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  • Alisa Pyszka

Branding vs. Marketing for the Economic Development Practitioner

Bridge near this fabulous city

The #1 top concern for U.S. businesses is attracting and retaining qualified employees. In response to this concern, cities across the country are focused on creating a “great place” that will help attract desired talent. Part of this place making effort often includes promotion and marketing of a community to the targeted talent audience. As a result, over the past several years I have either been asked to “create” a brand for my community, or my clients have been asked by their elected officials to do so.

Before diving into such efforts, it may be helpful to consider the following descriptions. The intent is to provide layman terminology for the average economic development practitioner working in a city or county so that he or she can have a robust conversation with stakeholders to clearly understand what outcome is desired. The following thoughts are based on my experience as an economic development practitioner. I do not profess to have the same understanding as someone with an MBA in marketing – however I have been mentored by one (thank you Maggie Davis fabulous former VP of Marketing at Greater Portland Inc).


In considering brands, it is easiest to describe the concept in relation to a specific product and company. A good brand is highly unique and consistently nurtured by a company culture and product quality that sustains the perception. Think John Deere. Such a quality brand also requires significant and sustained investment in money and time.

A community brand is not created but defined. It is based on genuine existing assets or characteristics. I have worked with some communities that believe they can changetheir brand to grow the community. This is not an option. The community brand already exists. It is derived in the minds of the residents and visitors to the subject place. The brand of a community is the experience had by the people interacting with the place. How does it look? What are the industries that drive the economy and workforce? What are the available restaurants and retail spaces? How are the parks and trails? How do I get around and is it enjoyable? What is the make-up of the people I see and relate with? The brand of a city is the community core values reflected largely in the built environment. This is why we often associate iconic buildings or structures with different cities – not logos.

All communities already have a brand, and if “if you can’t fix it, flaunt it” advises Linea Gagliano, Director of Global Communications at Travel Oregon. Those quirky elements that staff or elected officials may find to be embarrassing are the exact elements that make a community distinct. In addition, as Gagliano points out, by owning the flaw you are “inoculating the community against criticism.”

Defining a distinct brand for a city is a challenging process as there are many different constituents each with a different opinion as to what makes the city exceptional. If the process concludes by including every opinion the brand becomes acceptable to all, generic and not compelling. To avoid this, Gagliano recommends keeping a laser focus on the top three assets of the community. In identifying those top three assets, significant community engagement that considers a wide range of perspectives is required to avoid brand definition by a few individuals with a predetermined idea.


Creating a website or brochures alone is not marketing. They are necessary tools to facilitate marketing, which is a strategic and consistent effort to push out information to a defined audience about the brand. It is important for practitioners and economic development partners to create a consistent list of key messages for a defined audience to ensure uniformity in the various forms of outreach for a meaningful impact. The following elements should be considered in developing a marketing strategy.

  • Marketing messages, especially for economic development, require “proof points” of data and specific examples for it to meaningful and resonate with the audience. They are not aspirational or vague.

  • Each message should have a defined audience, method of outreach and desired action. (Gagliano notes that if you want to reach Baby Boomers, try mail or television over social media.) These desired actions should be measured to see if the intended message is reaching the audience. (i.e. likes, website visits, attending events, etc.)

  • Marketing is a consistent and maintained effort with coordinated messages delivered on a routine schedule. A strategy will outline when, how and what is sent out to key audiences.

A community brand cannot be created by a staff person or committee. However, it can be defined to convey distinct community values, businesses and investments. Simply put, practitioners can’t create a brand, but they can work with the community to define it and consistently work with partners to market it.

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