Research Spotlight: Citizen Engagement and Municipal Marketing in the Sunshine State

U.S. Citizens are exposed to literally thousands of brand images daily. From golden arches to green mermaids, most people identify the private firm attached to a strong brand image without effort, and can quickly recall a positive or negative feeling for that company.  These shortcuts are the result of strategic marketing activities that communicate the uniqueness of a particular brand to a customer in order to generate positive relationships and encourage customer loyalty. Ultimately, marketing is a tool used to achieve the company’s goal of profit maximization by communicating the brand and positive feeling of that brand directly to the consumer. 

Citizens as consumers not only have relationships with private firms that produce goods and services, but also have relationships with local governments.  Granted, local governments may not be marketing goods like a large order of fries or a Venti Latte, but municipalities do engage in marketing activities to communicate to citizens about available goods and services and develop meaningful relationships. The challenge for local governments, however, is that cities offer a plethora of goods and services and have existing reputations that developed over decades. Cities may use consistent symbols, fonts, or images to underscore the city is responsible for the service.  Municipalities differ from private firms, however, because municipalities use marketing activities to achieve various goals, and citizen behavior is far less predictable than consumer behavior. Citizens are also much more involved in the marketing process compared to customers of private firms. Public officials seek citizen input in marketing materials (similar to focus groups), but also see citizens as valuable participants in the production of municipal services. Citizen engagement in the marketing process can therefore not only improve the marketing materials, but can also directly foster strong relationships between the engaged citizens and the city.  Public marketing can therefore improve the services offered by cities as well as the relationship between the city and its constituency.

Despite the potential gains from public marketing activity, little is known about how, why, and to what degree city officials in the US engage in marketing.  In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that marketing activities are nearly ubiquitous in Florida cities, but cities rarely engage in these activities strategically.  We offer three ways to improve municipal marketing in order to improve city governance. Most cities attempt to market their overall “brand” or the general reputation of the city.  A city’s overall reputation may be difficult to change with a marketing campaign. One way to market the city strategically would be to set clear, measurable, and achievable goals for the campaign. Cities should also ask themselves if marketing is the best way to achieve the identified goals.  Cities also rarely evaluate the effectiveness of their marketing tools. If a campaign is not working it should be revised or abandoned. 

Local officials in Florida view marketing as a one-way tool to push information about services directly to citizens rather than an opportunity to engage citizens and improve city operations.  Nearly all officials agree that marketing is important, but view it as a means to control the narrative of the city from external stakeholders like the media. Florida cities have yet to fully realize the usefulness of marketing as a strategic tool for achieving municipal goals, but the future is promising. Cities realize the necessity of marketing and branding efforts.  In the near future we may be bombarded with more branded images as cities continue to experiment with marketing activities.  Strategically, cities should use these marketing efforts to keep us engaged as citizens and connected with our local government in order to achieve their own goals.

Dr. Daniel Fay is an Assistant Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration.

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