How to Create a Rural Tourism Brand for Your Small Town

by Joanne Steele on May 22, 2012

Branding is perhaps the least understood marketing tool there is. I’ve talked about how NOT to create a brand in this past post: Your Small Town Slogan is Not an Effective Brand.

So, if a brand isn’t a slogan you can create by committee and stick up on a post at the entrance of your town, what is it?

Let’s look at how to brand your town, using Devon, AB Canada,  as an example.Bike Town Alberta Canada logo

The little town of Devon AB, Canada, pop. 6000 went through a 5 year process that is instructive for any small town.

I refer to the presentation on Devon’s branding journey given by Michelle Levasseur at Canada’s Growning Rural Tourism Conference often in this post.

If your going through a branding process, or considering it, read it.. every word of it before you start.

You can save yourself many years of heartache and headache if you start at her Tip #2 – “Branding by consensus really does not work.”

Give up the idea of finding your brand by bringing groups of locals together to create it.

Community meetings tend to attract people who have a pet asset they’ll demand get top billing in your brand, so you end up with things like “The River of Gold, or The Botanical Garden City or something to do with rivers and oil – an attempt to appease all,” as Michelle reports.

Brands like these will always fail. They will divide your town, put your town council in a difficult position for a politican, and not work anyway, because they’re not experiential or unique. These two qualities are a must according to expert, Roger Brooks of Destination Development International.

Where does a small town look to discover its brand.

Michelle covers this in her tip #4: “Be BRUTALLY honest, know what other people are saying about you, remember it’s not what you or any other resident thinks you are, it is what ‘outsiders’ who don’t really know you think of you.”

This is the meat and potatoes of Michelle’s presentation:

It is All About Your Customer! Branding is a process of discovering your town’s Perfect Customer. If you’ve read at all, you’ll know I talk endlessly about your Perfect Customer, the one who pays your bills who you wish you had 100 or 1000 more just like!

Towns have Perfect Customers too. And branding is a process of speaking to that Perfect Customer in a way he or she will immediately recognize!

Getting to Bike Town AB  for Devon was grueling for Michelle and her team and getting to your brand might be for you too.

It is a process of identifying that Perfect Customer that you’re town depends on right now. Not some customer you wish you had. Brands are not pie in the sky, they’re reality.

What is the reality of your town’s Rural Tourism Perfect Customer?

Who comes right now? Who loves you just the way you are, right now? What is the reason they are coming? That is your brand.

Then get ready for your towns Cavers.

I love this description of the naysayers that every small town has. Scroll to slide 25 and cry. This is what you’ll deal with as you present your town’s brand.

But what makes it possible for Michelle and for you to withstand the inevitable battle with the Cavers? The fact that your brand fits your town, and everyone but the cavers knows this.

So, Devon is branded. It is Bike Town AB. And Michelle states why in slides 27 and 28: “…we got it. Our Town was branded Bike Town before we even said we are Bike Town. It was the cyclists who branded us bike town and we were too narrow minded to see what was happening right before our very eyes.”

As you prepare to present your new brand to the public, pay attention to Tip #5 and #6. Roger Brooks speaks to this too when he says, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for support.” A brand is something you uncover, it is not something you create. Once you discover it, most residents will immediately see and be ready to take it to the next level. Except, of course, for the Cavers who you will need to constantly watch for, without allowing yourself to get sidetracked.

As you read further in Michelle’s presentation, notice what happens. Branding isn’t about fixing something and forgetting it – a sign at the town’s entrance. It starts a process.

In Devon, the high school students get involved. Big dreams start to become reality. Their identified market recognizes themselves in Devon’s brand, and their rural tourism efforts start to pay off. So will yours.

Thanks to Michelle Levasseur and the residents of the little town of Devon for hanging in there and providing us such a great branding example to follow.

Here are two previous posts that talk about the branding process:

Regional Flavor Strategies For Rural Area Tourism Development

5 Principles to Lay the Groundwork for your Small Town’s Rural Regional Flavor Strategy.



1 frances May 30, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Hi Joanne –
Dog tourism sure could be a niche as we certainly draw people from around the country & world to visit the big dog. We’re in our 10th season & our community, although now somewhat proud of the notoriety, has not embraced our endeavor in any large capacity.
Instead we have been heavily involved in shaping Idaho’s statewide tourism marketing activities through service on the Idaho Travel Council and find better acceptance of the uniqueness of our product on the statewide & broader regional scale than locally.
Thanks for being in touch. I’ve shared your newsletter with others in the industry – good info & inspiration. Thank you.

2 Joanne Steele June 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Thanks Frances. I’m speaking this week at the California MicroEnterprise Opportunity Assn. about exactly the small town issue you have with Cottonwood. The problem starts with not understanding the value of niche marketing and how, with effective internet marketing, a niche as small as yours can help a small town prosper! Just think of it – Cottonwood, home of doghouse tourism! And it wouldn’t take much besides a total town dog friendliness policy and you’re on the map.

3 frances May 26, 2012 at 9:12 am

Thanks for this insightful article. Will share w/my area’s rural communities.

4 Joanne Steele May 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

Hello Frances, I took a look at your website and am intrigued. Is dog tourism a possible niche for your little town???

Previous post:

Next post: