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Place Branding Your Downtown

An economic development organization that sets out to develop a place branding strategy for its downtown or mainstreet has a unique challenge on its hands. It’s a high-wire balancing act with numerous weights dangling from each end of the beam.

At one end, you have all the downtown stakeholders whose input is essential to a successful place branding program. The economic development organization leading the revitalizing project must understand the perceptions, attitudes and beliefs of the merchants, homeowners and many other downtown inhabitants and visitors to determine the brand strategy and design a representative logo and identity package.

But mainstreet is not the sole responsibility of the EDO. The other end of the balancing beam represents other parts of the whole community. This is sometimes overlooked. You have probably seen mainstreet branding projects designed to present the central district of a community as the place to shop, dine, work, play, live or invest!

But wait. Is a place brand like that potentially harmful to merchants elsewhere in the community? They pay taxes too – will they applaud a brand that promotes only their downtown competitors and positions mainstreet as encompassing essentially all of the community’s attractions?

The last thing an EDO needs is to create or promote a place brand that is perceived to divide the community. Remember the need for balance – your downtown or mainstreet should have a brand that gives it a special attraction but also keeps it positioned as part of a broader community that is competing with the rest of the world to attract people and businesses.

One community that understands this need is Brampton, Ontario. This suburban city of 524,000 just northwest of Toronto has established a brand as “The Flower City.” It created a five-year economic development plan in 2011 based on enhancing its creative economy through four key cultural industries known collectively as HACE – heritage, arts, culture and entertainment.

Now the time has come to reinvigorate the city’s downtown core. Brampton is proceeding carefully, in a balanced way, as can be seen in its downtown plan for 2011-16, summarized in a presentation document from February 2012 ( It states: “The HACE Plan is a downtown economic development initiative designed to capitalize on the connections between place, cultural industries, cultural resources and the local-regional creative economy.”

The key word here is “connections.” Brampton’s mainstreet plan aims to give the downtown area a distinctive role as the city’s creative center, while keeping it connected to the city’s identity and economy as a whole.

As the Brampton plan demonstrates, a vibrant downtown can create a unique destination that serves as an economic advantage for the entire community, even as a unifying symbol. Its role as a place for making connections can be an important strategic element of regional economic development.

Connectivity has become vital in this mobile information age, especially for attracting young people in the creative class. As pointed out by Nathan Morris, writing in PlaceShakers and NewsMakers: “Generation Y wants to be more connected and less isolated than previous generations. They manifest this desire in their full-on embrace of social media and their desire to live in places where they can be around others; i.e., the densest, most active, areas of cities.”

Downtown or Mainstreet – It’s about the Experience and Atmosphere

How can you develop a mainstreet place brand that makes your downtown a connecting destination while maintaining its place in a unified economic community?

Start with an integrated approach that combines the brand itself – created through a comprehensive, closely monitored process of community consultation – with people’s experience in your community and its atmosphere.

Research conducted by personal interviews and monitoring of social media will be invaluable. It will reveal whether your brand, or proposed brand, aligns with the experience that shoppers, tourists and visiting business people have when visiting your downtown area. Compare those responses with their perceptions of the community as a whole.

How does your mainstreet stand out? What is the atmosphere that people feel when walking downtown? Why do your townspeople feel an affection for the place, and can that feeling be shared by visitors? Analyzing answers to such questions will help you understand the connections that make your community strong and inspire a unique differentiation for your mainstreet.

Downtown or Mainstreet Infrastructure and Beautification

When it comes to making physical improvements to mainstreet, it’s helpful to keep two themes in mind:

One is connecting with people. How will your mainstreet’s new appearance relate to the people and businesses you want to attract and retain? Your downtown needs to be appealing not merely to people in cars driving by, but to those who are attached to your community as their home.

What would they like to see in their surroundings while having lunch on mainstreet? A fountain? A mural? A graffiti wall? An exotic garden? A park where pets can run? Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, not to an EDO – it’s in the eye of the entrepreneur and business creator.

The second theme is sustainability. Don’t put a seed in the ground until you know who is going to keep the weeds out and plant the flowers next year, and how that will be paid for. Everyone has had the experience of driving or walking through downtown streets past empty flowerbeds infested with weeds and treated as trash bins. Every ugly patch like that is a testament to poor planning.

Whether developing the atmosphere or working on beautification – always seek out and maintain the committed involvement of stakeholders both on mainstreet and elsewhere, while looking to your community’s assets and people for guiding ideas that will help fulfill the promise of your brand. Keep the balancing beam in your hands.


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