Author, Town Inc.
What services have you provided to small towns?
Today, I don’t consult anymore. I just write books and speak all over the world. If you were a town or city, the kinds of things I do do are come and help you frame the big ideas that I’ve written about in Town Inc., and maybe work with you just in a workshop to help get to the bottom of what might make your town unique from a marketing perspective.
What was the basis of the study you did that inspired Town Inc.?
For three years, I drove across the United States, visiting 54 different pairs of cities. Twenty-seven of those cities had what I call a claim. They basically filled in a blank – like, “Our city is the ‘blank’ capital of the world” or of the United States, or of the region, or of the state. The 27 other towns did not have a claim, but they were very similar geographies, population, demographics, even psychographics, and I studied the difference in economic impact the cities with a claim had versus those without. Essentially, it boiled down to the fact that if you don’t have a claim, you’re robbing yourself of $3 billion a year, on average, revenue pumping through your city. The cities with the claim are far more successful – they’re booming in my mind – rather than the ones without.
What’s an example of an awesome claim that you discovered, and an example of one that kind of falls flat?
Well, claims are actually very flexible. There are claims like, Elkhart, Indiana, is the “RV Capital of the World,” the recreational vehicle capital of the world. A very successful claim, it’s built their economy in really interesting ways. One of my favorite claims is in Hamilton, Missouri, they are the “Quick Quilting Capital of the World”, and now they are the “Quilting Capital of the World,” they’ve grown so much. Those are some interesting claims.
Some that don’t work as well are some of the most easy and logical ones like, “We have the world’s largest chair in our town/city” or “We’re home to world’s largest ball of paint.” Those are novelties and they are very easy to brand and a lot of times they are just sitting right there – no pun intended for the chair – but they don’t generally have the longevity or the economic impact of the more kind of thoughtful claims like quick quilting capital or RV capital of the world.
How would a town manager or mayor go about encouraging his town to come up with a claim to fame?
As a mayor, if you’re looking to leverage a claim to help build your economy, one of the things you want to do is not think of it as an immediate political opportunity. Look for a visionary in your town, usually a business person who has an existing business, who can paint a picture of what they envision the town to be and do anything you can to support them in helping achieve their claim. It doesn’t have to be just one business person by the way. The more business people you reach out to, to ask them, “What’s your vision for the future? What’s your vision for the business? What’s your vision for this city?” you’ll learn a lot about the things they feel like they need to help them stake their claim. Ask them, if they were going to fill in the blank, “Our town is the ‘blank’ capital of the world?” what would you fill in?
You don’t necessarily have to do it alone and that’s an important aspect. In every city I’ve visited, the most successful claims were the ones that were really focused on a visionary that wasn’t necessarily a government official pursuing their vision for the town, and then the town helping them realize their claim.
What are the pitfalls of trying to market everything in your town?
It’s easy to believe that if you market to everyone, you’re going to attract everyone. And if you talk about everything, you’re going to show people that you have everything. Unfortunately, we live in a very crowded marketing world, and if you really want to stand out you have to be known for something and it has to be targeted at someone specifically. You want to think of it as a wedge in the door to those people. You want to look for an opportunity to brand yourself to a very specific niche, so that they can then come and experience your place and tell everybody else about all the wonderful stuff. Picking one thing, one really simple way to get out into the marketplace, will do you a much bigger service than trying to be everything to everyone.
What’s the biggest resistance you see to that marketing approach?
The biggest resistance to this kind of marketing is that inevitably somebody feels left out. If you’re the “RV Capital of the World” or you’re the “Quick Quilting Capital of the World” or if you’re Warsaw, Indiana, and you’re the “Orthopedic Capital of the World”, obviously the pizza place and the office supply store and the person who runs a roofing business feel like that’s not promoting their business. But you have to be willing to help them understand how they can market the place they do business, just as much if not more, then the business they do and show them that you can connect the dots between the claim that you’re staking or the marketing you’re doing that’s very specific, and the eventual outcome for those people.
At the end of the day, one of the biggest problems for small towns is what I call revenue recycling. You go to the dentist and the dentist then goes to the grocery store to spend the money that you paid them, and the grocery store clerk goes to the gas station to spend the money that they got at the grocery store, and that person then goes to the hairdresser, and the money just kind of cycles around and around. To really create a thriving economy, you have to have external income infusing into the economy, so that you’re actually growing instead of just recycling the revenue you’ve got. It’s really important that everybody understand how getting external income, even if it’s for the hotel and they don’t eat at your pizza place, how that actually eventually helps you.
What is one thing you most wish mayors or town managers knew that they don’t seem to know?
I wish mayors would embrace the idea that there are visionaries within the city or town that aren’t’ actually that involved in politics or chambers of commerce events. A lot of them have felt sidelined because they haven’t seen the value those organizations bring. The more outreach you do to the business people in your community, the more you’ll uncover opportunities to grow your city and your town in a really effective way. So much so in fact, that they’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. They just need some support, some understanding, and some insight from the city. If you can be that conduit, if you can be the connector for all of the other resources and leverage your power and stature in the community to help make those connections, you’ll see much faster growth then trying to do it all yourself.