My latest piece is online in City Lab. It’s another look at urban branding. Here’s an excerpt.
The problem with the typical approach extends beyond just marketing. It has tangible consequences. A brand is really a city’s conception of itself. By selling itself as a facsimile of something its not, a city ends up turning that into reality. Thus, so many urban places today seem vaguely the same—a blur of Edison-bulbed eateries and mid-rise “one plus five” apartment buildings (in which up to five stories of wood frame construction are built atop a concrete first floor). These buildings, which all look vaguely the same with their multi-shaded exterior panels that seem destined to date quickly, are now obligatory elements in densifying urban neighborhoods, as critics have observed,
In a much-discussed New York magazine essay, Oriana Schwindt dubbed this “the unbearable sameness of cities.” Traveling to the city nearest the geographic center of each state, she described how she constantly kept seeing the same Ikea lights in coffee shops she’d visit. “And it wasn’t just the coffee shops—bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.”
She’s not the only one who’s noticed that urban neighborhoods seem to be built from the same box of standard components: Vox recently explored the ubiquity of “the metal chair that’s in every restaurant.”
There are always fads and trends, of course. We all take part in at least some of them, and having fun doing so is part of what it means to be human. (I, for one, am happy that so many American cities now have a “barbecue place with lacquered-wooden tables” that Schwindt noted.) But there’s a thin line between fashionable and fashion victim. Cities need to sell something more than just the trends.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Vernacular architecture is a dying art. This is what happens when you get the same globetrotting developers and design firms working in every city of any size, and the same moneymen sending commands down from the mothership. I’m afraid to look at new developments of any scale in Chicago anymore.
Did Portland’s success come from “doing it’s own thing” or from the valuing of what Portland did by those in other places? Human relationships are what make a city and it’s culture, not buildings or furniture. Cities succeed or fail because of the actions of people, not the objects they use to do what they do. Detroit “did it’s own thing” too. It created a metro dominated by single family houses and expressways to almost the complete exclusion of all other housing types and forms of transportation. But, it wasn’t the forms of housing or transportation that undermined Detroit, it was the social and political networks that these forms supported that doomed Detroit. Detroit failed because not enough people valued those networks and their accomplishments. Buildings and furniture are the effects of urban success or failures, not the cause. Doing your own thing only works if others value your thing. The real threat is not becoming lost in a sea of interchangeability, it is becoming disconnected and marginalized from markets and networks.
Chris Barnett says
Detroit is a special case of a perfect storm. Its metro remains the “control center” of a vast and influential North American industry, atop a huge technical network. There are more engineers and patents per capita than almost anywhere else in the US.
The city’s failure is mostly about equal parts white flight and the collapse of factory employment due to automation and relocation. Unlike Chicago, it didn’t find a way to keep or attract younger higher income people with all its legacy amenities until the last 5-10 years.
Mark Hansen says
OK, I know we’re getting derailed from the topic at hand, but being from Michigan, I can’t help but comment on the subject of Detroit.
In addition the points you mentioned, I also think that many “Metro Detroiters” (as locals call themselves) had a uniquely strong anti-urban sentiment owing to the extraordinarily powerful car culture in the area. In their view, now that you had a car, why the hell would you want to deal with the hassles of urban living? Urban living was equated with deprivation, akin to living without plumbing or electricity. Walking to work was considered a sign of deep poverty, or alarming eccentricity.
Imagine telling a GM or Ford employee in the ’60s that you don’t want to own a car because it’s a hassle, or that cars are bad for the environment. Or simply that you preferred walking. Heresy! The bigger the garage, the better!
Metro Detroit simply had the greatest disdain for urban living out of the major cities, and hence the greatest urban decay. However, now that the region’s economy has diversified a lot more and urban living is back en vogue, we’re seeing a semblance of balance return to the area.
To relate this to branding, I think in the Amazon push, Detroit sold itself as more of urban destination than it really is. It’s still very much a work in progress. A white collar family with children settling anywhere in the urban core of Detroit, for example, would be considered highly irregular. It ain’t Seattle, baby. They’d be steered to one of the trendier inner ring suburbs, where taking transit to work in Downtown Detroit would again be a very irregular thing to do, and kind of masochistic unless you lived right on Woodward.
There are no special cases. If a theory, such as “do your own thing”, doesn’t explain something, the limits of the theory are revealed. I think that every place is ‘doing it’s own thing.’ How could it do otherwise? Detroit’s thing is everything to do with vehicles. Design, manufacture, research, etc. Portland’s thing is neo-urbanist development and dense social and professional networking that this facilitates. NYC’s thing is domination of capital markets. Any barriers that emerge in NYC to this activity are quickly removed. The city that shall not be named’s thing is preservation of its current social, economic, and physical form at all costs. It’s like an old crumbling stately home in which the 8th generation of the aristocratic family works constantly to keep the rain out and lights on. Some city’s things are more valuable in markets, others less so.
Carl Wohlt says
Aaron, I’m glad you’re keeping this topic alive. I think it’s more challenging for larger communities (populations over 100,000 probably) to create a truly differentiating brand position than it is for smaller communities because larger communities play in a bigger sandbox – their markets aren’t just local or regional but national and international. It may be that larger cities need a strategy for each market. I can also see that it’s more challenging to reach consensus regarding a marketing identity in larger communities just because you’re dealing with more principals with a wider range of interests. I’ve lived in a place (population 50,000) where if you asked someone for an opinion you’d get twenty responses. It’s tough to reach a consensus regarding a community branding focus and then execute a strategy that sustains momentum, even in smaller communities where there are a fewer number of voices.
These days I’m really liking the regional approach that Richard Longworth advocated when he wrote “Caught in the Middle.” The Midwest is under-branded. State identities are too broad and county identities are too narrow. Plus there are places like Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Omaha whose civic identities are informed by cross-state governments. Those are places with significant regional resources that are now under-leveraged by the individual communities that comprise the regions.
The Midwest is about the size of Western Europe. It’s gigantic. A trip from Detroit to KC is 100 miles longer than a trip from Paris to Berlin. Western Europe is divided into ancient provinces, many of which have their own unique legacies, resources and cultural identities. The Midwest doesn’t generally have this unit of regional identity. It may be the missing link to strengthening the Midwest’s investment prospects, at least in national and global markets.
A friend sent me a link to a regional branding effort in Northeast Indiana:
The production values are superior but the positioning is to me more along the lines of your article’s topic – too much like everyone else. That said, it’s a regional initiative and the messaging can always be refined. I suspect the principals will ultimately benefit from this kind of cooperative effort down the road, and they may have a leg up on other Midwest regions that remain under-branded.
LOL. Thanks, Carl, for the link. (I am a native of Fort Wayne).
Have to admit I would never choose to live in a place subject to “polar vortexes”, but there is some fondness for my ol’ hometown.
Aaron M. Renn says
Carl, I don’t know if you remember me posting this video several years ago, but it’s from Ft. Wayne and one of the best de facto branding videos for a smaller city I know.
I’m not surprised this racked up over 300,000 views.
Frank the Tank says
I agree with the overall premise that city branding is looking largely the same and indistinguishable from each. In the defense of those cities, though, the average non-urban development blog-reading person has very little impression of many (all?) of such cities. Recall Aaron’s post from a few months ago where many New Yorkers simply believe that they have the “best” in every category (e.g. best food in every genre, best independent coffee shops, best bars and nightlife, best walkable areas, etc.) by default. In essence, they legitimately don’t believe that other cities have *anything* close to New York in *any* category (outside of maybe begrudgingly admitting that the weather is nicer in the winter in Florida and California). That’s the type of hurdle that other cities need to overcome.
I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve had new visitors to Chicago tell me that they’re shocked (a) at how beautiful and clean the downtown area is (e.g. they were expecting a dirty, gritty, industrial area) and (b) that you can’t see the other side of Lake Michigan (e.g. their coastal impression of a “lake” was that it must be a small body of water). If those types of impressions of Chicago (which is a massive city that’s frequently in the news and featured in movies and TV shows) are regularly that far off, what hope do other cities have? Cities outside of NYC, LA and San Francisco basically have to convince everyone at a base level that they aren’t backwater towns and actually do have microbreweries, independent coffee shops, bike paths, etc.
Also, I think that we’re getting the chamber of commerce commercials that “we” (the general public) deserve at least when it comes to tourism. The “Imported from Detroit” commercial that Aaron mentions was a great ad in a lot of respects… but it wasn’t a great ad in making me want to take my nuclear family of 4 (with 2 elementary school kids) to visit Detroit. I know that it wasn’t a travel ad in the first place, but the point is that the average traveler generally *isn’t* looking for grittiness and true authenticity in and of itself. At best, the average traveler is looking for a “safe” version of authenticity (think Bourbon Street in New Orleans or the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville).
To use the Houston example, I really don’t know what would be great to highlight in a tourism video for Houston that would be clearly unique outside of maybe the Johnson Space Center. However, I do know that the average traveler probably isn’t looking for anything energy/oil-related at all (despite it being a huge part of Houston’s culture and economy in everyday life). To be sure, highlighting the city’s focus on energy could carry a great amount of weight in a commerce-based pitch to a business like Amazon (e.g. they have the workforce, growth and markets to be an international business center), but I don’t think it helps at all on the tourism side.
In fact, note that two of the most popular tourist destinations in the country – Las Vegas and Orlando – exist because they’re places where people can escape reality altogether (with one for adults and one for kids). In essence, they are destinations because they went full bore on NOT being authentic and instead literally building fantasy lands. (Just to be clear, I’m not throwing stones here, as I have a blast every time in Las Vegas and Orlando. My inner 10-year old self can’t wait for Star Wars Land to be completed in Disney World.) To be fair to the average tourist, Americans are generally lucky if they’re even able to take one or two vacations per year in the first place, so it’s not a surprise that they focus their scarce tourism resources of time and money on very known quantities. People literally can’t afford to waste time and money on a vacation that doesn’t meet their expectations, so that’s why the cities that aren’t as big of tourist draws need to spend a lot of time reassuring others that they do have the requisite restaurants, microbreweries, etc.
Chris Barnett says
You’ve raised an important point. The branding that’s going to get a business CEO to consider relocating his/her company or a significant operation to “City A” is different from the branding that’s going to get Frank or Chris to spend a long weekend or a week’s vacation there, which is different from the branding that lures conventions and conferences.
Sure, there’s some overlap…if Frank or Chris is going to a business-related conference Wednesday through Friday, the CVA wants us to stay the weekend and see the tourist sights (and sites). If CEO Madame X is visiting for an industry conference and has a good “visit” experience, then maybe she’ll be open to a pitch to relocate or start an operation there later.
Frank the Tank says
@Chris – Exactly. There’s some overlap between the pitch for a corporation and a tourism pitch (e.g. cultural institutions, dining, etc.), but they’re definitely not the same. A CEO could be very interested in a city’s logistics capabilities and seek a network of industrial manufacturing and industrial warehousing sites. The average tourist, though, isn’t going to find much appealing in that (and may actually be turned off by it).
Now, the CEO is looking for business needs to be met and the main overlap between those business needs and tourism is the need to attract talent (where talent is seeking a place with nice restaurants and nightlife in a similar manner as a tourist). For companies where seeking talent is the biggest challenge much more than physical assets or costs (e.g. Amazon and other tech companies), it’s not a surprise that the chamber of commerce pitches to them look a lot like the nondescript tourism ads touting similar attributes since that is what the top talent is purportedly seeking.
If Atlanta is competing for Amazon where the talent that Amazon is seeking to attract shows a clear preference for public transportation, then Atlanta is going to emphasize its public transportation system (even if it’s really weak compared to other cities) in the same way a car salesman is going to emphasize different attributes of a car depending on the customer profile (e.g. backrow and trunk space matters more to a family while horsepower and the audio system might matter more to a single person). Anyone doing its proper due diligence would know that Atlanta’s public transportation system leaves a lot to be desired just like a reasonable person ought to figure out that a Camaro isn’t exactly a family car. However, by the same token, no one should expect Atlanta to advertise the fact that its public transportation is a weakness just as Camaro ads don’t say, “This is a terrible family car.” When a company like Amazon very clearly has a wish list of X, Y and Z, it’s simply hard for any city to not emphasize X, Y and Z (even if they’re not particularly good at them).
I think that this discussion vastly overstates the power of branding and PR. A city who’s PR fails to appreciate what it really has to offer, has almost certainly failed to appreciate what it’s existing and past residents, businesses, and civic institutions have had to offer it. That’s how it got in need of self-promotion in the first place, by not valuing the things that would allow it to grow. Formulaic PR attempts just confirm this for prospective investors. It’s always what’s not said that matters most. Economic development isn’t smoke and mirrors. The work of assembling labor forces and businesses creates something of real value. Putting lip stick on a pig doesn’t really fool anyone. Nashville and Austin are not pigs. They represent real accomplishments in connecting labor and capital. They may not always succeed as they have in recent years, but that does not detract from their accomplishments, no matter how gauche or nouveau-riche they appear to those in older, less dynamic places.