The collaborative effort among the mayors of several North County communities to boost the area’s economic development is admirable, but doesn’t go far enough. Surely, efforts should be undertaken to distinguish vibrant North County communities from other areas of San Diego County to attract private and public sector investments, but the mayors should consider a different approach. 

On the surface, they can blame lagging growth in North County on a lack of investments, but at the core, it is due to a lack of identity.

North County has tried repeatedly to brand itself, but it keeps making the same mistake. It has put too much stock in identifying itself as one North County region, largely ignoring the unique identities of its communities and failing to differentiate itself from the rest of San Diego.

As a brand professional, I believe that North County would be more successful by taking a backseat to its individual communities.

It’s a classic brand dilemma. As we marketers say, should North County be a “branded house” or a “house of brands”?

North County has been going down the Nike path — a branded house — when it should really emulate Proctor & Gamble — a house of brands. Nike’s brand value comes from its overall identity, not its individual product lines. On the other hand, Proctor & Gamble’s identity derives from (and is secondary to) the unique attributes of its many brands — Tide, Pampers, et al.

Using the branded house approach, North County has tried repeatedly to bill itself as one region, but it has never answered a fundamental question: What does its “brand” promise that makes it unique from the rest of San Diego? The Nike brand stands for superior athletic performance, but it is unclear what singular advantage the North County brand presents.

A branded house is successful when it can deliver on a clear and succinct promise, yet it has been nearly impossible for North County to do so. Simply put, North County has not been able to focus on a singular advantage because the area offers so many. Its communities are too diverse to deliver a singular message as a region.

The Proctor & Gamble approach provides another option. The company has built a diverse house of brands that offer unique promises individually; its identity subordinated in favor of its individual brands. Similarly, each of North County’s community brands — if properly developed — strengthen the region’s overall identity.

As a longtime North County resident, I see first-hand the many and varied qualities that each community brings to the region. Encinitas presents an artsy, beachy vibe in a way that appeals to surfers and young families alike.

Del Mar has a totally different personality as an historic beach town, able to draw energy from the legacy of its racetrack and residents.

Carlsbad has grown its reputation as a business hub, while also becoming one of North County’s fastest-growing residential communities.

Escondido has broken out of its rural, farming image to become a thriving education and healthcare-driven community.

If each city built its own brand, focusing on what makes it unique, the region as a whole becomes more desirable. But here’s the key: rather than adopting a “pure” house of brands approach in which the North County name is nearly invisible, the region should tie each community brand together with an endorsement, something along the lines of “Carlsbad (big letters), a San Diego North County community (small letters).”

North County will strengthen its regional identity only by highlighting its communities’ eclectic mix of personalities. Whatever I want — art or airports, beaches or business — I know I can get in North County. Only when others see that can the region truly achieve its potential.

John Ball is partner/creative director of MiresBall, a San Diego-based brand agency.

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Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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