During the last decade, think tanks such as the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) began articulating the economic development need and value of investing in “place.” According to RUPRI, the principles for place policy need to be “clear, measurable and carefully evaluated goals [that] should guide investment and regulation.” The process encourages regional and community development by building partnerships in a flexible and collaborative environment to address complex problems in an integrated manner. We had seen the decade of small-business growth, entrepreneurship and innovation as a means to expand regional economies. We were now encouraged to make a strategic investment in “place.”
Whether it’s private business development or private philanthropic foundations seeking to make a change to the local economy or add to the educational and cultural experience or public funds through federal, state and local governments, investing in “place” seemed to have the greatest possibility of sustainability and return on investment.
As more communities begin to develop regional place-based systems and policies, it is critically important that regions have identity. What is a region? What are the assets? What is the culture? How are we unique? All are questions that must be asked if a competitive advantage can be gained by the region. Simply modifying the process and investing in place absent a brand will not work. Therefore, “place branding” is a requirement and appropriate continuation of place investment.
Branding of a region brings together the assets that make the place special and it empowers a region or place to build on all its strengths. This effort creates a new restraint that focuses on the vision and the assets of a region. It deters a return to the prior silos, turf and singular asset development of the old economic development efforts.
Branding brings new leadership and a more creative approach to both internal and external understanding of the place. Branding enables a place to build on all its strengths and make sense out of the often confused and contradictory current and future identity.
The brand of a region must not be telling quality of place, which is merely publicity or commercial, but rather, the brand must communicate the actions and growth of the region’s special strengths and assets. Like any business, the region must compete in a global context if it is to grow by attracting investment, events and talent. A region cannot allow itself to be branded by the marketplace. The region must be proactive and ensure that its reputation is built on the qualities it holds that are positive, unique, attractive and sustainable. It is very easy for a region to become famous for the wrong reasons; it is a more challenging effort to brand globally and locally. From a local perspective, the brand must be understood in both the Bangor region and in Oslo, Norway, for instance.
Not only does a brand need to come from the region’s vision and assets, the brand must also drive the competitiveness of the vision and assets. It needs to be understood and supported and must drive its audience to action. It must be seen as something that enriches the region’s people and place.
A brand requires investment and collaboration. Once brand is developed, it must be implemented by all of the institutions and organizations within the region. It must be consistently and constantly reinforced and never confused in the marketplace by differing messages from groups that may not choose to use the brand.
In the early 21st century, geopolitical and economic regions in Maine have been actively working toward strategies that “invest in place.” The next logical step is developing and implementing the branding effort. To do so requires transparency, clear communication, collaboration and participation by many stakeholders because these are the steps that will determine if the investment in place will perform successfully now and in the future.
Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.