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Think Luton - attracting investment through effective place branding

With ambitions to attract more than £1.5billion of investment into the town, Luton Borough Council knew they needed to develop a powerful place brand that people would want to buy into. Strategic Communications and Marketing Manager Adam Kearney explains how the council created a story that celebrated the area’s strengths and highlighted its future potential, with fascinating results. This case study forms part of our place branding toolkit.

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Over the past few years the council has been exploring a number of different ways to encourage investment into Luton. Attracting more businesses into the area is critical for providing job opportunities for our residents and upskilling our wider workforce. It is also vital for helping us to meet our housing demand, and deliver improvement and growth across the borough.

In many respects attracting this investment should not have been too challenging. We are an area with excellent road and rail links, the fifth busiest airport in the UK, great schools and the best super-fast broadband connectivity of all UK cities. The big challenge was that the wider business community didn’t know about these benefits and the town didn’t have a reputation as an attractive place for people to come to.  A 2014 perceptions survey revealed that people didn’t see Luton as a safe place to live and work and many felt that opportunities in Luton were limited and the environment didn’t offer a positive atmosphere for residents or businesses. We knew we needed to combat these negative perceptions in order to achieve our investment ambitions. We also had to make sure that we collaborated with partners and departments across the council to create a single a story that everyone could promote. Up until this point various organisations and even council departments had tried to articulate different benefits to the town which was confusing. We needed one story, with clearer messages that resonated with residents, businesses and partners.

The solution

We started by thinking about what the Luton story actually was. In addition to desktop research on the town’s heritage and history, we held focus groups with residents to find out what words they most associated with Luton, what they thought its key strengths were and what they were proudest of. We also spoke with partners, officers and members to get their perspectives on what they wanted people to know about Luton. This helped us to ensure that we captured a wide range of views and helped to encourage support for the new place brand from the stakeholders we most needed to influence. It also helped us to make sure that any narrative we developed would be rooted in reality and would resonate with communities. Authenticity is absolutely vital for developing a place brand. People won’t buy into a story that simply isn’t true.

Civic pride, hard-working communities, great transport links, a rapidly growing airport and a strong manufacturing heritage came out as clear themes during our research phase. People told us that they felt the town was a creative place where things were made and developed by people who were passionate, hardworking and committed. These themes provided a great structure for us to then think about why those qualities would be appealing to the businesses we wanted to attract into the town. For example, a community of hardworking people would be attractive to businesses looking to recruit more employees, while an area with a strong manufacturing and aviation history might be desirable to a company looking to expand production across the UK. We worked closely with colleagues in our economic growth and regeneration teams to see how their priorities could be supported by themes that had emerged from our research and then the communications team began developing this into a narrative.

We did consider involving an external creative agency to support this but as we had invested time in the research phase and had a communications team with very strong narrative and design skills, we knew we could produce this in-house. With many of the team also living in Luton we felt this would add an extra enthusiasm and passion for getting it right.

We drafted a story which was accompanied by a number of different visuals and straplines to present to the council and partners. We wanted to give our stakeholders some choices over the final product to involve them in the process and to encourage support. We opted for a Think Luton brand to encourage businesses to consider the town when looking to establish themselves, or expand their activities. Alongside this strapline was our narrative, a number of key words to summarise the key aspects of that story (proud, vibrant, ambitious and innovative) and some eye catching visuals that we had tested across a range of different materials to make sure they could be easily used by ourselves and partners in a number of different scenarios.

We launched the brand at the same time as the Luton Investment Framework – the council’s 20 year transformation strategy for the borough. We did this deliberately to show that the brand was devised to encourage real investment, not about encouraging tourism or celebrating ourselves for no strategic reason. We wanted to show that we were serious about promoting the benefits of the town to the business community and highlight that Luton had something powerful to offer investors.

We held a launch event in London, producing high quality materials to entice people to the event and briefing the media on what the vision for the town was all about. We also supported the launch across all of our other communication channels including running promoted posts through social media and stories through our internal channels.

The impact

In the 12 months since the brand and framework launched we’ve seen continued investment in Luton’s Cultural Quarter, Metro Bank has arrived in the town employing 25 local residents and work has started on regenerating the former Vauxhall car plant and Marsh Farm areas. Major developers have also submitted plans for mixed-used development schemes across the town and a new transport link connecting Luton Airport Parkway station to the airport terminal. This wouldn’t have been possible without external investment and we wouldn’t have secured that without creating a narrative, combined with high-quality and eye catching marketing materials, that made businesses think differently about the area. Done properly, place branding can deliver real results to communities and can make an enormous difference to the fortunes of an area.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

Authenticity and collaboration have been key to the success of the brand. We have 9 partners signed up to the framework and the narrative which means we’re widening the reach of our message and presenting one singular story to a huge range of investors and audiences. It is also a story that is rooted in reality. We involved communities in crafting the story, which in turn has helped strengthen civic pride and enthusiasm for supporting the town. The successes we’ve already achieved have also helped us to evolve our brand. We have been able to use the examples of the businesses that have already invested as a way of encouraging more people to take advantage of the opportunities that Luton can bring. Existing, tangible successes are great ways of encouraging more interest in your area and proving that there’s evidence behind the story you’re selling.

Lessons learned

Although staff were involved throughout the process there was more work we could have done to engage our own employees in developing and promoting the story. As many of our people live in the borough we could have used them more effectively as advocates from the beginning. This is something we’re addressing now by keeping staff regularly informed of the latest developments and successes that the brand and investment framework has achieved.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Adam Kearney, Strategic Communications and Marketing Manager at Luton Borough Council.