Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

What Makes a City Desirable?

One of my favorite weekly sites to visit is Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist, self-described as the “bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth”. Interestingly, I had that motto in mind when starting this blog, though I hope I’m a bit less bare knuckled than Mr. Autoextremist.

A recent rant of the week was about what it takes to make people love cars. I thought virtually all of this was true of cities as well. He notes first that what people tell you in focus groups or surveys isn’t at all what they really base buying decisions on.

Get a group of people in a room and ask what’s important to them when they consider the purchase of a new car or truck, and the answers are as predictable as the sun coming up in the East. The words that will be regurgitated back to the moderator are inevitably ‘safety,’ ‘fuel economy,’ ‘reliability’ and of course, ‘quality.’

And manufacturers that actually take those responses as gospel do so at their peril, because everyone will recite those words when asked, but no one will actually go to a showroom or an auto show and abide by their own list of ‘must haves’ when picking out a new car or truck.

Why? It’s simple, really. Words alone don’t motivate people to buy cars or trucks. There has to be an emotional connection on some level, no matter if you’re spending used car money or picking up a new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe.

Exactly. If you want to inspire people to want to live in your town, whether that be to stay there or to move there, you need to be selling a product that creates that emotional connection. There’s no magic formula for this. You see both big cities and small towns that do it, and those that don’t.

How do you create that emotional connection? Branding and marketing is part of it, but that’s only the icing on the cake. Continues De Lorenzo:

Great advertising can create an aura for a car or truck, there’s no doubt (e.g., Hal Riney’s original Saturn campaign), but that won’t matter if the vehicle in question has the emotional appeal of a rake.

Like they say, “lipstick on a pig” isn’t going to cut it. So what does? For automobiles, it is great design.

This is where great design comes in. Some people in this business still need to be reminded of the real impact of great design, which is shocking to me. You only have to look as far as the new Malibu to be reminded of the power of great design. Do you remember the previous model? Didn’t think so. It was swiftly relegated to Rental Car Land because it had all the presence of a fax machine.

GM did a superb job on the 2008 Malibu in every respect, and they even spent proper, big-time money on a comprehensive launch – for the first time in its history – in order to get the car into the public’s consciousness. But if the new Malibu didn’t have great design language inside and out, it wouldn’t be having near the impact on the market – or on the company’s bottom line – that it is today (transaction prices are up anywhere from $4,000 – $5,000 over the previous Malibu).

I’ve been an advocate for great urban design for quite sometime. I think it can be a key ingredient in the overall package. But for a city, that’s not enough. I’ve said before, you’ve got to identify a target market, and a vision that appeals to that target market. This comes from a rich understanding of what you are as a city and what you want to be. Vegas figured it out. Austin figured it out. Portland figured it out. As I recently noted, even Houston figured it out. There’s nothing stopping other cities from doing the same. It takes finding that vision, then a relentless focus on execution over the long term.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Talent Attraction

2 Responses to “What Makes a City Desirable?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed the last couple of articles on cities. I passed on Houston in the 80’s but evidently a lot of people didn’t. While Carmel is no longer a small town, a lot of people still think in those terms. It is a great example of trying to brand an image other than just another burb. With the Keystone and hopefully the US/31 roundabouts completed, no one will be able to pass through without getting a good first impression and distinct feeling of progressive/cutting edge.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    anon, glad you liked the articles. I agree that Carmel is probably the best example in Central Indiana of setting a vision and following through on execution.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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