Best, most, first? Why place branding should look beyond being number one
There’s an obsession with being number one. It started with biggest, tallest and newest and has spread into coolest and best connected. But audiences aren’t as easily convinced. So how do we connect beyond the headline?
“The heart of the city’s most refined neighbourhood.” “London’s most sustainable building.” “The greatest of them all.” “The smartest building in Chicago.” “The first post-Covid workplace.”
Whether the best, the most or the first, they all have one thing in common. You immediately think, “So what?”
It’s not that such statements can’t be impressive – being genuinely pioneering is noteworthy if it’s true – it’s just that there’s a difference between a press headline and a customer proposition.
For a start, these lines are so rarely ownable. When many can claim something, it ceases to be a differentiator. In fact, in some cases, conjecture is so ubiquitous it has actually begun to rouse suspicion rather than remove it. Deep down we know that “the best fried chicken in town” never is.
And there are brands who have turned being second best into a virtue. Car hire company Avis shrewdly positioned themselves as harder-working and more service-driven with lines like “We try harder” and “Our queues are shorter”. They showed the benefits of being not-most-popular to customers.
A decade later, Carlsberg managed to project acclaim without having to substantiate a thing, when they became “Probably the best beer in the world”. They have owned this common word across an entire industry for 38 years. Regardless of your taste in beer, that is an impressive feat.
But these are once-in-a-generation pivots that took advantage of the nuances of their specific products, audiences and market contexts. What of the many buildings, neighbourhoods and institutions vying for space in the place branding market right now?
Show the benefits of wood from the trees
One place that will no doubt soon have a place brand is Stockholm Wood City. When complete, it will be the largest wooden city in the world – a towering timber metropolis covering 250,000 square metres with homes, offices, restaurants and the rest.
But people are looking to understand the distinct benefits a place will bring to their lives, not just records that can be broken.
So anyone branding Stockholm Wood City should be asking: what do audiences want and need? What actual benefits are we selling?
This new place is made of wood, so it’s likely to be an ethical choice to work or live in. Result: you feel good.
Wood is all the rage in popular scandi design and it’s naturally, undeniably beautiful. Result: it looks good, and even smells good.
Wood absorbs and sequesters carbon. Result: it measurably does good in a way you can quantify for next year’s annual report.
This place will be good for your conscience, your style, your business. It has value for all three as well as for your mood, your dreams, your family, your health, your prospects, your sense of adventure. This will be the largest wooden city in history, but the story here is so much richer than that.
Harwell Campus: when you’ve too many firsts
When we rebranded Harwell Campus, we were spoiled by an endless list of bests, mosts and firsts. This was the home of the nation’s largest synchrotron, the epicentre of the UK’s Covid response and where the lithium battery revolution began. All vital elements of the story we had to reveal.
But alone, they were not enough to deliver a brand narrative that would launch Harwell into a new era and keep it at the forefront of global science and innovation. Plenty of breakthroughs happen in other campuses all over the world and many can claim bests, mosts and firsts of their own. To stay out in front we had to express Harwell’s innate, irreplicable special culture.
To achieve this, we talked to a lot of its people and distilled a powerful new purpose for Harwell — ‘science is the power to unlock universal progress’. We also positioned it as a ‘world capital for science’ to indicate the role it plays on a global stage and speak to its calibre. Harwellians rallied behind it (no mean feat with 6,000 stakeholders) and it now provides a bigger, more inclusive story that propels this community externally. Unlike how science marches forwards with new firsts and records, this foundational purpose will never go out of fashion or be overshadowed.
Don’t forget the customer
When it comes to telling the story of a place, leave firsts, mosts and biggests to the journalists and focus on the people the place is for. A successful place brand should explain not how it’s best, but how it’s best suited to people’s needs and the unshakeable beliefs driving its ambition.
And that takes more than a boast.