Rural places across America are trying to define their special sauce, what makes them a community after having all normalcy stripped away during the pandemic. “They understand that how people regard their place is more important than ever,” said Ed Barlow, senior vice president at North Star Place Branding + Marketing.
Barlow’s organization works with communities, regions, and towns of all sizes, one of only a few outfits in the country that focuses solely on this kind of work. As senior vice president and director of strategic planning, Barlow has observed the ebb of community branding efforts over the last couple of years but now sees a resurgence.
“There are more communities feeling confident that they can pursue this and the implementation that would follow,” he said.
It’s also a critical time, as many studies have suggested. A major factor in what’s come to be known as “The Great Resignation” is the ability to work from anywhere and hence travel or live anywhere.
“Employees are putting themselves first finally. What’s important to them and their families are the places they want to be,” Barlow said.
A recent study conducted by North Star looked at American migration to small cities, finding that only 12% of respondents considered finding the right job their primary goal. Instead, 42% said their priority was finding a balance between the right job and place, while 46% placed the greatest importance on finding the right place to live.
For rural communities, many of which are struggling with stagnant economies and aging populations, this opens the doors to myriad possibilities to attract new talent, investments, ideas, and opportunities.
“Tourism is economic development’s first base,” Barlow said.
People are likely to initially encounter a new place by visiting, typically to see friends and family. What they experience could then draw them deeper into the community.
In Minnesota, “the pandemic dramatically impacted the travel and tourism landscape and shifted our audience’s attitudes toward travel,” said Leann Kispert, senior brand strategy manager for Explore Minnesota. Given that shifting landscape, in 2021, her organization collaborated with its branding agency of record, Adventure, to explore a fresh take on marketing. Resources allocated to Explore Minnesota Tourism through the state’s general fund paid for the project.
To garner information about traveler motivations and thoughts on Minnesota, the agency surveyed potential visitors in key regional markets. Several campaigns were then tested with the help of Ebony Research to determine which would resonate most.
“Focus group participants said the ‘Dream State’ concept was the one that best captured the beauty of Minnesota and the magic of travel,” Kispert said. With sweeping photos and evocative language, like “Did the moon really fill the entire night sky?” the campaign conjures up a dream-like memory of something beautiful experienced while traveling in Minnesota.
On the Explore Minnesota website, various resources, including a Dream State Toolkit are available for tourism partners. “Consistency across our messaging and platforms is key to building up a brand in a traveler’s mind,” Kispert said.
To evaluate the efficacy of their approach, Explore Minnesota measures metrics across the traveler’s journey. For the Dream State campaign, foot traffic details are not available yet, but initial data from the organization’s brand lift study shows “double-digit growth in our core metrics of favorability, consideration, and intent to travel within the next 12 months,” Kispert said.
While Explore Minnesota is already experiencing significant results, other rural places are deep in the work of crafting their brand strategy. One such place is New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region, a pocket of the Granite State located in the southwest corner, marked by Mt. Monadnock, one of the world’s most-climbed mountains.
Despite this draw, as well as a strong foodie scene, arts culture and small business presence, the region tends to receive less traveler attention than better-known parts of the state, such as the White Mountains and the Lakes Region. To offset this, the Monadnock Region has organized a dedicated task force with the goal of attracting young families, students, workers and tourists.
In 2021, the task force contracted North Star to develop the community’s brand. “They spent a week here touring the region, meeting with more than 100 people, either in-person or virtually, and then launched an online community survey that attracted more than 800 respondents,” said Julie Schoelzel, project manager for the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber, which is based in the region.
“You never want to make a community branding process about a logo or a line because it’s just so much more than that,” Barlow said. “Every place has something distinct and ownable and special.” For rural places that are spread out, sometimes connecting all the dots can be slightly more challenging.
However, Barlow said that hasn’t played a big role in this particular community. “The small towns connect and so there’s a surprise and something interesting at every turn.” Seeing that key stakeholders have already come together in these branding efforts is a good sign.
In fact, 58% of local survey participants said they would recommend visiting the Monadnock Region to a friend or colleague. That is 4.5 times higher than the national average and a figure North Star has only seen topped once before in the last decade. “It’s a real point of pride,” Schoelzel said.
However, when the brand is finalized later this summer, the collaboration will become the cornerstone for the region’s marketing success. And it can take time to build momentum. “Not every community, downtown, partner, or organization is going to jump on board all at the same time,” Barlow said.
But as people begin to see themselves in the messaging, that’s when the magic happens. For Schoelzel, who has had an inside view, that homeplace pride is already brewing. “I have been known to describe working on this project as renewing my vows to the region,” she said.
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 21-22, in Keene, New Hampshire.