Also known as “place marketing”, it’s important that cities and towns realize that they need to market themselves. Just like businesses, communities should identify their target markets (tourists? businesses?) and develop marketing mix strategies to meet customers’ needs and wants. A community can strengthen its local economy as a result of business people and citizens collectively identifying that community’s special uniqueness and strengths, then capitalizing on them.

When most people think of marketing, they envision a business’ desire to meet their profit goals by creating products and services, then promoting them to potential customers. More recently, modern marketing principles are being applied to the not-for-profit sector. Tourism associations, university leaders, hospital boards, museum directors, politicians, parent associations, and communities are realizing that they can benefit from marketing research and strategies.

City and county leaders must recognize that they, too, are engaged in a marketing enterprise—that of marketing their towns to prospective “customers” who could make use of what the town, its residents, and its businesses have to offer.

Potential customers often are faced with a wide range of alternative products and services. Many times, these products and services are perceived as fairly homogeneous, or similar. It is the marketer’s job to create in the customer’s mind an idea that a particular product is different in an important way, so that the product will have a competitive edge over others in the marketplace. This uniqueness or competitive edge is what is known as a differential advantage.

In the context of community development, it is the job of community leaders to persuade potential tourists, residents, and outside businesses that their town is unique in a way that could be important to them in their decision of where to visit or where to locate. Communities must create a “brand” for themselves and communicate it in such a way that the customer will easily recall the brand and it will create “Top of Mind Awareness” when the customer is making a decision on where to travel or relocate.

The creation of a differential advantage could turn out to be the deciding factor for a family considering where to spend their next vacation. It could influence a family who is thinking of moving to another community, or it could encourage a business to locate in one town over another. In cases where other towns offer similar features, if community leaders have created a differential advantage in the potential customer’s mind, that town is more likely to win out.

A marketing strategy is designed to create and nurture a differential advantage. “The Four P’s” of the marketing mix (product, place, price, and promotion) form the heart of marketing strategy.

First, you need to be able to thoroughly describe your target market. For tourists, where are they coming from? What do they want to do when they are here; How much do they plan on spending? For people considering relocation, What features do they want to see in a town; What employment opportunities are there; Economic base? Recreation? Educational offerings? For businesses, What economic development invectives are being offered; Workforce availability, transportation, technology?

In marketing a town, the various features of the town itself become the PRODUCT. The concept of the town as a product encompasses the towns scenery, natural resources, friendly atmosphere, history, architecture, climate, transportation routes, shopping areas, and more. All of these aspects help to determine the individual character of a given city.

PLACE refers to the physical channel (retail, wholesale, Internet) through which a product is sold. For some marketers, selection of the outlet through which the product will be sold can have a major impact upon the ultimate success or failure of the product in the marketplace. Place also includes desirability of physical location including air and land travel, transportation accessibility, weather patterns, seasonality, and availability of modern technology and communication channels.

When we speak of PRICE as an element of a community’s marketing mix, we are referring to costs that the community imposes upon residents, tourists, and businesses for the privilege of carrying out activities in the town (i.e. cost of living, taxes, transportation costs, real estate prices). Some towns may have distinct price advantages over other locations. These price advantages can become an integral part of a town’s marketing uniqueness. If price is not a competitive advantage, then city leaders are challenged to show how quality of life or other characteristics outweigh price as a competitive advantage.

PROMOTION is communication. Community leaders must communicate the message of their town’s uniqueness to their target markets. Reaching the right audience is often the most difficult task, because promotion costs money and many towns are constrained by a tight promotional budget. Promotion, in its simplest sense, is made up of advertising, publicity, personal selling and sales promotion.

Advertising is the promotional medium that communities think of most often. It includes paid presentations in newspapers, magazines, brochures, trade publications, billboards, and other advertising media. While advertising is an effective promotional medium, choosing the medium that reaches your target market, and paying for it can be challenging.

Publicity differs from advertising in that it’s free. For towns with small budgets, publicity can be an effective way to reach prospective customers who might not be reached through paid promotions. Publicity usually materializes when some event or characteristic of a town becomes “newsworthy” in the eyes of the media. Communities need to put forth a deliberate effort to write press releases, take photos, and submit it to the media.

Personal selling consists of verbal conversation with prospective customers. Community residents are using personal selling every time they speak with others about their town. It is important for community leaders to realize that employees in contact with the public must conduct themselves as the town’s sales representatives, because in essence, they are! Personal selling also comes into play when community leaders seek out businesses to relocate to their town. This takes some research and a well thought out plan of how their town can uniquely offer benefits that are important to the business.

Sales promotion consists of coupons, balloons, events, sponsorships, entertainment, bumper stickers, etc. If it’s not advertising, publicity, or personal selling…. it’s probably sales promotion. Make sure the promotion reaches the prospective customer, and that it will make a lasting impression on them.

In review, community leaders are engaged in marketing a complex product—their town. Marketing principles tell us that community marketers should develop and nurture a differential advantage for their product, based on the uniqueness of the town itself. This differential advantage must then be promoted to a target audience within applicable budget constraints. Though the steps in developing and carrying out a marketing plan can be time consuming, they can pay off in the form of a broadened economic base for a community.

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