It’s been 15 or 16 years since the City of Fairfax has given serious thought to possibly adopting a brand-marketing campaign. So, to learn how the City could better promote itself, City Manager Bob Sisson arranged for an expert in that field to address the City Council.
Via a remote-communication setup, Don McEachern, CEO of North Star Destination Strategies, spoke to the Council from his office in Nashville. He did so during the Council’s May 5 work session.
“We do brand prints to help communities be as competitive as they can be,” he explained. “We say, ‘Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not around,’ and branding is what you do about it.”
“Your reputation is the end game, and peers are the most credible source of information about a place,” continued McEachern. “First, you need to understand what your reputation is, come to an agreement about it and decide where the community is and where it’s going.
He said his company’s research director is an economist and North Star has worked with 200 communities throughout the U.S. The smallest, in Kentucky, had 350 people, and the largest was the state of Florida. But most are small- to medium-sized communities. For example, he said, “We worked with Williamsburg, Charlottesville, Roanoke and Danville and are wrapping up our work in Manassas.”
“It’s economic development, tourism and communities all working together,” said McEachern. “It’s understanding what’s relevant, distinct, authentic and own-able about your community. First comes research-gathering and articulating the DNA discovery — what your community’s about. We also provide educational materials to explain this to people.”
North Star obtains the community’s perspective in a variety of ways, including learning what Realtors say to sell homes there and how businesses recruit new employees. “We conduct lots of one-on-one interviews with people in a town’s businesses,” said McEachern. “And we’ll use consumer data to see how Fairfax is different from other cities in the region.”
HIS COMPANY also checks out “the most-similar workforce to yours and sees what’s missing in your city,” he said. “Then we’ll give you a list of the 200-400 businesses most likely to relocate to your community. We’ll also do a qualitative study plus quantitative research. It’s typically about four months worth of research, and then we write a brief and a development plan.”
“How do you select who you talk to in the community?” asked Mayor Scott Silverthorne. “We want it to be broad-based.”
“We’ll ask you to send our questions to 400 community leaders,” replied McEachern. “Then come meetings and moving forward with the creative and strategic recommendations. And we develop a strategy and a written concept.”
But, he added, “We’re not an ad agency. You still develop and produce the work; we make the recommendations. And then you’ll determine how you’ll connect the brand to existing activities and to further development.” He then showed several photographic examples of communities North Star has successfully branded. “We’ve had the pleasure of seeing our brands work for 12 or 13 years,” said McEachern.
Silverthorne said one of the challenges the City has is that “there are two Fairfaxes — the city and the county. And I always think of us as the real Fairfax. So it’s important to us to differentiate between the county and City.”
McEachern told him, “You need to quantify that in the research, see what people really understand and test it out.”
“Having a brand would help us attract new residents and businesses to the City.”
— Ellie Schmidt, Fairfax City Council
“It’s all about positioning ourselves differently from our neighbors,” said Silverthorne. “When I asked people why they chose to live in the City, nearly 90 percent said, ‘By accident — but we wouldn’t change.’” He also said he thinks the City needs a slogan that’s jazzier than simply saying, “A sense of place with small-town charm.”
“We have historical places, we’re building a robust arts culture and we also have several, hugely popular events,” continued Silverthorne. “Some 2,500 people came to Derby-Q, the other day, but how do we build on it? There are so many events here, and we need to get our message about them out better.”
“After you have a brand, you need a marketing strategy to go forward,” Councilman Michael DeMarco told McEachern. “Any thoughts?”
“Your brand is your authentic, own-able self,” answered the CEO. “Being able to articulate that identity is really key — and its execution is different for every city. And you build more support for your brand as you go forward.”
Councilwoman Nancy Loftus asked how long it takes from the time North Star is retained by a community until it delivers its final product. And McEachern said it normally takes eight to 10 months.
Councilwoman Janice Miller asked how his company would use City staff to develop the plan and implement the marketing. “We’ll work with and talk with them,” he said. “It’s a little client-directed regarding what we should focus on. And at the end of the day, someone has to be responsible to [carry things out] and connect the brand to ongoing innovation.”
“How do we tie in special events to the business community and help local business people do better?” asked Miller. McEachern said one way would be to “cobble together events” to encourage visitors to extend their stay in Fairfax.
Councilman David Meyer was also concerned about helping George Mason University. “Today, GMU is the largest employer in central Fairfax, with a half-a-billion-dollar payroll and 6,300 full-time employees. But every year, they have to recruit new freshmen to go there. There’s not a natural connection between GMU and the City of Fairfax, and I think it could possibly be part of our branding.”
AGREEING, McEachern said there’s “a lot of halo effect from the perceived cultural events and quality of life of having a university nearby. That relationship is important and we could ask people what their perception of the university is.”
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Ellie Schmidt said, “I think it’s important to focus on economic development. Having a brand would help us pull all our assets together and attract new residents and businesses to the City.”
Sisson noted that City Council has talked about doing a city-services survey, “asking residents how well they think we’re doing our job.” He then asked McEachern if other communities have included it as a component of their research, and the CEO said they have.
Silverthorne then recommended giving the Council “time to digest all this [information]. Maybe we could do that survey at the same time. We’ll take this under advisement and consider it during our upcoming retreat.”