became “stickers” alike.

If Raleigh is honest with itself it may find that being “over-reaching” has some deeper roots there.  The introspection that comes from a true place brand excavation helps a community rediscover and become comfortable in its own skin.

Raleigh is a great place and worthy of knowing why.

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