Building the Santa Cruz Brand
Over the last year a lot has been written about the challenges we face in our county. From public safety to transportation to economic development a lot of time has been spent on discussing our faults. As we rightfully try to improve our communities through improved public safety measures and targeted economic development we also indirectly create a new narrative – a new belief – about our Santa Cruz “brand” to our local, regional and national audience. And this brand, oft-repeated in local and even some national media, is becoming less about what makes our community great but more about our faults.
But underneath these issues lies a more positive story about our community – one of innovation in technology and agriculture, one of natural beauty and environmental stewardship, one of higher education and legislative leadership. This community has a brand to showcase that more than a sum of our problems – it is a sum of our collective innovations.
Most importantly, we all have a role (and responsibility) in the creation of our brand. As Civinomics demonstrates, community energy and involvement play key roles in solutions not just illustrating problems.
What exactly is a brand?
Patrick Barwise wrote a collection of essays for The Economist entitled Brands and Branding, and he defined three distinct things a brand can be:
1) A named product or service, such as Bargetto Wines, the Boardwalk or Seascape Resort – the branded product or service itself.
2) A trademark or symbol such as NHS (red dot) or Driscoll’s logo
3) A customer’s beliefs about a product or service
The third component, “a customer’s beliefs” is by far the most important. As Matthew Healey notes in his book on branding, a brand is a promise of satisfaction. While your audience or consumers can form their own feelings about what a brand means, they can be influenced by the work of the community, company, or individual that is trying to define its brand.
Each year in the United States alone companies invest nearly half a trillion dollars on marketing their goods and services. A good portion of this is spent on bringing new products to the market—yet most of these new products and services fail. Many of these companies feel they are investing in their “brand” despite the chance of failure. What they are really doing, however, is investing in the advertising industry.
Successful brands are more than just a symbol or product; they connect with the user. They cannot be created with advertising alone or only with catchy slogans. To be successful a brand needs to create a positive user association. This highlights how we have a responsibility to build our community brand – to better tell our story and create a positive user association – and to change a belief from one of challenge to the great elements that lead us to live here.
Have you ever wondered why cities or companies have strong brands but others do not? Or why certain products, like Apple, carry a cachet not found with their competitors?
These brands worked to create strong symbols, narratives, and emotional connections that allowed customers to experience their products on multiple levels. And for the public entities, the communities worked to tell the story about the great things associated with their home.
How do we create our own brand?
Dr. Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, developed a concept he dubbed the somatic marker hypothesis. His hypothesis, that decisions are made with both cognitive and emotional processes, can be applied to help explain how brands resonate. As author Erik du Plessis notes, more information flows from the area of emotion in the brain toward the area of rationality than the other way around. For example, when researchers interview respondents and ask, “What do you think of . . . ” their answer will invariably be “I like it, because . . .” or “I don’t like it, because . . .” The answer the respondent gives is the emotional reaction first followed by the rationalization of it.
In other words, our audience has an emotional response first and rationalizes that response. To have an impact, brands need to connect emotionally. They need to find a way to put the audience at the center and humanize the experience so it resonates. If we only allow for emotional responses to be about challenge or negativity and do not tell stories about our successes we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy about our brand. It’s important to note here that I’m not advocating for not addressing or speaking about our very real challenges – to the contrary. I just believe that we can work on solutions while still building a strong brand about innovation and emotional connection to our community that will only help.
One such example has been put forward by local tech entrepreneur Bud Colligan. Colligan recently gave a presentation to the Fort Ord Colloquium where he stressed focusing on key local assets that have strong emotional stories such as our “universities and colleges, natural beauty, great farm land, world class marine science, a large bilingual population, and an educated workforce.” These elements can the be the basis of a positive community-wide branding strategy. Most importantly, they can be a starting point to an important community conversation about how we present the the best elements of our remarkable area. Community engagement is essential – and with our history of innovation and involvement we can produce a Santa Cruz brand that other communities will envy.
Zach Friend is author of On Message: How a Compelling Narrative Will Make Your Organization Succeed