Image is an essential ingredient for successful economic development. It matters how local residents, workers, students, elected officials, nonprofit leaders, and business owners and managers see Ashtabula County as a place to live, work, and play. Equally so, it matters how tourists, in-commuting workers, students, state and federal officials, and outside businesses that are customers of and suppliers to Ashtabula County companies see the county.
Ashtabula County has a great deal of work to do in strengthening its image from a local and external perspective, which is why the budding effort by many of us to explore the county’s future brand is so important. We must invest in this effort and work as a team to make it a reality!
Perceptions of the county vary considerably from what the Growth Partnership can see. These perceptions range from very positive to very negative, which suggests that we must commit ourselves to greater investments and work efforts committed to strengthening Ashtabula County’s image.
Many counties, cities, and regions have worked to improve their image through marketing and branding strategies. For one, Cleveland has done this. Wayne County, Ohio has a successful brand. Cincinnati has done this. So has Louisville, Kentucky and Indianapolis, Indiana. These strategies work if they are carefully designed, properly focused, and executed in a high quality manner.
Building a brand for a geographic area requires concerted and consistent management over time. A brand is a promise about the “value” a business, tourist, worker, student, or resident can/will receive if they visit, live, or work in the place. All that to say, branding works if it is done right. Authentic brands are the best brands, as opposed to slick sales campaigns that distort reality. Branding efforts fail when they focus on simplistic slogans that make generic claims any place could make, but a brand must be easily recognizable to others. This recognition must be cognitive, emotional, and experiential.
Right now, Ashtabula County does NOT have a brand in a real sense. This contributes to the conflicting, and more importantly negative, perceptions of the county. We need a brand that clearly communicates the unique advantages of living, working, and playing in Ashtabula County. We have many valuable assets to support our future brand, such as our employers and the jobs they offer, wineries, small town lifestyles that are affordable, Lake Erie, Pymatuning Reservoir, and our rivers, interesting downtown and lakeside destinations, SPIRE Institute, the covered bridges, our parks and open spaces, Kent State University, Ashtabula, scenic locations, and many other assets. We do not have a consistent set of communication messages giving shape to a more positive county image and telling the story about the “value” of these assets.
Another important point is that a good, or effective, “place brand” is holistic and synergistic in the sense that it supports tourism development, residential development, educational advancement, talent retention and recruitment, and business retention and attraction. Our future brand must communicate the value we can provide with our local assets and assets in the surrounding region. Ashtabula County may be an hour’s drive from Downtown Cleveland, but we are NOT separate from our surrounding region. Ashtabula County exists in a regional context as a place to live, work, and play.
Quality of life grounded in the “goodness” of a place is essential to all aspects of economic development, including business and job growth, entrepreneurship, tourism, agricultural development, and population retention and attraction.
So what steps should Ashtabula County take to strengthen its image and brand in the future?
First, we must commit to an organized process to explore our brand. This process should give birth to a brand, and it should also elevate our understanding of Ashtabula County’s potential as a place to live, work, and play.
Second, once we have the brand, we must work together to make it a reality. The brand will need to be threaded through our tourism, economic development, place-making, and community development efforts.
Third, we must grow our brand over time to increase interest in, excitement about, and investment in Ashtabula County.
Fourth, because first impressions are hard to change, we must physically clean-up Ashtabula County. This is an ongoing job to be undertaken by residents, local governments, businesses, and farms. This will require a combination of “carrots” (rewards) and “sticks” (penalties) to motivate greater stewardship of place by everyone.
Finally, we must use the brand to improve our self-perception and confidence in our abilities to successfully grow and development.