Place marketing: Telling the story of your place in a way that works for everyone

For your location to be successful in terms of positioning, promotion and development you have to make your place the hero. John Till, Director, thinkingplace, explains.


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Key points

  • Most places are missing that over-arching view about what the place is going to be for, why it is special, how it stands out – in other words what is its narrative.
  • The stakeholders in a place are its best sales force and they can tell and sell the place story in a compelling, authentic and meaningful way but they have to want to do that.
  • Do things differently without spending more by aligning all local projects and initiatives with your narrative.

Where are we now?

In our 12 years working with councils, businesses, education, community and other stakeholders around the UK for most places, we can characterise the current approach to place marketing as:

  • A local authority not place-led vision
  • The creation of a logo and strapline
  • An internal communications focus
  • Activity initiated and delivered by the local authority
  • Nervousness in the local authority about media criticism
  • Cynicism amongst stakeholders who have seen it all before
  • No over-arching place message or narrative
  • Marketing viewed as collateral, website etc. not how stakeholders can help
  • An organisation not place-led approach
  • Public sector austerity, Brexit and business rates starting to get local authorities thinking differently

What needs to change?

In recent years we have experienced a tremendous change in government policy, economic development and public sector service delivery to being place led. Whether the Industrial Strategy, Garden Towns and Villages or the Health Service, place is paramount and rightly so.

Everyone has resonance with place, it is where we come together to work and play, for leisure and learning and most of all it’s where we call home. People, families, businesses and institutions grow in places and usually grow because of their interaction in that city or town. For your location to be successful in terms of positioning, promotion and development you have to make your place the hero.

Every place has myriad projects, initiatives, developments, all well-meaning, all bringing about change but they are pinpricks of activity and communication; what’s the place they’re contributing towards, what’s the ‘big picture’? This is what most places are missing; that over-arching view about what the place is going to be for, why it is special, how it stands out, in other words what is it’s narrative.

In times gone by the council would produce a vision for the place and present it to the wider world only for it to be largely ignored. Austerity means things have to be done differently, and to be honest they always should have been.

Whilst the local council has a vital place leadership role, it isn’t the place and can’t control everything that happens within it or its image and reputation. Businesses, community, education, culture, media etc. all need to ‘own’ the future direction of their place and they must feel that any strategic place narrative is something they have created and believe in; they need ‘skin in the game’.

Whilst stakeholder engagement is critical in creating a place narrative, it is also fundamental to developing a sustainable approach to place marketing. The secret to success is pulling together ‘a coalition of the willing’ stakeholders who through their networks and contacts can tell and sell the place story.

Whilst this requires the local authority to ‘let go’, the very fact that is happening is empowering stakeholders and positively connecting them to their place whilst giving them the opportunity to help it deliver what the narrative has described.

There are various proven mechanisms that can flow from the creation of a place narrative; a Place Board who are guardians of the place story and new marketing approach, and an Ambassadors’ programme which keeps organisations up to date with place initiatives and can generate income for further destination development activity.

Creating a narrative and establishing a Place Board and Ambassadors programme gets your location ‘on the field to play the game but the next important step is to score a goal!’; so, this is only the start of the journey.

To 'market' a place effectively it doesn’t mean advertising or producing lots of collateral. Experience shows that the marketing that has the greatest benefit for a place in helping it grow is actually relationship management and development.

The stakeholders in a place are its best sales force and they can tell and sell the place story in a compelling, authentic and meaningful way but they have to want to do that. Hence taking them on the journey of creating the narrative and them feeling they own it, is vital for them then to relay it. They have the networks, contacts and credibility to really get that message across in a way that would be challenging for a council to do.

Finally, there needs to be a change in the way a place communicates and develops; it has to do things differently. There are no magic pots of money to create marketing programmes, events etc. but that doesn’t mean you can’t instigate change.

In every place there will be projects and initiatives of both a short and longer-term nature being brought forward by the public and private sector. If these are thought about differently and bent or tweaked to support the new narrative led approach they can create quick wins and other activity that you can manage via a Place Plan. The great thing about this is it requires no new money and is simply about being smarter about the activity in a place which is something everyone can support.

What success will look like

There is likely to be a change in the dynamic of place leadership and place promotion as the connection between the population and a traditional political model continues to be strained. Wider engagement of businesses and other organisations in the promotion and development of place meets a need and fills a gap created by austerity. Local councils will continue to be the catalyst for this change but be an enabler and adopt a role of ‘driving from the back seat’.

When initiating this approach, it has to be positioned as added value and additionality not a threat to the democratic process and the vital service delivery role that councils have. Empowering others and ‘letting go’ is not a sign of weakness but strength as energising place marketing in this way helps the place prosper for the benefit of all; and that is something everyone can sign up to.

Further reading/viewing