It’s an exciting time to be in St. Petersburg.

Talk to residents, take a walk Downtown or up Central Avenue, or read the  Grow Smarter Initiative, and it’s impossible to come to any conclusion other than this is a city on the rise.

But that’s when things start getting a bit murky. The rise of St. Petersburg from “God’s waiting room” to vibrant city has captured the imaginations of everyone who lives here, but how this evolution unfolds depends greatly on who you talk to, what their relationship is to the City, and their vision of success.

St. Petersburg’s Future

The general consensus is that we all want things to keep improving, for St. Petersburg to grow the right way, and for the community to be stronger. The City’s vision statement summarizes this sentiment nicely:

“St. Petersburg will be a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work and play. We will be an innovative, creative and competitive community that honors our past while pursuing our future.”

Unfortunately, the really important part – how to get there – is more challenging.  The previously mentioned Grow Smarter Initiative, the City and Chamber’s joint community and economic development strategy, recommends no less than five target sectors and six strategic initiatives.  It’s a well-thought-out plan that may prove impossible to fully execute because of its broadness.

In other words, it’s an ambitious plan with a lot of moving parts that requires a significant commitment and coordination of resources.  Not easy to do, particularly in a town that hasn’t changed as much as folks want to believe, a town that’s up against highly competitive rival cities  – including neighboring Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami, Sarasota and Ft. Myers.

My belief is that we need to focus and distill the Grow Smarter initiative in order for it to achieve real impact, and that this can be accomplished in part by more clearly defining the St. Petersburg brand position and using it as a filter to identify a course of action (or brand strategy).

Definition of Brand Position

To understand this perspective, let’s establish what brand positioning is. Technically, brand positioning is defined by Philip Kotler, American marketing author, as “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market.”

I prefer a simpler definition: Brand positioning is a company’s (or place’s) authenticity and distinction in the marketplace that resonates deeply with its target audience.

In other words, all great brands, whether they are products, companies or cities create emotional engagement through their authenticity (history, beliefs, reason-for-being) and value through their uniqueness/differentiation from competitors.

Apple, Southwest Airlines, and the city of Las Vegas are all incredibly successful and valuable brands because of what they represent and what they deliver. They know who they are and don’t deviate, or worse, try to be all things to all people.

The St. Petersburg brand can achieve the same.

St. Petersburg’s Brand Positioning

So what is St. Petersburg brand positioning?

Let’s start with our authenticity.  Why does St. Petersburg exist? Why has is endured to become the vibrant place it is today?

The answer is fairly simple but important: St. Petersburg exists because of our location and climate. Over the years, most people haven’t come to here to start a career, they’ve come to here to relax or retire.

Our geography is equally important because we sit on a narrow peninsula, which provides us with one of the largest and most accessible downtown waterfronts in the country and access to world-class boating and beaches. At the same time, our location is an economic liability when compared with rival cities like Tampa that have more employers and jobs, more housing options and developable land.

The other authentic feature of the St. Petersburg brand is our sense of community. People may come here for the weather, water and beaches, but most stay because of our welcoming community. We’re just the right size, and our multi-neighborhood design helps create real connections. Our residents also tend to be neighborly in general because many moved here from similar communities in the Midwest.

The St. Petersburg Group specifically focused on this aspect in positioning the City for the Economic Development Corporation. The language and imagery we chose reflected the softness, vulnerability and inclusivity that support a unique business environment for companies with similar values.

Now let’s consider what makes St. Petersburg distinctive from all the other Florida cities that have nice weather and beaches: It’s our lifestyle. Only St. Petersburg combines a sophisticated downtown, traditional neighborhoods, a burgeoning arts, music and culinary scene, and wraps it in a friendly, easygoing vibe born from our boating and beach cultures. We’re a little bit like Asheville, N.C., with water and beaches instead of mountains.

Finally, let’s consider who our target audience is, or should be. I’ll cut right to the chase – it’s the Millennial generation. Why? Because Millennials are seeking the exact lifestyle and work-life balance that St. Petersburg provides, and they have already contributed to its renaissance.

Tying It All Together

So, assuming that St. Petersburg’s brand positioning is incredibly attractive to Millennials, our brand strategy needs to focus exclusively on promoting St. Petersburg to them and creating more opportunities for them to work, study, vacation and live here.

This brand strategy must also play to our existing brand strengths – specifically our location, community and lifestyle so that it reinforces our distinction.

This means from a Grow Smarter standpoint, focusing on Creative Arts & Design and Marine and Life Sciences over other sectors, and Awareness Building, Targeted Job Creation and Entrepreneurial Growth over other initiatives.

It also means recognizing that St. Petersburg has inherent disadvantages when competing with larger rival cities for existing companies and technologies, and that focusing on high-growth emerging industries of the future that align with our brand strengths and distinction are potentially more viable. Three examples include:

  • Renewable Energy – The fact that St. Petersburg is the Sunshine City and is headquarters to Duke Energy, and isn’t the leading city in the state in promoting and utilizing solar power, is a big miss. Renewable energy is big business and St. Petersburg should invest in becoming the solar capitol of Florida.
  • Combatting Sea Level Rise – Climate change is a reality and St. Petersburg is on the front lines of sea level rise and coastal flooding. There’s simply too much money invested in coastal real estate to assume this isn’t a problem that can’t be solved, and St. Petersburg can be at the forefront of solving it by partnering with engineering firms and construction companies.
  • Medical Marijuana – Cannabis is currently one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.  By 2020, more people are projected to work in the legal marijuana industry than the manufacturing industry, and revenue is expected to grow from $7.2 billion in 2016 to over $24 billion in 2020.

Finally, it means developing a promotional strategy that’s heavy on image building and PR/social media to project St. Petersburg as a city of the future to Millennials and that inspires them to visit. Many Millennials are choosing their place of residence primarily on its quality of life and the opportunities available, and St. Petersburg has the ability to become thedestination brand for Millennials for the next 20 years.


What kind of brand is St. Petersburg? We’re a destination brand and a challenger brand.

We’re a place people come to enjoy our quality of life, and a place people stay to enjoy the strength of our community.

We’re a place perfectly sized and suited for the values and aspirations of the Millennial generation, but we need to get the word out and provide them with more opportunities.

And rather than competing for the Amazons of the world, we should focus our efforts on the high-growth industries of the near future that align with our brand.

We can become the place every Millennial wants to live and a city of the future.


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