Three Branding Lessons From Amazon’s Selection of Northern Virginia For Its Headquarters

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For those of us doing business in Northern Virginia, Amazon’s decision to choose Crystal City for part of its new headquarters makes a lot of sense. Amazon was looking for a location that could attract world-class talent, and the greater Washington, DC area possesses the most educated workforce in the country.
 
But while the decision might seem inevitable in hindsight, Amazon’s team no doubt spent countless hours analyzing every variable that would affect the desirability of its new location. So let’s dig a little deeper and look at just how Northern Virginia built itself into an attractive brand for one of the world’s leading companies and its employees. 

1. Brands are Built on Strengths
Crystal City’s original developer, Robert Smith, was advised by his father to abandon the project due to the land’s lack of perceived value. But Smith looked past the dilapidated junkyards and warehouses that littered the area and saw that his property was close to the newly constructed Pentagon, National Airport, and of course the federal government.
 
Smith knew he had the biggest strength in real estate, location, but little else. So focused on promoting his strength.
 
He went out and sold the government on the convenience (and affordability) of his land, and convinced federal agencies to locate offices outside of Washington, DC for the first time. He brought in the public by building apartment buildings a stone’s throw from the highway and in close proximity to their work (the first one to open featured a large crystal chandelier, giving rise to the name Crystal City).
 
Once these deals were in place, Crystal City’s true strength began to shine.
 
2. Brands Communicate Vision
In Arlington’s statement announcing Amazon’s decision, County Board Chair Katie Cristol made a key point:
 
“Arlington’s real strength is the decades of planning that have produced one of the most vibrant, civically engaged communities in the world.”
 
The Crystal City Business Improvement District has worked tirelessly to make its neighborhood an exciting place to live and work. But that BID wouldn’t exist if Arlington hadn’t focused on building itself into a world-class community for generations through its Comprehensive Plan.
 
What do you see in the center of that plan? A clearly defined vision of a community that embraces mass transit, public spaces, and sustainable development, all features that Amazon mentioned as desirable selling points in its announcement.
 

3. Brands Engage with Their Communities
Brands ultimately are conversations about values with a particular community. In the case of Amazon, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) brought Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties together, knowing that it would take a collaboration at all levels of government in order to match the scale of Amazon’s needs.
 
During the negotiation process, Arlington’s County Manager and the VEDP presented proposals outlining various incentives to encourage Amazon to choose Northern Virginia. If you read through these documents, you’ll find something interesting: while Arlington certainly offered a number of incentives, many of them are contingent on Amazon bringing in the number of employees and business travelers promised. You’ll also see a significant amount of incentives related to infrastructure development and energy efficiency.
 
What do these incentives mean? Quite simply, that the keepers of the Northern Virginia brand were able to have a good-faith discussion with a potential member of their community while also ensuring that the vision for the county’s plan remained strong. These kinds of conversations are how a strong brand stays that way.
 
Conclusion
A project of this size and scale is generational in scope, and it will be decades before we can analyze its impact. Amazon’s decision is really the culmination of Northern Virginia’s decades of work building its national profile, and those who have worked to grow its brand should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.
 
About the Author
Tim Young is the president of Young Marketing Consulting, a strategic marketing consultancy and full-service marketing agency that delivers sustainable solutions to marketing challenges. Learn more at youngmarketingconsulting.com