Totnes is a small attractive market town of around 7000 inhabitants in the south-western English countryside. There are many similar towns in the area, but Totnes has a reputation for being unique.
This small town is fiercely proud of its independence, as demonstrated recently when the town’s residents joined forces in 2010 to launch a campaign to prevent national coffee chain Costa Coffee from setting up shop in the town’s main tourist area. The campaigners were finally successful last month when Costa agreed to pull out despite having already gotten planning permission. The 71 independent coffee shops in Totnes had feared going out of business if Costa arrived in town. Now they can rest easy for the foreseeable future.
The ‘No to Costa’ campaign is just one example of how Totnes residents exemplify the independent, ‘alternative’ spirit that has made the town famous around the UK. Totnes has developed a very strong place image, which has helped boost its economy in many ways – especially through increased tourism and rising real estate prices. Totnes has become an extremely desirable place to live.
But how did this all come to be? Does Totnes have an ongoing ‘branding’ campaign, designed to promote ‘Brand Totnes’ to the British public? Not as such, but let’s take a look at the factors that originally helped create a unique image for this town that twins itself with Narnia, uses its own currency (the homegrown Totnes Pound), and has enough ‘people power’ to kick national corporations out from its streets.
As mentioned in my last post, places can develop their own myths, often created and perpetuated by the mass media. But I don’t recall Totnes ever featuring in a Hollywood movie…
Noel Longhurst of the University of Liverpool wrote his PhD thesis on ‘Alternative Totnes’, in which he claimed the town’s ‘place myth’ began during the 1980s, when author Martin Stott published a satirical guidebook to the ‘New Age’ movement. Stott featured Totnes in his book, generating a lot of publicity in the British media. This helped sow the seeds for the Alternative Totnes ‘place myth’. At the time, Totnes was a centre for alternative healers, therapists, and ‘New Age-y’ type workshops, but it was relatively unknown and not particularly fashionable. Until Stott’s book put it on the map. One could argue that the book became a ‘place branding’ campaign for Totnes, drawing media and public attention to what was already there.
During the 1990s and beyond, Totnes became more popular in the media, e.g. in 2005, British Airways’ in-flight magazine featured the town as one of the ‘Top 10 Funky Places to Live’. Media attention such as this fuelled the place myth of Totnes, which quickly solidified into a firm reality. Now, ‘the lunatics have taken over the asylum’ and created a place devoted to sustainability, organics, fair trade, local sourcing, independent retail, free thinking, tolerance (except of chain stores arriving in town!) and a strong community spirit that has driven initiatives such as the Totnes Pound and the ‘Transition Towns Movement’, the latter of which aims to encourage independent business and create more unique towns in the Totnes style.
What was once the Totnes place myth has now become a firm place brand based on numerous realities. The positive effects have been many, giving Totnes a vibrant local economy, strong tourism sector and the desirability to command rising property prices – as lots of well-off London folk invest in second homes or choose Totnes for their retirement destination.
Simon Anholt, in his book ‘Places’, claims that no marketing or PR campaign, slogan, or logo can by itself successfully alter international (or national) perceptions of places. There are no quick fixes for image and reputation, and ‘national reputation cannot be constructed, it can only be earned’ (Anholt, Places, p6).
Totnes is an excellent example of a place where the reality perfectly reflects the brand image. This, I believe, is the reason for the town’s ongoing success. As Socrates said, ‘the way to achieve a better reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.’