California Dreamin’

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of two describing parks and recreation leadership initiatives undertaken in California.

To many of its residents, California represents a vast and bountiful recreational playground. Indeed, approximately 50 percent of the state is reserved for uses ranging from local parks to national forests. To many outsiders, California historically and metaphorically has been a place to make a fresh start, experiment with new ideas, and create new images.

So it should come as no surprise that the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) is the vanguard of a movement to leverage the sometimes overlooked value of recreational experiences with the image-making power of marketing–a campaign entitled the CPRS Branding Initiative, or “Building the Brand.”

A Step Further

Building on the success of 1999’s VIP Action Plan, Creating Community in the 21st Century strategy, CPRS in 2006 “set an organizational goal to brand parks and recreation as an essential community service.” The plan generally parallels the work of Brad VanAuken (2003), author of the book, Brand Aid: An Easy Reference Guide to Solving Your Toughest Branding Problems and Strengthening Your Market Position. VanAuken advocates following a cyclical stepwise process that eventually evokes in supporters a priceless advocacy called “brand insistence.”

Figure 1 depicts the branding cycle’s stages, beginning with the notion that a person seeking recreational opportunities is a “purchaser” who has more than one option to consider. Initially, your “product”–the recreational opportunities you offer–may be viewed merely as a “commodity” distinguishable from your competitors’ offerings only by price. In this context, the lowest-cost provider gets the purchase. (Do you remember, in days gone by, when parks and recreation often was the lowest-cost provider?)

Under the influence of branding, however, your product is elevated above the others by establishing an emotional connection with the purchaser. So while a flashy logo may represent a brand’s external face, more important and effective is the internalized loyalty the purchaser feels toward what you and your product represent. But before this link can be forged, brand awareness must be raised so that the purchaser moves from only considering your product to actually trying your product.

Ironically, parks and recreation has been around for such a long time–and arguably has done such a good job–that currently it may be viewed as “an afterthought, an expected part of the community,” or that “anyone could deliver [its programs] or that they aren’t as necessary as other community services.” In a real and alarming sense, the value of our services may have dropped to the level of “commodity.” Branding offsets and reverses this perception of parks and recreation by “generating awareness of what we do, how no one else does it, and how the services we deliver benefit society.”

Once the purchaser has been enticed to consider your brand, the service or experience provided must be fulfilling, or you’ve lost the game. “In branding, no matter how loudly you speak, you cannot declare a brand that conflicts with how you act.” In CPRS terms, this philosophy is called “Living the Brand.” “Branding is not a logo, a symbol or a motto. Those tools can support and reflect your brand, but branding is bigger than those elements. It is who you are.”

Brand Insistence

Satisfying purchasers reinforces their favorable first impression of your brand, develops brand loyalty, and leads to the creation of the ultimate outcome: brand insistence. When this stage is achieved, purchasers not only actively seek you out, but they become “evangelists” for your services, bragging about you to whoever will listen, and bringing anyone they can recruit to your programs.

Although brand insistence is the payoff for doing the right things in the right way, it is fragile and can be damaged or lost, either by cutting corners that reduces the perceived value of your services to commodity status, or by failing to fulfill your purchasers’ expectations. These twin dangers are encountered each time a purchaser returns to consider your product. According to CPRS, effective branding allows the parks and recreation sector “to own a position in others’ minds,” and can:

Build loyalty to services

Heighten the profession’s bargaining power and independence

Stimulate growth

Attract talented people to the profession

Involve the public

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