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Residents on the frontline

Canadian branding agency Trajectory is convinced that place brands can only be successful if they’re considered authentic by the people who live there. This has become a central tenet of Trajectory’s work on place and it has stood them in good stead. Placesbrands talks to Jeannette Hanna to find out more.

Placesbrands: Trajectory focuses strongly on engaging with stakeholders. Why did you decide to make this a central feature of your approach?

Jeannette Hanna: Ultimately, the work is done on behalf of the stakeholders. We’ve always felt they must have a real voice in the process. The logistics of how to engage, as well as synthesise, the information we get can require some creativity, but it’s an essential part of building legitimacy for a shared vision of the future.

Your work focuses on encouraging dialogue between the community, between ‘ordinary’ residents of places. Why do you choose to focus in particular on the residents? 

JH: Residents are the real heart of any community. They embody its values and its ‘genius loci’, so they’re vital to shaping the long-term aspirations of a place. We also recognize that an effective place branding engagement process can surface useful ideas and opportunities that may not be priorities for our work but that others might want to pursue together. We think providing a platform where like-minded people can find each other and self-organise to address local needs is a great added benefit of broad engagement.

Could you talk us briefly through a typical FutureCast workshop session?

JH: The actual structure and content is driven by the assignment, but the core principle is to focus people on future possibilities. Through FutureCast, we’re essentially facilitating a broad conversation about: “What kind of place do we want to grow together?” That can involve large-scale ‘World Café’ style group meetings as well as mobile and web-based interactions. They don’t all have to be workshops. We’ve learned a great deal from collaborating on large-scale appreciative inquiry projects like Bermuda’s Performing Arts Centre Project. That involved having a team of volunteers conduct almost five hundred hour-long interviews and then using software to help us analyse the results.

What role do ordinary residents play in the success, or otherwise, of a place brand?

JH: A recent example is our work with Mississauga, Canada’s sixth largest city. As part of developing the narrative for the city’s brand, residents were very active participants not only in shaping the positioning but also validating it. That’s key for a municipality. One of my first place-based projects was for Washington’s ‘Destination DC’. We solicited ‘DC Insider’ tips on the city’s most authentic experiences. That content became an integral part of the advertising and marketing. It was powerful because it really reflected what residents loved best about their place, not a marketer’s best guess.

Why do you think communities tend to be sceptical of proposed place branding initiatives? 

JH: I think a healthy dose of scepticism is a good thing and to be expected in any place branding process. How can anyone from ‘away’ tell us what our place is all about? Good question! There are two parts to answering that. Place branding is not only about today’s realities but also tomorrow’s opportunities.

No one can say what a place aspires to become except the people who have a stake in its future. That’s why the engagement process is so important. It’s critical to surface their values and priorities. At the same time, it’s often hard for those who are emotionally, financially or otherwise invested in a locale to see it objectively.

As Marshall McLuhan said: “I don’t know who invented water but it wasn’t a fish.” In other words, sometimes it takes outsiders to identify assets and characteristics that are so tightly woven into a place’s identity that locals lose sight of them. So it’s important to acknowledge that very natural skepticism at the outset of a project and reinforce that we’re here to help them tell their story.

At the same time, we bring the advantages of fresh perspectives and the ability to ask basic questions: So what? Why does that matter? What if? There’s a healthy creative tension in ensuring all of those perspectives inform the works.

Apart from strong stakeholder engagement, what other factors would you say are vital for a successful place brand?

JH: Besides a core team of believers who want to do something, you need three basics to succeed:

1. A compelling story – one that local stakeholders can see themselves in – is a must.

2. Malcolm Allan of PlaceMatters developed the concept of ‘experience master planning’. We think it’s a very powerful concept. It’s a meaningful corollary to the idea of master planning spaces – what developers and planners have always done. But this is about who do we want here and what should they be able to do in this place – whether they are residents, students, visitors, businesses or their employees. We used this strategy in our work with Mississauga and it was helpful in identifying opportunities for different kinds of partnerships and initiatives.

3. The other critical piece is having some simple rules around governance. When I worked with the region of Niagara in Ontario, they created some simple but smart guidelines around who could adopt the very successful Niagara Originals brand. The goal was to encourage collaboration as well as adoption and it worked extremely well.

How do you handle conflict of opinions among stakeholders?

JH: Major conflicts usually arise when people feel it’s a zero sum game – if you win, I lose. That’s a false dichotomy. Very often we see regional players squabbling over the same bits of turf until they realize that they’re all losing out to other places that are pulling together to attract big investment, tourists, creative class workers etc. A prime example is a major manufacturing business that was considering relocating to a specific region. All the local towns put in competing bids to attract the factory. The CEO called their representatives together and soundly chastised them saying he wouldn’t dream of moving into the area unless they could figure out a way to put together a joint proposition. That’s when the gloves came off and the ‘How do we tackle this together?’ conversations began. We structure our FutureCast engagement around the idea of shared futures where everyone sees they have a stake in long-term success for just that reason.

How does Trajectory use the latest web/mobile tools for better stakeholder engagement?

JH: In addition to using the well-known social media platforms, we’ve collaborated with several engagement-specific technology partners including Neighborland.com (co-founded by community activist Candy Chang) and SoapboxHQ.com. It’s not enough to simply ask people what they like or don’t like.

Real engagement gives them the ability to post their own ideas; respond to ideas that others have generated; track the development of an initiative over time; and self-organise by finding like-minded people in their area who want to collaborate. But online and mobile tools are only part of the puzzle. Highly visible community installations where people can publicly write their views are also powerful.

Find out more about Trajectory on the company website, or follow on Twitter.

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