• Jed Johnson

Five Ways to Harness the Power of Place in Brand-Building

Our perceptions of places are stronger than we might normally give them credit. We think of Paris as being a city of light, love, and high-fashion; Rio de Janeiro as festive and colorful; and Portland as being quirky and outdoorsy. These ideas of what certain places signify are created in part by brands that use them extensively in their messaging. Location is not to be underestimated in branding strategies and communications, and we at Great Lakes GrowthWorks understand that using the “local” in brand strategy can have global impact. I’ll take you through five examples of how (and how not) to use place to infuse a brand with both authenticity and higher purpose.

  1. Match an element of brand with an element of the place A company and a city or country can complement each other very well in the eyes of global consumers. IKEA, for example, is known for selling stylish yet affordable Swedish furniture and design, making it a staple of middle-class households throughout the world. This works because Sweden is known as an egalitarian country where most people are relatively prosperous, which makes IKEA’s brand all the more authentic to us. It’s no coincidence, then, that IKEA’s key colors of blue and yellow match the Swedish flag and that each piece they sell is named after different Scandinavian places and things. Our perceptions of what characterizes places often predate modern marketing. Germans have been known for their efficiency since ancient Rome, and though this is certainly a stereotype, German engineering, industrial products, and automobiles still enjoy a stellar reputation worldwide. Thus, all German manufacturing benefits from longstanding ideas of “German-ness.”

  2. Use change to evolve and bring attention to a brand Brands can evolve when countries or places change. For the first half of the 20th century, the fashion capital of the world was Paris, and companies like Chanel and Louis Vuitton channeled French ideas of glamour while other fashion companies struggled to gain the same popularity that French brands held. However, during the 1950s Italy enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic growth, known as the “Italian economic miracle.” At this time, Italian fashion houses like Ferragamo and Gucci competed with and eventually overtook French brands in popularity by staging fashion shows drawing upon Italy’s heritage of art and the origin of the Renaissance. To this day Milan remains the world’s premier fashion capital. Italian fashion companies used Italy’s economic success and renewed place on the global stage to build their brands and, in turn, to further build their own country. Keep in mind that a place can change negatively and brand evolution can still take place. When Japan’s asset bubble burst in the early 1990s effectively shattering Japan’s image of being the next economic superpower, brands like Pokemon and Hello Kitty were able to showcase a version of Japan that is creative, innovative, and fun. Today, Japan’s worldwide image incorporates both established excellence in high-tech manufacturing developed before the 90s recession and the whimsy and quirkiness that came to prominence post-recession, demonstrating that negative change can be a catalyst for brands to develop.

  3. Don’t “borrow” a place to use for a brand It may be tempting for a brand to channel whichever place best suits their vision in marketing their products. However, past efforts to invent a brand story without specific efforts to link or align the company with a place and its values has not succeeded. After Abercrombie & Fitch rebranded their aging sportsman wear into a preppy teenage apparel company, they launched a number of brands with fictitious origin stories, like Ruehl No. 925 and Gilly Hicks. Abercrombie launched Ruehl with a post-collegiate, Greenwich Village aesthetic, while Gilly Hicks: Sydney was a women’s lingerie line inspired by Australia. Though Abercrombie & Fitch successfully channels a 1950s all-American male aesthetic, both of these offshoot brands strayed far from Abercrombie’s image of Americana that helped to power the parent brand originally. Eventually, both brands failed, perhaps because they borrowed an aesthetic without having roots and without trying to link themselves to the locations they channeled.

  4. Work to develop the places used in your brand This is not to say that a brand that uses a certain place of aesthetic without having roots there is doomed to failure. Shinola was originally the name of a shoe polish that was produced in Upstate New York that was turned into a lifestyle fashion brand headquartered in Detroit. Detroit is well-known as “Motor City” and hasn’t been renowned for its fashion; the fact that Detroit has fallen upon hard economic times even further diminishes interest in setting up shop there. However, because Shinola manufactures in Detroit, it has built off the legacy of Detroit as the center of American manufacturing to bring the high quality American-made goods to watches, leather goods, and bicycles. Because Shinola does more than borrow an aesthetic by having goods that are “Detroit-made” and bringing economic growth to the area, Shinola is able to create a brand with both authenticity and a higher purpose of revitalizing Detroit. Furthermore, Detroit-manufacturing harkens back to a time when goods were made to last forever, which was once abandoned in favor of more disposable goods later in the 20th century. In this way, Shinola uses Detroit of the past, present, and future for its brand, which combines place and time into one authentic message.

  5. Use multiple places to communicate a global message Companies aren’t limited to using one specific place in their brand. Starbucks, though it uses Seattle-specific products and motifs (Pike’s Place blend), channels many different places in the world in its brand. Coffees brought in from ethically-run plantations in Sumatra, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka are sold alongside Ethos water that increases water accessibility to Sub-Saharan Africa. This multiculturalism present in everything Starbucks sells gives the brand a cosmopolitan, international reputation that is the same worldwide. Thus, because Starbucks channels the entire world in their brand, it generates appeal among all different types of people around the world, even if they’re sipping a latte in Seoul or London or Sao Paulo. Global brands are just that, global, not only because they are present in so many countries, but because products from so many countries exist in even a single one of their stores.

As consumers expect companies to deliver more authenticity in their brands and brand stories, think about how place can be used to create authenticity. Can a brand naturally complement a company’s area of origin, based on consumers’ perceptions? Is an area evolving so that new brands can rise to global prominence? If a brand might not naturally complement a city or country, how can companies work to include that area into their company in a real, un-borrowed way? Using the power of place in branding, when done the right way, can have an outsize impact on both companies and the world.