A bad reputation is more than a rock ballad by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. A bad reputation can damage your credibility, your relationships, and your career. For a community, it can severely impair revitalization efforts because no one wants to invest in a town with a reputation for crime, filth, aging infrastructure, crumbling buildings, or political dysfunction.
How do you overcome a bad reputation? First of all, it’s important to accept the old saying, “perception is reality.”
It doesn’t really matter that your crime statistics are low and that the locals feel safe leaving their doors unlocked. If visitors don’t like the look of your community, or if they’ve heard negative reports of sensational crimes, they won’t come.
But what if you could turn that bad reputation into something positive? What if you could change how people perceive you? There are a couple of ways to do this.
You can work very hard to clean up and beautify, bring in great shops and entertainment to attract visitors, and then market the heck out of it to attract new people to your town.
It takes a long, long time – decades – and lots of money to create this kind of change in a community. It’s gradual, but it can happen. To do this, you have to BECOME what you want people to THINK you are. You can’t lie and say you are a Disney wonderland if half of your storefronts are vacant, vagrants are on the street, and litter covers the sidewalks. Before you can market yourself as a great place to visit, you have to BE a great place to visit. If customers pay you a visit expecting quilts and candles and you have only empty storefronts, they won’t come back.
Can you wait until all the pieces are in place for people to accept your community as that mythical “great place to live, work, shop, and play”? Most of our communities need help NOW. Waiting until you can make your dreams a reality is not possible for most of us.
In marketing and in writing there is a concept called “target audience.” When I ask communities who their target audience is, I often get the response, “everybody.”
“Everybody” is not a target. That’s like saying I’m going hunting and it doesn’t matter where I aim because whatever I hit – duck, deer, rock, tree – will be fine. This is the way many communities use advertising. Whoever that ad reaches is fine. And then they wonder why no one attends to them.
Before you market your town, you have to know who you are right now and who might be interested in what you have to offer right now. Then you have to market in the places that those people look. By using the power of people’s perceptions, you can encourage them to accept your town just as it is. Take what you have and figure out who would appreciate it. That brings us to the second option.
Celebrate Your Bad Self!
Think of those performers, like Joan Jett, who have made ‘badness’ attractive. And Bruce Springsteen, whose whole persona is based on gritty, working class values. (This has nothing to do with his reality; he’s a multi-millionaire.) He cultivates the perception that he is still close to his blue collar roots. And that is obviously attractive to a huge population.
The first step in marketing under this “bad is good” scenario is to clean up and improve the things you can fix fairly easily. If you have vagrants, work with law enforcement and social service agencies to find alternatives for them. If you have litter, work with your municipality to clean it up.
The next step is to figure out what kind of people won’t be afraid of your town, or who might find its gritty reputation or blue collar appearance appealing. It helps if you have some association with that group already established, but you may be able to invent a connection through an event or by taking advantage of a local feature.
If you have a large population of high school or college students who identify themselves as “Goth,” you might appeal to them. After all, if YOU shouldn’t be judged by appearance, then neither should they. Have you considered hosting a Zombie Walk in your downtown?
You might appeal to bikers. It’s a fast-growing sector that is now better characterized by the “chrome cavalry” than by Hell’s Angels. Bikers often have money and they’re not afraid of a less-than-perfect town. Host a toy run or a charity motorcycle event to get them interested in a visit.
Music is another way to attract a specialty audience. Blues and jazz will attract both the highbrow aficionado and the down-home fan and you don’t have to be a quaint and perfect downtown to appeal to them; they’ll go where the music is good. Blues and jazz typically don’t attract a rowdy crowd so a blues or jazz music festival is a good start.
Athletes often pride themselves on being unafraid. What about hosting a taekwon do exhibition?
There are tons of other special interest groups that might be attracted to your town. Think creatively about those types of people and what they might find interesting or compelling enough to visit.
Once you’ve narrowed your audience, you then have to figure out how to get them there. It sometimes helps to picture in your mind just one or two people who are typical examples of the people you’re trying to reach. What do they look like? What do they enjoy? What do they read? Where do they hang out? What are they involved in? How do they communicate with each other?
By consistently targeting a specific group of people, before long, you will have developed a core group who love your downtown just the way it is. Then you can start to build toward those higher goals: full storefronts, beautiful streetscapes, fancy signage.
Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.
But never forget to “dance with the one whut brung ya.” You can’t ignore those people who helped build your town up when it was rock bottom, most importantly because businesses that come to your town may be geared specifically for them. For example, if you develop a reputation as a great blues venue, you may attract a half dozen blues clubs, a guitar shop, and a place that caters to those who love old vinyl records. You can’t later abandon that for something else without a lot of new effort.
Not everyone can be the quilts and candles capital of the country. But you can find or make something unique in your town. When you have developed a reputation for something special, then you can use that as a foundation for further growth. Remember, if you can’t be what you wish to be, you have to find an audience to appreciate who you are.