Branding Downtown Districts

As regular readers of this blog know, the NDDC owes much to ideas explored and experiments pursued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program. From Marketing to Streetscape, the NDDC has both considered and implemented some of the recommendations coming from their headquarters in Washington, D. C.

The latest National Trust idea that we’ve been kicking around the past few month’s is branding. Many of you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept. It’s a marketing tool that helps to package a district’s attributes and values in a way that strengthens its identity.

The discussion started in earnest when John Potter, executive director of The Phipps Center for the Arts, presented at the NDDC’s August Forum. NDDC President Dan Bergeson focused on John’s comment that The Phipps markets to a fifty-mile radius. Then in November, the NDDC held its third in a series of Retail Workshops conducted by the University of Minnesota Extension Service. As we raised possible ideas to boost retail sales, NDDC Board Member Linda Schneewind suggested that we launch a campaign that focused on households with specific characteristics.

We met with a graphic designer, researched the costs of printing and mailing lists, developed a schedule and then asked ourselves, “What do we want to say about downtown Northfield?” Fortunately, the September edition of the National Trust’s Main Street News had an article abut branding.

Certainly, we have beliefs about what we wish to say about our downtown’s attributes as well as about our community’s values. However, if we’re going to pursue the packaging of a consistent message to present to the world, part of the branding comes from the individual experiences of our downtown district. Making sure that our streets are safe and clean or our staffs are prompt and friendly can be as important as freshly painted woodwork, well-tended flowers and colorful banners.

Some of downtown’s attributes are fairly obvious, like our historic buildings and scenic Riverwalk. Then there are attributes that may be recognized by the few that we would like to present to the many, like our vibrant art and design sector or our considerable offering of cafes, coffeehouses and restaurants. Finally, there are some perceived attributes that perhaps more reflect our values than the reality, like pedestrian safe and bicycle friendly.

The Main Street program has distilled their methods into what they call the 4 “P”s. Anyone who knows me is familiar with my love for alliteration (and ask an NDDC board member about the 4 “R”s) but it does provide a mnemonic method of pursuing a systematic approach.

The 4 “P”s are People, Process, Projects, and Progress. People stresses stakeholder participation in the branding concept. Process encourages collaborative development of ideas and partnerships in the branding efforts. Projects discusses consultative implementation, generating foot traffic and cooperative efforts to promote the brand. Progress suggests predetermined benchmarks and urges that non-financial measurements be included. I also read between the lines to pick up on a hint not to take on too much too quickly.

Through its Monthly Forums, Block Head Gatherings and Retail Cabals, as well as cooperative efforts with art, recreation and cultural groups, the NDDC has heard much about the downtown’s attributes as well as the community’s values. To have a branding campaign work over the long term, however, we need to know what three or four messages the downtown stakeholders wish to commit to and support.

So let us know. If you see Dan Bergeson at a Historic Society gathering, talk to him. Stop into the Rueb for lunch and share your thoughts with Joe Grundhoefer. Flag down Renee Huckle as she’s hurrying from meeting to meeting and tell her your idea. If you see Dave Shumway out shoveling in front of the bank, give him an excuse to take a break. Or give Linda Schneewind a hand with that big delivery and chat her up while you’re at it. We’d love to hear your thoughts and it sure beats setting up another committee.