Katharine Glass is the Managing Director of White Label Creative, an award-winning creative agency which specialises in regeneration, marketing and inward investment. In this blog post, she outlines how to build an engaging place narrative and implement it on a strategic level.
What is a ‘place narrative’?
A ‘place narrative’ is simply the story of a place. Any village, city or country will have one or several narratives associated with its past, present and future. These can range from grassroots impressions of a place, built-up by word-of-mouth, to more strategic stories that seek to portray a specific image of an area and can be shared and repeated by varying numbers of people.
In our work, the latter is more appropriate. However, we do look to work with as many people from the ‘place’ as possible when creating a marketing narrative. This ensures it is authentic and embraced by current residents and occupiers.
How do you go about creating one?
When we begin work in a new place we aim to really get under its skin. We will meet with a wide range of stakeholders, research online, speak to local residents and businesses and look back throughout its history at the moments in time that have made it what it is today. In our work, we also must be mindful of the story we are looking to tell – the marketing spin. For example, if we are looking to attract investment to an area, we need its place narrative to focus on the elements of the place that will help drive its future success, such as connectivity or cultural assets.
Can you give an example of a council with a great ‘place narrative’ and why you think this?
Well, in my biased opinion, I’ll start with Croydon. Croydon has been developing and framing a place narrative for many years and thought we’d take some credit for this as part of our work with Develop Croydon (Croydon’s inward investment marketing brand and our community interest company) there is a wider, somewhat patriotic, energy in Croydon that helps drive its profile forward. It is also lucky enough to have several key stakeholders and members of the community that believe in its future.
The success of Croydon’s fantastic place narrative is also quite easy to measure. Having suffered from a negative reputation, that was amplified by the 2011 riots, over the past five or so years Croydon has attracted a vast amount of investment and is now bringing forward a £5.25bn regeneration programme. That equates to a programme three times the size of Wembley or the Olympic Park, and twice the size of White City.
Its place narrative has constantly developed with focusses ranging from culture and creativity to tech and infrastructure. Each theme and focus has been supported and shared by a wide range of stakeholders, ensuring the message is promoted as widely as possible. And, the constant evolution of the narrative has enabled Croydon to keep the strands of its story contemporary, in keeping with the zeitgeist.
Other examples of towns and regions with successful place narratives include Shoreditch, Brixton, Kings Cross, the ‘Midlands Engine’ and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. All of these places have gained strong positive identities that they have then capitalised on to attract residents and occupiers.
What are the biggest challenges for councils looking to improve inward investment?
Funding, of course, has to be mentioned first. With cuts on public sector spending inward investment can be seen as a ‘nice to have’ added value element of council services that could be de-prioritised.
The lack of key stakeholder networks can also be a problem as promoting inward investment cannot be done by a Council alone but must be a shared message that achieves buy-in from businesses, residents and the people of a place. These networks for sharing messaging and ideas must be established to support an inward investment message.
Political nervousness can further cause issues due to historic views of the ways in which Councils work with developers, for example.
What tips do you have for overcoming these challenges?
We would strongly argue that inward investment should not be seen as a dispensable service. Investment into a place from the private sector can be a huge support in achieving local authority ambitions and support in providing critical services – most notably via section 106 or CIL contribution, or via business rates. Having some facts and statistics internally to back up this argument can be a great help in achieving political buy-in.
Establishing and maintaining meaningful stakeholder groups is something we’d advise too, alongside thorough, up-front briefing of politicians involved in or having to sign off inward investment activities.
How can change be implemented at a strategic level?
Working with the right partners and stakeholders that understand the need for a joined-up, high-level strategy is important. Communication is key both to creating and sharing a place narrative. Regularly engaging with all parties will ensure that people are kept on-board with messaging and the aims of a programme. If inward investment is to be successful and strategic it must be prioritised by key members of local authorities, their teams and the private sector – both internally and externally.
For help building an inward investment strategy that utilises place narrative, attend our ‘Attracting Inward Investment into Local Authorities' training event on 30 January 2019. The day will be hosted by Katharine and her co-director at White Label Creative, Jo Gumb. It will also feature a session from Lloyd Lee, Managing Partner, YOO Capital Investment on 'What is Attractive to Investors?' and case-studies will be presented by Carol Squires, Head of Economic Development, Croydon Council and Ken Nettleship, Business Expansion Specialist, Invest in Nottingham.