A Sense of Place – Part 2

A few weeks ago we published a post about the unique challenge of creating a brand that has a sense of place, one that becomes a ‘destination’ for human activities like tourism and entertainment.

But place branding is more than that, as it includes the branding and communications around mixed-use projects that might include residential space, commercial tenants, retail areas, community space for recreation and other pursuits. Increasingly, new developments are, either because they’re mandated through zoning laws or because they’re part of a vision, offer multiple uses and therefore multiple revenue streams.

These projects often require hundreds of millions of dollars investment, with name architects and large engineering companies in the mix. They can be municipal projects that might make or break an entire district or city, as with the Detroit or the Toronto waterfront revitalization projects. What is surprising is the frequent lack of insight and thought put into the branding and storytelling around mixed-use projects, despite the enormous investment being made.

If we think in common sense terms, we’re inviting individuals, families and companies to do one or more of the following things:

  • Move their entire lives as individuals, couples or families
  • Spend their shopping recreational time and money at our location
  • Relocate their offices to our location and spend large sums of money on renovation, moving, and of course, rent
  • Open up an expensive storefront at our location if we have retail space

Why would they do that? What is the ‘pull’ we’d need to generate in order to tip the scales in our direction, when we have so much working against us – from competition, to lack of awareness around our development, to sheer inertia? Why is it that so many expensive developments do not succeed in attracting the attention they deserve?

Our answer to that question is simple to say, but harder to achieve:  Create social currency.

What is ‘social currency’ in this context? We use the word ‘currency’ deliberately, to connote an electrical current, as well as a unit of economic value. As well, the notion of ‘au courant’ is suggested. All of these connotations are important when it comes to place branding.

In other words, the name, identity, underlying story and key features of the place are precisely calibrated to initiate in our terminology, a “meme”, or a self-repeating story that has value to our most important audiences and their influencers. In the form of words and images, we as human beings are compulsive repeaters and sharers of ideas that captivate us. And we have preferences and patterns when it comes to the ideas that we like to repeat.

It is the voluntary repetition of a particular set of ideas, such as a brand, that creates currency. A current running through social groups who have influence and credibility then amplifies that current considerably. We call it different things like “buzz” or “brand halo” or “voltage”, but they’re all different ways of describing social currency. If the right people are talking repeatedly, in a positive and excited way about your development – then you’re off to a great start.

In the next and final post in this series, we’ll talk about the kind of disciplines required to do place branding properly, and how it’s different from other forms of branding.

– W.