City of Latrobe.

If I say ‘Latrobe Valley’ what comes to mind? Pollution? Bogans?  A line at Centrelink? If you said yes to all of the above you are in agreement with most Victorians.

A recent survey we conducted for Latrobe City Council reveals knowledge of the valley is weak and perceptions are dominated by negative associations with coal and electricity production. The less people are familiar with the valley, the stronger these negative perceptions become (download full survey report). And most people have very low familiarity.

With much publicised ‘transition’ plans dominating the media after the introduction of a carbon price, there are a lot of people talking about Latrobe Valley at the moment. But good intentions often have unintended consequences – the more governments talk about coal and energy transition, the more entrenched narrow and negative perceptions become.

Imagine living in Latrobe right now? How would you be feeling? Then consider the damage electricity privatisation did to Latrobe communities, and how nervous people are that this is history repeating.

In a Kafkaesque scenario, powers of government far beyond the valley are again making decisions that will decide the fate of local communities.

To start balancing perceptions, the people of Latrobe are now telling their own story via a community led campaign – Latrobe Story. If Latrobe is to have a future which features a diverse mix of industries and employment types, local people need to understand their own potential and convey it to those who may be considering relocating from the city or another region.

For instance, did you know…

  • The only Australian-made aeroplanes are produced in Latrobe by GippsAero
  • All reflex copy paper is made in Latrobe
  • Latrobe City is one of Victoria’s four regional centres (as defined by the State)
  • Unemployment is only 5.8% in the Valley
  • All Yoplait yoghurt is made in Latrobe
  • Energy/coal are not the main employers or economic contributors to the Latrobe economy.

Now try the Valley IQ Test, a Facebook quiz we designed to test how strong and wrong the stereotypes are. There is a lot more to Latrobe than meets the eye.

Getting people outside the valley to see is differently is an exercise in establishing a competitive identity. Matching strategy with substance and symbolism.

When we think of a place, certain attributes come to mind: Sydney, the opera house; Paris, the Eiffel Tower. It took 20 years for perceptions of Melbourne to change from the city as ‘the donut’ – a place where nothing happened in its cold, dark middle – to a vibrant cultural capital.

The danger for Latrobe is that, right now, the only associations people have with it are tied to an industry that is perceived to be a ‘dead man walking’. As untrue as these perceptions are, they are prevalent and entrenched. Latrobe needs to bring a more diverse mix of associations, based on substance, to the world. That is what the Latrobe Story community campaign is doing – distilling the substance.

Place branding is not cosmetic. You can’t hide the truth or change people’s negative perceptions but you can add positive ones. Melbourne is still cold and dark but it’s also cool, edgy, lively and creative.

The media has a critical role to play in this campaign because, just as it has been important to report on government transition plans, it is important to get on the ground and see what is actually happening in Latrobe to ensure a balanced perspective in reporting, and among readers/viewers. The media can be part of the solution.

That’s why part of our work has been to support engagement and research activities with media relations. This story is Shakespearean in its unusual history, tangled plot, powerful and diverse characters, and suspense.

The good news for Latrobe and Victoria is that many cities have been faced with similar challenges and prospered. Pittsburgh swapped ‘dirty’ energy for clean energy, Newcastle placed its people at the creative heart of new proposition and Manchester produced a new brand that is astounding in its depth of concept.

All the information collected in the Latrobe Story project will feed into Council’s brand, marketing and positioning strategy, which will be successful. Why? Because it will tell the story of great potential that already exists, waiting to be told.