Branding Your Small Town Part 3 – Building Consensus

by Joanne Steele on October 1, 2009


Alarm Clock
Creative Commons License photo credit: bella731 , Leavenworth, Washington

When it comes to small town tourism marketing, branding is perhaps the least understood and most important consideration a town faces.

Most rural communities competing for visitor attention and dollars didn’t start out as tourism destinations. They are moving toward tourism in desperation as their resource-based economies have diminished. Townspeople gather and start listing all the great things visitors can do in and around their town. They advertise their great outdoor recreation and wait for the influx of visitors. Many towns are still waiting.

What makes the difference between a successful rural tourism destination and a “town in waiting”? Successful branding.

Ninety-six percent of all US counties market themselves as outdoor recreation destinations! So it takes more than having fishing, hiking, hunting etc. to make a successful outdoor recreation destination. You have to be THE BEST to attract visitors from any distance. Why come to your town if there is adequate outdoor recreation closer to home?

In my first post on branding, Creating Small Town Tourism Success,  I talked about Ashland, Oregon and it’s primary vision of itself as a theater town. They also have outdoor recreation.

I suggested that your first step was to look at what your town or region does best. What makes you different? If you can substantiate that your town is the best at something, like Ashland, OR, you have your primary vision.

In my travels this summer I visited Winthrop Washington. They rebuilt their town around the primary vision as an old west town, using a wad of cash provided by a philanthropist. Leavenworth, Washington is another example of a town rebuilding itself around an agreed upon vision. Both these places have great outdoor recreation close by.

Forget “historic”, forget “outdoor recreation”, forget anything that doesn’t set your town off as unique, different.

In Part 2 – Creating Authentic Experiences to Brand Your Small Town I started the discussion about creating consensus around a primary vision. To turn a primary vision into a brand, there must be broad support and understanding of the importance of narrowingly focusing on one thing your town can become known for.

All the other things that visitors can also do closer to home are DIVERSIONS. They help to KEEP people longer once they are there, but they can’t entice them to travel to your town.

So how does a town build that essential consensus?

1. Take it slowly. As you build consensus around a single idea, each option presented needs to be examined for uniqueness, a realistic view of further development around that vision, the size and location of the market, and its positive impact for locals.

2. Work through the Chamber of Commerce and economic development entities. Developing and marketing a brand takes money and marketing. Work with the experts in these two activities.

3. Say “yes” rather than “no” to all ideas. Building a Diversions List gives everyone’s ideas a prominent place in your ultimate marketing plan.

4. Realize that the real work begins once your primary vision has been identified and agreed upon. Now you will begin to turn that vision into a brand.

Once Leavenworth residents decided to become a Bavarian village, the buildings fronts had to be rebuilt and city codes had to be rewritten.

Northern New Hampshire has agreed to build a brand around having three of the rare Grand Hotels in their county. Now they need to reach consensus on using the newly created logo, and begin to spruce up their small towns to provide additional “Grand” visitor options.

1 Paula Christen October 2, 2009 at 7:59 am

Good suggestions. I especially like the one “Say yes…” One thing I might add is to look at your ideas from a visitors point of view. Are there enough public bathrooms, signage, street lights and especially parking in your plan?

If possible design off street parking with public transportation into the town’s plan. Having less cars and RVs on the main avenues makes it a superior pedestrian experience. You do want them to get out of their cars and spend time discovering your town’s shops and restaurants.
If your downtown street looks packed, drivers will often opt to just pass through, rather than circle around looking for an open space.

2 Joanne Steele October 2, 2009 at 10:07 am

You are absolutely right about parking. Another parking tip I saw in successful small tourism towns is to have a minimum of two hour parking – even more is better. We want people to forget about their cars without worrying about a parking ticket!

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