Promotion positions the downtown or commercial district as the center of the community and hub of economic activity, while creating a positive image that showcases a community’s unique characteristics.  –Main Street America

During New Director Training, I spend a considerable amount of time helping new directors consider their district brand. In this article, I’ll walk you through some of the considerations we go over during the training, to serve as a refresher (or for those who may have gone through this training some time ago). What does the word brand mean to you? In simple terms, a brand is a promise, a setting of expectations, an image one holds of your product or service. For instance, what comes to mind when you read Harley-Davidson? How about Apple? Walt Disney World? Or These brands are examples (national/global and local) that have instant recognition. You know the meaning regardless of whether you have visited Disney World or Door County, or whether you have ridden a Harley or used an Apple product. Brands like these are developed over time, with intentionality.

What do people already think of your district?

Even if you haven’t yet promoted a specific brand image, chances are the public has already formed an opinion of your district. At best, it would be a positive association, but in some cases it may be neutral or even negative. Either way, you need to know where you stand, and the best way is to simply ask. You can learn a lot from a question such as, “when I say (fill-in-the-blank), what word comes to mind?” One thing to keep in mind: locals may have a completely different impression of your district than those who are visiting. It has been my experience that non-locals tend to be more positive. In her book, This is Where You Belong, Melody Warnick shares this observation: “Our experience of the place where we live depends entirely on who we are, how we interact with it, and how we interpret what’s happening around us. We create our places every day by the way we choose to view them.” With this in mind, your messaging should bring those positive impressions of your district to the foreground.

First impressions

For most people, their first encounter with your district is online. What does your web or social media presence say about you? Is it a brand image that you wish to project? In this year’s New Director Training, I highlighted Downtown Appleton. Their website for desktop creatively uses video to shape an image of what to expect when you visit. Their mobile site concisely highlights things to do in downtown. This approach is supported by the most recent Travel Trends by Google, which found that “85 percent of leisure travelers decide on activities only after having arrived at the destination. Mobile allows travelers to be spontaneous once they arrive.” The same experience translates to their other digital assets: Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. A quick aside on YouTube and Facebook video: Today’s visitor wants to know what it’s like to experience the community as a local, and video provides the perfect medium for that. Take them behind the scenes; they are seeking authentic experiences. For a more in-depth discussion of video, see this post from a few months ago.

Just as important as what visitors experience before arrival is their experience once they get there. The obvious interactions are with your district businesses (over which you have limited control) or special events (within your locus of control)—but have you thought about less obvious interactions? If they are arriving by car, how clearly marked is your district through wayfinding? Once in the district, can the visitor easily identify short-term and long-term parking? Are parking lot locations clearly marked through wayfinding, or labeled so a visitor can feel confident they are parking appropriately? And while we are on the subject of parking, let’s talk about meters for a moment.

Meters are an essential tool to manage your parking. Too often I hear, “We have a parking problem.” I’d argue that there isn’t a parking problem as much as there is a parking management problem. When left to their own devices, drivers will gravitate toward convenient parking. Those drivers may be customers of local businesses, or they may be employees who occupy a space for 8-plus hours each day. Meters are a great tool for regulating this issue, but they can also be a detriment to your district’s brand. These days, most people expect to pay for parking on the street. However, it’s becoming less common for people to carry cash, let alone change to plug meters. A visitor has a negative experience if they arrive in your district, park, and then realize that the meter only takes change and they have none. I speak from personal experience when I say this visitor will get back in their car and leave with a negative impression. There are plenty of options for mobile payments, and some do not even require new equipment, as with the systems adopted in  Fond du Lac and Green Bay. To learn more about parking that you could ever imagine, I’d suggest visiting Donald Shoup’s website.

But what if your visitor doesn’t arrive by car—what if they travel by bicycle? What experience would they have in that case? Do your streets have bike lanes, and are there ample places to lock up bicycles?

Or if they are close enough to walk from an adjoining neighborhood, what does that trip look like to them? Charles Wolfe’s recent book Seeing the Better City directs urbanists to explore all aspects of their community and take pictures along the way. In his Parksify podcast from April 2017, Charles explains that when you view pictures, you often see details that you missed when you were there in person. This review allows a deeper reflection on what visitors may encounter on their way. Armed with real data, you can begin to make positive changes.

Surprise and delight

Reinforcing your brand image continues during the visit. Wisconsin Main Street Design Specialist Joe Lawniczak continually speaks to the benefits of outdoor merchandising, sidewalk signage and outdoor dining to visitors’ impressions of the district, but there are other opportunities as well. For more information visit this post from October 2016, or these posts we recently shared on the Wisconsin Main Street Facebook page from urbanscale and dsm partnership. All of the examples given seek to create surprise and delight for the visitor, contributing to a positive impression of your district.

In closing, I ask that you consider: What are you doing all to reinforce the positives of your district at every point of contact with your visitors?