Local branding is how a business goes from being just a building to a member of the community. In place of hypothetical target audiences made up of statistical demographics, local branding focuses on connections with real people in your neighborhood.
Because our world has grown increasingly digital, it might seem like a step backward to invest resources into old-school, word-on-the-street branding strategies. But a study by Small Business Trends shows that 65% of budgets are spent in-store.
Not only that, in the wake of COVID’s social distancing, people are naturally seeking out human interactions, making in-person branding more important than ever. Add to that the fact that a reported 75% of consumers have changed brands during COVID and now is a prime opportunity to gain new customers through a local-focused strategy.
With all that said, because so much emphasis has been placed on having an online presence (especially during the pandemic), local branding is often neglected, and it can be hard to know where to start. In this guide, we’ll walk you through how local branding works and how to practice good local branding strategies.
How local branding works
In order to get the most out of local branding, let’s first define what exactly we’re talking about. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, local branding contains two key terms: “local” and “branding.”
“Local” refers to the scope of your brand’s reach in terms of physical distance. But what exactly constitutes “local” is going to be different for every business and every community. For example, in a big city where you’d expect more foot traffic, your scope could be restricted to a single block. In a rural area, it might encompass an entire town or county/province.
Your first step in local branding is to define this scope. Just be aware that while “local” might be relative, there is a point (say, when it will take your customers hours to reach you) where even the loosest definition of “local” no longer applies.
The second term is “branding.” Branding describes the specific actions that you take to shape the public’s perception of your business (which is to say, your brand). It is different from marketing or advertising, both of which generally seek to increase brand awareness and customer conversion—for example, investing in location-based search engine results rankings would fall into the realm of local marketing.
Branding is also subtly different from design—which focuses on visual imagery—because branding encompasses non-visual elements like the personality and voice of your business. With that said, branding will use all of these aforementioned tools in order to foster the ideal impression with your audience.
With these distinctions in mind, the benefits of local branding become much clearer. If you’re going to shape the way people perceive your business, what better place to start than your own backyard? Owning your roots from the very start can help keep you grounded even as you expand your brand into broader markets. In other words, no matter how big you get, never forget where you came from.
How different types of businesses can use local branding
Essentially, any business can take advantage of local branding, but the extent and implementation of it will look different depending on the type of business you are running. For our purposes, we’ll consider two broad categories: digital businesses and brick-and-mortar businesses.
Digital businesses, which is to say those that exist 100% online, typically are going for a more global reach, considering they can interact with customers anytime and anywhere. Their staff might even exist all over the world.
That said, the founder(s) of the company is from somewhere, or maybe the initial idea for the business can be associated with a particular place.
So essentially, local branding in this context would mean owning that history in your branding through website localization. This can be a small touch that gives your brand personality, which can be hard to come by in absence of face-to-face interactions.
Brick-and-mortar businesses, which is to say those with a store or office in a physical location, are going to be the most invested in local branding. Their branding efforts will include not only things like a logo, store and signage design but in-person relationships with customers and the community.
Businesses with several franchised store locations still take advantage of local branding from one particular location. A famous example would be IKEA. Although IKEA generally represents Sweden, owning where they come from has contributed to their unique brand personality within the crowded international market of affordable furniture.
Local branding strategies
So now that we understand what local branding is and how it works, let’s move on to some actual local branding strategies. How you go about these might vary depending on your business and community, but essentially, these represent some common best practices.
Research your local community
Like any business initiative, local branding has to start with the people you are trying to reach. It can be easy to assume that you are already familiar with the locals, particularly when you yourself are a local. But it is always important to back up your assumptions with research.
There are the usual strategies for identifying a target audience such as compiling demographic data, creating buyer personas, and researching your competitors.
For local-specific strategies, you can take advantage of more in-person approaches. This can be as simple as routinely chatting with customers at a cash register about their lives in the community. Because you will also often receive complaints in person, this gives you more of an opportunity for sustained dialogue and understanding than one-off online reviews.
In addition to speaking to people directly, you also want to consider the community as a whole. Familiarity with local politics and issues is essential, as this tells you what people in the area are preoccupied with. This also means having a good grasp on local history and how that has shaped the values of a community.
For example, Ghetto Film School is a nonprofit that empowers young filmmakers living in the South Bronx to tell their own stories, and its branding puts the community’s concerns front and center. Not only does it purposefully reappropriate the derogatory term often levied at its neighborhood, it creates a custom typography inspired by gaffer’s tape, demonstrating that something of value can be made out of limited materials.
People also tend to be proud and nostalgic over local history, even if they haven’t necessarily grown up in the place. For example, I live in San Francisco, which has become synonymous with sleek tech minimalism. At the same time, people still remember the city fondly as a haven for hippies and outcasts, and local coffee shops and stores try to keep that funky vibe alive in their own way.
Invest in a physical store brand identity
If you haven’t already developed your brand, now is the time to do so with the help of your market research. You can also work with a designer to secure basic visual brand identity assets (including logo, typography and color scheme). In this step, we will implement the brand locally through both visual and non-visual cues.
While digital brands are largely restricted to text and imagery, brick-and-mortar businesses have so many more branding opportunities in their arsenal. One of the most important is the store itself, everything from the door chime to the interior design to the ambient music to the uniforms employees wear can be tailored towards an unconscious, emotional effect on the visitor. Managing this would involve consulting with an interior and/or clothing designer.
For the exterior of the business, one of your most important branding opportunities is signage. A good sign should fall in line with your logo and branding. It should be legible, memorable, clear about what your business does, and stand out from the surrounding environment.
Depending on your lease, you may also be able to take advantage of the exterior paint, but either way it is a good idea to provide a point of color contrast with your sign. If you have any company cars or trucks, a vehicle wrap, even a simple one, allows you to take your signage on the road.
The non-visual elements of your brand include voice and personality. While these do come across in written content, offering a real human interaction is the best approach. This means that customer-facing employees are vitally important brand ambassadors.
When developing training programs, keep the brand front-and-center in addition to information about how the work itself is performed.
There are plenty of other branding assets—such as packaging, menus and flyers—that will vary from business to business. The important thing to remember is that all of these create an impression of your brand, including the lack of any brand consistency.
Represent your business on third party apps and local publications
While your physical presence is important, statistics show that over 90% of people learn about new businesses online—even local businesses. Third party applications like Yelp and Foursquare are imperative not only to your discoverability but how your brand is perceived.
While these apps involve reviews that are out of your control, you can claim your business’s pages, allowing you to manage details such as contact information, photos, and responses to negative reviews or questions.
For images, a professional photographer is a worthwhile investment for showing your brand in its best light. Responding to negative reviews gives you the chance to publicly demonstrate good customer service, turning a bad experience into a winning branding opportunity.
Another third-party medium to pay attention to is local blogs and publications. Getting featured in one of these can take some work and relationship-building. First, research the publication and journalists in order to understand the nature of the content they publish and what they are looking for. With this information, you can formulate a concise pitch and directly contact the publication (via phone or email) or meet with journalists at local networking events.
Take advantage of local advertising
While advertising exists in the realm of marketing, it also bridges the gap between branding and a sales pitch. Some local advertising opportunities include billboards and chalkboard street signs. Keep these within the vicinity of your business to encourage curious passersby to check out your store then and there.
For those looking to spend some money and get creative, guerrilla marketing can be an effective use of the physical space in your neighborhood. This involves using unconventional branding techniques like creating mural design or surreal sculptures to create unexpected advertisements on the streets.
While it essentially functions the same way as a billboard or sign, albeit more creatively, guerrilla marketing has the added potential for online virality in addition to immediate local branding.
Lastly, you shouldn’t overlook the role that social media plays in local advertising. Even if your followers might hail from all over the globe, social media provides the opportunity to show your business’s relationship to the local community on a daily basis.
Be active in the community
To truly shape brand perception within a community, your branding has to move beyond the store. Advertising can accomplish this to a certain extent, but all that it says to locals is that you paid money for advertising space. Getting your business involved in the community is how you show that you belong in the most authentic way possible.
One of the most common opportunities for businesses to get involved is to sponsor a local event, such as a parade, marathon, school sporting match or community theater production—look to an online tool like Sponsor My Event. Events like these typically rely on donations and sponsorship in order to function and fulfilling this role shows solidarity with the community.
Even if you do not have the resources to spare for a sponsorship, you can consider hosting a fundraising campaign—for example, donating a portion of your sales to a local charity. Having a presence at local festivals or street markets is another great opportunity to get your products in front of a diverse group of first-time local customers—assuming your business lends itself to a street market.
Another great way to get your brand in front of fresh local eyes is to partner with other local brands. A partnership depends on mutual benefit, so consider industries that work within your own—for example, a clothing retailer could partner with a local gym to sell fitness apparel while offering gym membership discounts.
Local branding is about community
No matter how online our world becomes, local branding will always have value. Not only does it keep a business grounded to a particular community, but it puts personal interactions front-and-center, which is important since business is supposed to be about solving problems.
With giant, faceless corporations taking up larger and larger chunks of the economic pie, people are generally supportive of their local business and much more tolerant of their advertising and branding practices.
While personality and concrete actions make up the forefront of local branding, it takes a good brand designer to communicate these traits nonverbally. So when you are ready for local branding that feels like home, get in touch with a skilled designer.