Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Branding Rutland – a lesson in branding a small town

Branding is an art – it tries to capture the heart and soul of a product, service or organization, making it highly recognizable if not unforgettable. Brand loyalty is the key to successful companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and General Motors (to name just a few).

Countries and cities are entities trying to brand themselves: “I love NY” and “What goes on in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas” are two slogans that made the cities they are connected to memorable.

Smaller cities and towns have a harder time to make an impact. That makes Rutland, in the US state Vermont, such an interesting branding case.

Rutland’s city officials, regional development officials and the local business community want to put the city (and region) on the tourism map. They are looking for a slogan that sums up the finest qualities of the city, its economic potential and the tourist attractions. It wants to emphasize that it is within easy driving distance (e.g., from the Tri-State area). However, the slogan must be short enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

Not so successful past attempts included:

  • The Crossroads” (which sounds like a rehab center to me)
  • "The heart of the "Marble Valley" (which doesn’t make sense if one doesn’t know where Marble Valley is located)
  • "City for Weddings" (isn’t that Las Vegas?)
  • "Rut Vegas" (which doesn’t have a nice ring to it)

It’s tough to brand a city or town. When it comes to branding, being small and relatively unknown doesn’t help. Lack of substantial marketing and advertising budgets is another restraint.

To brand properly, we must first look at Rutland’s strong points:

  • Downtown shopping, dining and theatrical opportunities
  • Pastoral settings of the rural communities just beyond Rutland's borders
  • Lakes, trails, rivers, ponds, ski slopes and other recreational fun within easy driving distance from the big cities
  • Part of the highly popular Vermont

The branding guru taking on the Rutland branding challenge is Peggy Bendel, senior vice president of Development Counselors International, who worked on the massive "I love New York" ad campaign, pointed out that branding a small city like Rutland takes a different approach. She recommends that Rutland adopts a catchy slogan and logo that sums up Rutland's best qualities and is easy to remember. The idea is for the city is to change the way visitors – and residents – perceive the community.

She makes an interesting point by stating that small town branding only works if everyone from the Chamber of Commerce and municipal officials down to small business owners and the average Rutland citizen can identify themselves with the slogan and logo.

Branding comes with a hefty price tag - consulting fees, marketing expenses and advertising are roughly $100,000. Rutland can apply for a state grant to be reimbursed for the consulting costs. Needless to say, research into attitudes, impressions and associations with the community are essential for branding success.

Rutland organized a preliminary meeting between a consultant company and about 20 regional and city commerce and development officials, city officials, representatives from recreational nonprofit groups, business leaders and residents. No suggestions for a new slogan or logo were brought up, but the qualities of the community were discussed extensively along with some of the challenges it faces including concerns about overcoming what some perceived as the main public perception problem: the name of the city and county, Rutland, is perceived as unflattering. However, on the upside – it’s easy to remember and spell, which is in our current Internet/Google age a must!

Two regions to the north and south of Rutland have successfully launched rebranding campaigns.

Burlington reintroduced their 1980s slogan "The West Coast of New England." It resulted in a high volume of downloads of the rebranding toolkit, complete with logo, slogan and other materials, coupled with T-shirt and sweatshirt sales bearing the rebranded imagery. The positive feedback from the public is also a sign that the rebranding is successful. The Chamber of Commerce stated that it only paid $30,000 for the consulting fee and left the advertising left to grassroots efforts.

The Green Mountain Regional Program (in the south of Bennington County) successfully concluded it grassroots efforts by introducing its "The Shires of Vermont” brand. According to the group's regional marketing coordinator, the slogan comes from Bennington County's unique designation as the only county with two shires that served as judicial districts in colonial times.

It will be interesting to see how the rebranding of Rutland will unfold.Until then, I would like to finish with a great quote from Bill Baker:“A brand is a promise - whatever you project, you must deliver on it and you can't have variations with everyone doing their own thing. The message has to be the same."

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