The Branding of Place

I’ve been back from vacation two weeks and still have a bit of the afterglow.  We vacation in Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  It is the quintessential New England seaside town with a pretty main street, three white-steepled churches and an old-fashioned bandstand, where the town band plays every Friday night during the summer.  It has nice beaches, a Cap Cod Baseball League team, a variety of restaurants (and ice cream stores) and other activities.

We have gone to Chatham every year for the past 12 years because we love it and we know what to expect.  And to me that is the essence of a brand: Creating an expectation.  Yes, there are downsides, such as heavy traffic, but we expect that and plan our trips to avoid the congested areas (this was learned from experience).  The good expectations far outweigh any inconveniences.

Many places that are branded in our minds are not the result of a big, concerted effort to influence our expectations.  Yes, I imagine the Chatham Chamber of Commerce advertises the town and encourages its members to treat visitors well, but this is just good business sense.  And the locals are nice to the “summer folks” because they understand the economic benefit to the community.

But there are times when the branding of place is a concerted effort, such as Disney World in Florida.  One of my managers worked there during the summer when she was in college.  Two things she remembered from the training: Always smile and people don’t want to hear your problems.  Employees who were caught not smiling a few times could be fired.  She also learned that people don’t want to hear your problems because they’re coming to Disney World to forget the real world and its problems.

I took a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney World and the guide pointed out that you can’t see a road when you are in the Magic Kingdom. She said that one afternoon Walt Disney stopped a father who was dragging his crying child out of Disney Land in California.  He asked if there was a problem and the father said no, but that he was leaving earlier than expected because of the traffic he could see on the highway.  Walt learned the lesson in building the Florida park.

The street level of the Magic Kingdom in Disney World is actually the second or third floor.  There is a little city beneath what you see.  If you have been to Disney World, you know you have never see garbage being collected or food being delivered.  The characters seem to materialize out of nowhere.  Everything comes from the city below. My son threw up (on me) and in less than two minutes a cleanup team descended on the mess.  We can’t have vomit in fantasy land!  The entire park is planned to be as close to perfection as possible.

The concept of “unconscious” and planned brands applies to companies, as well.  Sometimes companies “back into” the brand by doing a great job. This sets customers’ expectations of how they will be treated and keeps reinforcing the brand by consistently delivering on those expectations.   Over time the company realizes “this is our brand”.  Other companies, such as Disney World, start with a clear vision of the expectations they want the customer to have and then build everything around those expectations.  Neither approach is better than the other, but it is important to understand the positive expectations that have been created in the customer’s mind and continue to reinforce those perceptions.

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