Local towns join ‘branding’ bandwagon
Bartender Matt Head pours beer for a customer at Firkin in downtown Libertyville. MainStreet Libertyville recently unveiled a new branding slogan as part of its efforts to attract visitors. | Josh Peckler ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 28, 2013 10:58AM
A pair of Lake County towns are following an emerging trend and “branding” themselves as part of their economic recovery strategies.
Experts say creating a brand that markets a product’s — or now, a town’s — positive features is a timeless business philosophy that only recently became a public sector tool. Mundelein and Lake Bluff are the newest Lake County suburbs trying this approach to attract new residents and businesses.
Mundelein committed to a 40-acre downtown redevelopment and is currently focusing on the first 10-acre subdivision, which will be anchored by a new, $10 million village hall. In addition, the village is currently seeking bids from firms that specialize in branding so Mundelein can more effectively market its available downtown land.
Similarly, Lake Bluff is seeing stalled residential developments come back to life and a renewed interest in the business sector. A branding project is already underway with hopes of putting Lake Bluff’s positive qualities font-and-center. Village staff will review research data and potential projects during a staff meeting later this week.
Lake Bluff is now working with North Star Destination Strategies, based in Nashville, Tenn., which has worked with roughly 200 other government agencies across the country in the past 12 years.
North Star’s CEO Don McEachern said, before 2000, his company worked primarily with tourism bureaus. But since then, governments began branding their communities in response to a competitive economic atmosphere that required originality.
“Governments were realizing more and more just how valuable their reputations were and realizing they needed to be even more competitive,” McEachern said.
As part of Lake Bluff’s initiative, North Star conducted weeks of internal research to learn what perceptions residents and local businesses have about the community. Afterward, the group then complied research on what villages and businesses throughout the Chicago-area think of Lake Bluff.
Once that information is made available, McEachern said the village will decide what features make them stand out from neighbors, and then develop strategies for marketing and redesigning government documents, banners and decals.
Lake Bluff Village Manager Drew Irvin said community branding could only be successful if the message is true.
“I think people have a general perception of Lake Bluff,” Irvin said. “I see it as a charming, quaint, fun little community on the shores of Lake Michigan. I feel like other peoples’ perceptions are variations of mine. We will find out this week.”
For Mundelein, the Metra station and train tracks are among the town’s distinguishing characteristics, Assistant Village Manager Mike Flynn said. For decades, Mundelein was an industrial town that depended on rail services; Now leaders say they their current plans to revitalize downtown also center on Metra tracks, in an effort to target modern commuters.
So far, Lake Bluff has spent $65,000 on North Star’s research, with more spending to come when marketing begins.
“The interesting thing about community branding is how it continues to be popular despite the economy,” McEachern said. “When the recession hit in 2008, we thought business would drop off but it did not. What we hear most frequently is ‘We want to be ready for when the economy turns around.’”
The Village of Libertyville did a branding project a few years ago and trademarked the slogan “Spirit of independence.”
Now MainStreet Libertyville, a nonprofit group with no connection to the village, is unveiling results of its own branding initiative. Executive Director Pam Hume said shopping malls were taking business from downtown.
Libertyville resident Kelley Collins does branding projects for private corporations and said she was surprised to learn about the village’s previous branding efforts, as well as the emergence of Mundelein and Lake Bluff’s initiatives.
“With government it’s much different because we typically walk into a corporation and say ‘You need to remodel your marketing plan,’” Collins said. “With government, I’m sure they’re saying ‘What marking plan?’ Starting an identity from scratch must be a challenge.”
MainStreet Libertyville conducts more than 50 public events per year. Collins decided the organization should brand itself with “Experience downtown” because the majority of businesses are service-oriented.
“It’s a place where you can spend an entire day and get to know the business owners while you’re at it,” Collins said.
Now that banners, documents, brochures, event training and answering machines are being revised, Collins said the difficult task of measuring results begins.
“These things take time and change is usually slow going,” Collins said. “What to watch for is an increase in membership, increase in revenue, attendance rates at events, monitor their ‘likes’ on Facebook and when they start an interactive blog they can measure responses.”
Measuring results on the public side is even more tricky. McEachern said he knows branding has worked when the theme is incorporated into school curriculum, the naming of newly developed neighborhoods and how public policy gets approved.
“It has to be second nature,” McEachern said. “More people pay attention and form opinions when you’re not aware.”