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Why business location matters

A question: how much time do you spend discussing and communicating the values and culture of your business? Identifying the DNA or the style of the business, and how to recruit people who match that culture, and will positively add to it while ensuring they ‘fit’? I’d hazard a guess at a lot.

But then, how much time and attention do you give to understanding the culture and the DNA of the location you're in? And ensuring you build on the strengths of that for mutual benefit? And how much dialogue do you have with the local council or tourism guys or other similar businesses to amplify those unique benefits? I'd hazard less so.

Where you are based can have a huge impact upon the culture of a business if you apply a similar thought process to what makes your location distinctive as you do the culture of your company within it. If you can identify the unique characteristics of the area in which you're based, and match that with your values and ways of working, you'll create a stronger culture with a more natural 'fit', enhance local pride about the business, reduce employment costs and even jointly amplify those values for mutual benefit.

How am I so certain? Because I've spent the past two decades constructing and communicating brand propositions and values across a multitude of businesses, and in the past four years have applied those skills to comparing and contrasting all 50 English cities to capture the essence, and identify the unique DNA, of each one.

It was originally intended simply as a book - with the endorsement of VisitBritain and input from each and every one of those cities - to bring them to life and to help each tourist board reflect on what's distinctive about each one (and avoid copying each other's efforts). But this approach has expanded into a whole new way of thinking about locations and matching them more effectively with businesses and brands.

And what's become clear is that the language and approach used to identify and communicate a company's culture can be perfectly applied to locations. So marrying the two can bring tremendous rewards for firms to capitalise on; and towns and cities to work with to carve out a truly differentiated proposition.

You see, each town and city in this country is distinctive. Every one of them has a history, a set of features or attributes that are unique, an appeal to certain people (and maybe not others), even an essence. The towns and cities have a DNA, if you like, that can be articulated and contrasted with other places.

To make the point, consider as an example a certain city that is clear about its brand and has successfully used that to appeal to a group of businesses that value highly those characteristics.

Take Cambridge. The defining characteristics of Cambridge can be summed up in three words: discovery, traditions and alternative. Home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, it has produced 15 prime ministers, 81 Nobel Prize winners, and an impressive list of alumni such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and numerous other breakthrough scientists, responsible for, among other things, discovering DNA, botany, genetics and the human genome project. But there are other characteristics that make up the DNA of this fine city; namely the charm that exudes from the history and grandeur that surrounds you as soon as you step foot in it. From punting on the Cam to The Bumps on the same river, the splendour of the medieval architecture and the oldest amateur dramatic society in the country.

And alternative? How about the Footlights, the most famous university comedy troupe, responsible for Monty Python, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry and a raft of others.

Then there's the abstract experimentation in the form of Pink Floyd, who hailed from there, and the laid-back music festivals, the Cambridge Folk Festival and Strawberry Fair. All of this gives Cambridge an essence of free-spirited discovery.

Given this, doesn't it make absolute sense for Silicon Fen, Europe's largest cluster of high-tech businesses, to be based here; pushing the boundaries in nanotechnology, biotech, software and electronics?

A great fit between business and location: positively enhancing businesses that locate there, helping their culture and simultaneously carving out Cambridge's uniqueness.

To get a better understanding of your surroundings you need to focus on what things are different. What things are the town or city famous for? What is the unique history of the area? What elements do they promote that are really distinctive? Clue: it's unlikely to be 'great shopping'; 'a great base for exploring the area'; or 'a fascinating blend of old and new' - some of my personal pet hates from wading through thousands of location brochures. And once you've identified those unique traits, the next step is to match with your characteristics or desired values, and find the shared/crossover areas.

Now, what are the values and elements of your culture that are crucial to success, the ones that make you a distinctive business? Are you a hit-the-numbers-at-all-costs/crush-the-competition business? Is innovation important to you? Are you a creative business where idea generation is the number-one priority? Maybe communications is crucial - or a welcoming service approach?

Once you've identified those very few shared values, you're on the way to working with your location, and not simply working in it.

Next consider what industry you're in. The desirable attributes for an outdoors clothing retailer are likely to be different from a hotel company; likewise a professional services firm and an ad agency are likely to place a different premium on pushing-the-boundaries ideas. Fashion retailers and financial services firms are likely to place different emphasis on style as a company value. Yet many of these traits can be found in towns and cities up and down the country. Take fashion for example. There's only really a handful of cities in the country that have fashion and style in-built into their DNA. Nottingham, Leeds and Chester rank highly here.

Leeds has the strongest pedigree for successful clothing merchandising, with Hepworths, Burtons, M&S and George all emanating from the city.

Nottingham was the birthplace of the knitting and hosiery industries, and now boasts more artists per capita than any other city in Europe.

And Chester can boast The Rows and the oldest shop-front in the country - truly a city passionate about looking good. If you're interested in setting up a fashion emporium, these locations should provide a good fit.

Or how about innovation and discovery - important to you? These should come naturally if you're based in Cambridge, Manchester or Birmingham: all have an incredible history and a reputation for pushing the boundaries.

What if your business is in health and beauty? Again, it should come naturally if you're in the vicinity of any of the wellbeing cities, famed for their emphasis on health (step forward Bath - the spa of spas; Lincoln - sparkling with hidden treasures; and Norwich - more European than English in its outlook).

I could go on; but the key is once you get into the habit of looking for the distinctive elements of where you're based, and matching it with your values and culture, even the industry you're in, then all sorts of possibilities arise.

And the benefits of matching these different elements are big. You'll create a stronger culture - more 'in tune' and natural in the community; enhance the local pride within the business; and reduce employment costs, as your preferred employer status grows and your applicant queue swells. But the bigger benefit is when you reach out to your local council and tourism team, and other businesses in the area with similar values.

This is where it can get very exciting. If you've identified a great fit between your location and several others, why not contact the local public body responsible for inward investment or attracting visitors, and jointly work together to promote those characteristics that are not only important to you all, but at the very heart of what makes you all tick?

Could you combine to create the Cambridge Silicon Fen equivalent - a symbiotic relationship that both builds and communicates your values, and strengthens the distinctive character of the location for the benefit of all?

Location can have a huge impact upon the culture of a business. So the next time you're asked to sponsor the local roundabout, think a bit deeper about what makes you and your location unique, match them up and amplify for the benefit of everyone.

Nigel White is a marketing expert and author of City Essence, a guide to all of England's 50 cities.