Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Neighborhood marketing: ‘spin’ or substance?

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not around” -- North Star Ideas, neighborhood marketing program consultant

The term “marketing” usually conjures images of prescription drug ads with disclaimers in fine print, or smooth-talking car salesmen. But when informed by customer research and practiced effectively, branding and other marketing tactics can match services and products to the people who most need or want them. Can the same approach be applied to a neighborhood that is struggling to counteract negative perceptions or differentiate itself from others?

NeighborWorks America believes the answer is “yes.” The team with the Stable Communities Initiative at NeighborWorks first began piloting the idea with two network organizations that were working hard to turn around their communities around by acquiring, rehabbing and selling vacant, foreclosed houses. They had run up against a challenge, however: How do you lure new homeowners, or businesses for that matter, when the perception of high foreclosures, blight or crime overshadows the progress?

From that early experience, the Neighborhood Marketing Program was born. It is designed to pioneer and promote new ways of using marketing techniques to stabilize and revitalize communities.

“NeighborWorks America began focusing on community stabilization in 2007, in direct response to the foreclosure crisis,” recalls Ascala Sisk, director of community stabilization. “Our primary focus was on stemming the damage that foreclosures were wreaking on neighborhoods. As a result, much of our work was on helping member organizations gain control of and re-sell foreclosed homes. However, we know that to really stabilize and ultimately revitalize a community, it takes more than housing development. It takes a broader, holistic 'place-based' approach."

In 2012, NeighborWorks America selected the first 16 participants in its Neighborhood Marketing Program, offering each participant consultation with a branding expert, professional assistance with logo creation and other promotional materials, an implementation grant, and opportunities to network and share learnings. The program was extended this month to 17 additional organizations.

The team has learned several lessons in the course of its work with organizations that can help any community-based nonprofit when marketing a particular neighborhood. Paul Singh, senior manager of community stabilization and lead on the Neighborhood Marketing Program, describes four important considerations that organizations should think through before embarking on a such a campaign: 1) What do the trends say? 2) Is the time right for an “inside” or an “outside” game? 3) Do you have resident buy-in and ownership? and 4) What would success look like?

What do the market trends say?

“Any re-positioning of a neighborhood must be grounded in reality,” notes Singh. “There must already be some momentum that can be seen visually. For example, would someone walking down the street feel safe? Are there homes with strong "curb appeal"? Are home prices and vacancies stable? Do residents speak favorably of the neighborhood themselves? There can be some challenges, but the trajectory has to be going in the right direction. Otherwise, you first need to take some other actions to bolster neighborhood strengths and generate positive energy.”

The new logo developed for West Humboldt Park
Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of Chicago was one of the first-round participants in the marketing program, with a focus on West Humboldt Park. John Groene, neighborhood director of the organization’s West Humboldt Park office, explains that the community had strong assets: It is close to downtown Chicago, is surrounded on three sides by parks, is served by healthcare institutions with regional reputations and has plenty of affordable homes. Several new public services and businesses were moving in, and NHS had already done a fair amount of work to prevent foreclosures and encourage home rehabs through targeted grants and lending. However, the next step was to build more stability in the neighborhood by increasing the number of owner-occupied homes. The “low-hanging fruit,” NHS decided, was to focus on converting renters to buyers, persuading them to stay in West Humboldt Park instead of moving to the suburbs or other cities. Then the organization could expand its appeal its outwards.

“There had been a lot of bad press and internal conversation about crime in the neighborhood,” explains Groene. “Two years ago, for instance, a local newspaper called The Reader ran a story on Humboldt Park headlined ‘Besieged.’ Yes, crime is still a problem; but most of the blocks in the neighborhood are strong. We just need more residents who buy in and get involved. That’s where neighborhood marketing comes in.”

With the help of a branding and marketing strategy, NHS of Chicago is reaching out to this demographic with the message that West Humboldt Park is “an ideal place for new beginnings.”

The next post in this series will explore two other factors important to neighborhood marketing: whether the time is right for an “inside” or “outside” game, and the degree of resident ownership.