The affluent Chicago suburb of Lake Forest seemingly has it all: sprawling estates, major corporate employers, country clubs, beaches on Lake Michigan, and two symphony orchestras. A few years ago, however, with home sales noticeably lagging, local real estate agents and town leaders agreed that Lake Forest had one glaring deficit—young home buyers.
The problem, the Lake Foresters decided, wasn’t the city itself. Rather, it was the millennial generation’s perception of it. Lake Forest was in need of some serious rebranding.
“The reputation [of Lake Forest] was, that’s where affluent people live in big houses with big yards,” says Prue Beidler, an alderman (an elected official) on the City Council. “We were thought of as stuffy, mired in the past.”
Lake Forest is among a growing number of cities and towns using marketing campaigns and social media blitzes to spruce up their image and attract younger residents. Millennials tend to favor walkable, urban-style living, so sleepy suburbs defined by 2-acre house lots don’t have much natural appeal. The current thinking: They need to be hyped a bit.
Lake Forest’s air of exclusivity, once vital to its stature, had become a turnoff to a younger generation. High home prices, with a median around $845,000, may also be at fault. Beidler and others wanted to round out the suburb’s image by showing all that it had to offer—800 acres of open space, high-performing schools, and the lowest property taxes in Lake County. So with about $100,000 in city funding, they hired a branding firm and put together a promotional campaign with the optimistic tagline “Welcome Home.”
After all, if modern marketing techniques can be deployed to sell everything from political candidates to Sprite Zero, why not use them to push towns as well?
Branding “can begin to raise awareness or shift perception,” says Diana Ichton Nelson, co-owner of Black Fly Media, a public relations firm working on rebranding a suburb of Portland, ME. “By promoting a town’s positive attributes, people might consider it for the first time.”
A little over a year into the three-year Lake Forest campaign—which includes videos, ads, social media outreach and a revamped city website—home sales have climbed, and inventory levels have decreased, according to Deborah Fischer, a broker with Berkshire Hathaway/KoenigRubloff Realty Group.
Is branding alone enough to revitalize a community?
Branding can be especially helpful to towns that already have plenty to offer home buyers—especially when coupled with efforts to produce more of the kinds of housing and amenities that appeal to millennials, according to Ed McMahon. He’s the senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, DC–based real estate research group.
Areas without walkable downtowns, bike paths, and lots of entry-level housing? Well, they’re still going to be a tough sell, regardless of how brilliant a social media campaign might be.
Communities that go through the branding process, but “aren’t willing to do the other hard work to increase the quality of life in their community,” will probably find it doesn’t work for them, says Ben Muldrow, a partner at Arnett Muldrow & Associates, in Greenville, SC. The firm has worked on branding campaigns in more than 500 communities in 40 states.
“A focus needs to be placed on the way the community looks, and events that create a sense of community,” Muldrow says. These can include art walks, brew fests, and water or road races that make people excited about living in the area. “Branding should be the tail end of the process.”
He’s recently been working on a campaign unveiled in September for the former textile hub of Eden, NC, dubbed “Our Community, Our Nature.” It presents the city’s outdoor recreational activities as a prime reason to move there. The campaign is being accompanied by improvements to city parks and walking trails.
“They’ve also got some pioneer businesses trying to create a cool factor,” Muldrow says. “But they still have work to do for sure.”
Does rebranding a community really increase home sales?
So does branding really work? Well, the town of Bridgton, ME, about 40 miles from the city of Portland, came up with the warm and fuzzy tagline “Love Always, Bridgton,” after working with PR firm Black Fly Media. The town of roughly 5,000 has an aging population, about half of them 45 or older, and about one-third of all homes are seasonal or second homes. Town leaders wanted to attract more year-round young families to keep the town vital.
A series of in-depth interviews with residents, businesspeople, and town officials revealed that the town’s most cherished assets were its lakes, streams, and ski area, Shawnee Peak, and its affordability relative to Portland, says Black Fly Media’s Nelson.
“The most predominant thing that kept coming up is that people loved the town, for different reasons,” Nelson says. Because the word “love” has long been spelled out in the form of ski trails on the side of Shawnee Peak, incorporating that into the tagline “was a no-brainer.” The campaign, which included videos, a series of ads, a new logo, an upgraded town website, and various public events, highlighted the sense of community pride.
Emily and Matthew Delamater and their 2-year-old daughter moved to Bridgton from Portland early this year, after deciding they wanted more room to spread out. In Bridgton, where the average home sells for around $236,000 (including lakefront properties), they could get far more for their money than in Portland, where the median list price is $385,000.
While the town’s main street was a far cry from bustling downtown Portland, it supplied what Emily, 34, considered her bare necessities: a smoothie shop, a yoga studio, and a cafe. So they purchased a four-bedroom home, formerly a tourist lodge, on 17 acres for $260,000.
Before buying, they’d seen some of the early ads for Bridgton, and the tone gave them more confidence in the move, says Emily, a professional photographer. Her husband is an actor and also works as finance director for a Portland brewing company.
“It’s nice to see a community that’s putting effort forth to draw people,” she says. “It felt like they were excited about getting new people and businesses to come in.”
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