After my most recent pecha kucha presentation, someone came up to me and asked a question: “What is Indianapolis’ identity?” She noted that when you think “Texas” a whole series of associations comes to mind: ten-gallon hats and cowboys, “everything’s bigger in Texas”, a certain exaggered masculinity combined with traditional “Yes, Ma’am” manners. But Indianapolis didn’t seem to conjure up anything for this person or those she worked with. It was a constant topic of conversation. This is, perhaps, not uncommon in the area. I noted how Louisville struggles with the same questions of identity.
I attribute the lack of strong identity to a few factors:
- The city’s image is tighly linked to that of Indiana as a whole, and thus to a general Midwest image. It has not traditionally been viewed as distinct from its state in the way that, say, New York City has been.
- Indianapolis has not historically been prominent on the national radar because it is a smaller city.
- The images that are conjured up when thinking of the city are those that cause embarrassment to a lot of people locally, such as auto racing and tractors.
Think of the first point. What do you call someone from Indianapolis? I can’t think of anything other than “Hoosier”. As I noted in that pecha kucha presentation, Indianapolis is culturally Hoosier. There is not a huge cultural gulf between the city and the rest of the state. I happen to think that’s a good thing. However, the Indiana association does predominantly conjure rural images such as flat farmland, tractors, small towns, etc. that are clearly not what a city like Indianapolis is about. So I do believe city needs to add a layer of unique civic identity on top of the existing stack (Hoosier, Midwesterner, American, etc). While Indianapolis should by no means try to declare independence from Indiana, it does need to strengthen its own brand.
On the second point, I’ve long noted that while other Midwestern cities are trying to turn around decline, and have to come to terms with their diminished relative standing in the nation, Indy’s profile (and that of some other places like Columbus, Ohio) is on the increase. Indianapolis has never been a larger, more important, more influential player in the nation and world that it is today. Is it in the truly big leagues yet? No, but it is at its highest level ever and is still on the way up. As it continues that upward trajectory, it will start to get more press. For example, the Colts have been incredibly instrumental in bringing Indy to the fore in the public imagination. So assuming they keep it up (and hopefully win a few more Superbowls!), the Colts (and potentially just the Colts blue color), could become more associated with Indy. Raising the city’s profile is a slow process, but the trend lines are positive here.
Lastly, let’s face it, Indy is carrying around a chip on its shoulder about being a “cow town” sort of place. It is desperate to prove its big city bona fides and have people see it as a real big city. That’s why there is so much focus on things like swanky restaurants, shops, pro sports, light rail, etc. Indy is desperate to be perceived as having the trappings of a “real” big city and be taken seriously by the Chicago’s and New York’s of this world. I think this leads to embarrassment about the things the city is associated with and a desire on the part of some to downplay its strongest brand assets.
The best example of this is auto racing. Indianapolis and the 500 Mile Race are basically synonymous around the world. Yet the city does not fully champion it as core to its modern identity. One, because it doesn’t want to be viewed as a one trick pony, which isn’t necessary a bad thing. It sees itself as being more than a one event town and is eager to showcase the new. Two, because in the US auto racing is considered déclassé by the urban elite, and the brand image of the typical Indy car or NASCAR race fan isn’t something the city really wants to portray itself as being all about. Similarly for all the traditional Hoosier attributes such as pork tenderloin sandwiches.
This is typical behavior for all human beings. When we were little kids, we wanted to emulate the older kids. When we were freshman, we were desperate to be cool like the upperclassman. As we mature through the various stages of life, we often come to view the things we left behind with embarrassment, as “little kids stuff”. We go New York and see fashionable people strutting through the streets and we feel inadequate. I understand completely the impulse behind this. But as we fully mature, we settle into our skin and become comfortable with who we are and confident about ourselves. We’re able to resist peer pressure a little better.
I personally try to live by the credo of what I call the “random bastard” theory. That is, why should I care what some random bastard on the street thinks of me? There was a Dr. Pepper commercial a while back that showed a guy happily doing all sorts of embarrassing things for his girlfriend: buying tampons, folding her underwear at the laundromat, holding the clothes she wants to try on at the boutique. The only thing he’s not willing to do is share his Dr. Pepper. We all have a good laugh at this, but I think it illustrates the way that we all as human beings care very much what even random strangers might think, even about activities that are perfectly normal and rational. The first time I took the Eurostar train to Paris, I walked out into the Gare du Nord desperate to look like I knew exactly where the cab stand was. There’s nothing I hate more than looking like I don’t know what I’m doing in public, and especially in Paris I wanted very much to look like I was a sophisticated regular, not a doofus American tourist who’d never set foot in that station before. But what could be more natural than having never been in a particular train station or airport before? It’s a perfectly normal thing. So I wandered around like an idiot tourist for a while and finally found the cab stand. I try to always remember that I shouldn’t spend any time worrying about what those random bastards on the street think. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.
I think there’s a similar process at work in cities. As Indy (and most places) start to move up in the ranks, they want to be taken seriously by the upperclassmen. But the cities that are truly successful and truly maturing have moved beyond imitation of what others deem cool. They have the confidence to boldly chart their own path to the future, and to find their own unique success. Cities, very successful ones, as diverse as Austin, Las Vegas, Portland, and Charleston, SC. have figured this out.
When it comes to brand image, having all those big city trappings ultimately amounts to nothing. Rather, I argue that it is those truly organic local items that are the key to building a future brand image. Look at almost any corporate rebranding campaign. The first thing the company does it try to go back through its history and understand its core essence, its “brand DNA” to use an overworked term. Even the hippest of companies such as fashion houses do this, mining their archives for inspiration for future collections. That’s what Indianapolis needs to do in order to understand where it is and where it should go. Indy can tack on pro sports teams and light rail lines till the cows come home, so to speak, but that provides nothing distinct for anyone to latch onto. And whether things like auto racing and pork tenderloins are good or bad is often purely a matter of attitude and perception.
Consider a few examples. Smoking is considered a lower class activity in America these days. Yet in France they smoke like chimneys and everyone thinks it is cool. Why’s that? People talk about Hoosiers chowing down on deep fried tenderloins and the like as a sign of provincial unsophistication and poor eating habits, then go to Belgium and go gaga over french fries in a greasy paper cone slathered in mayo. I fail to see the big difference. Nobody thinks Chicago hot dogs, Philly cheese steaks, or NYC pizza are bad, despite how fattening and horrible for you they are. They are all sources of pride to their communities. Heck, in Europe they even decided auto racing (Formula 1) was cool and something rich, sophisticated people should be into.
What Indy needs to do create that brand image is to stop being embarrassed at what it is and start showing a little pride and swagger about it. What could be more hillbilly than ten gallon hats and the whole Texas schtick? Yet they are perhaps the most proud people of what they are of any state – and it has worked well for them. Indy seems embarrassed of anything that has a
whiff of Southern, blue collar, or rural influence, but the fastest growing cities in America are in the South, where they are proud of their heritage. Why can’t Indy show the same pride and swagger? I’m not talking about the naive boosterism that is so prominent in some circles. That really is embarrasssing. But rather about setting a lofty goal and ambition, based clearly in the local culture. A good mixture of high ambition, bravado, and audacity, all in a local wrapper.
I think a lot of the places of the South are a good model to follow. For many years they were beaten down, economically depressed, with many national image stigmas. Yet they reinvigorated themselves through optimisim, embracing the best parts of their image while shedding the worst (creating this image of “the New South”) and having that swagger I mentioned.
I consider Atlanta as a great example. Indy and Atlanta were about the same size 50 years ago. Today, Atlanta is one of America’s largest, most booming cities. Back in the 80’s when their metro area reached the 2 million mark, civic leaders launched a bunch of balloons to celebrate. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Indy? It would probably be greeted as a sign of the apocalypse by many. When nobody gave them a chance, Atlanta said, “Let’s host the Olympics”. They believe they are destinted to be one of the top world cities. All too often, Indy just seems happy to be here, satisfied with its modest levels of outperformance versus the nation and a region that is suffering.
I just got back from Nashville, a city slightly smaller than Indy and only growing a bit faster, and there is a huge belief in their future as the next great city of the South. It is very much worth a visit to see how they are reinventing themselves, with much bigger plans and ambitions than Indy, even though I’d argue they have little to nothing on Indy and in fact are inferior in many ways. And of course they are building a lot of their identity around country and contemporary Christian music, more déclassé items among the urban elite. But what they’ve done is a put a modern spin on it with their glitzy “Nashvegas” approach. I think it is well worth spending a long weekend in Nashville checking out the vibe in the town.
I believe a successful brand repositioning for a city will probably rely heavily on creating the new brand from the essence of the old, as well as creating a new level of ambition that is combined with an optimistic world view. The first part gives people something they can relate to. The second gives them something to believe in and inspire them. I think this is something that Indy needs to do. It needs to take the best of its existing Hoosier and Midwest identity, get rid of the non-core negative aspects of it, and set forth a new ambition and positive vision for the city and what it can achieve.
So, yes, Indy’s identity is a bit weak today, but I believe the ingrediants are there to really create something. Perhaps one day Indianapolis could even be “the Capital of the New Midwest”. Ok, Chicago will always be the capital of the Midwest, but it is a complete outlier and so different from other places that you can almost consider it its own standalone region – it seems to be doing its best to declare independence from the Midwest in its bid to join the league of world cities. The lessons of Chicago are for the most part not applicable to other Midwestern cities. This leaves room for Indy to take the lead in creating a new identity amongst the real Midwest, and redefining the region for the 21st century. Indianapolis, along with cities like Columbus and Kansas City, offer a real Midwestern model of success, one that can produce viable lessons for how other parts of the Midwest can reinvent themselves to be successful.
What would this involve?
- Self-conciously define and embrace the “New Midwest” identity, keeping the best of the past and the present, while having the courage to change the things that need it for the future. Change is always a hard sell in Indiana, but if it is not a wholesale throwing out of the current identity, but more of a reshaping, it is probably a lot easier to pull off.
- Things to keep and build an identity around for the city are auto racing (yes, keep it front and center), the Colts, the small city feel, pork tenderloin sandwiches, the “good, solid, reliable people” ethic, basketball mania, highway orientation (“the Crossroads of America”), patriotism, etc. Think about the imagery the city, the state, the region conjures up. As I noted in my HARMONI review, some of these are tractors in the field, lunch pails and smokestacks, fierce competition on the sports field, airplane engines, big rigs, a researcher’s white lab coat, war memorials, and so on. These are powerful, masculine images. Chicago took more or less those same ingrediants and called itself “the City of Big Shoulders”, an image it is now consciously abandoning (a decision I feel is a terrible one, incidentally). There’s something similar there for Indy, both in terms of expressing what the place has to offer, and as inspiration for a design language and design identity for the city.
- Here’s my favorite example of taking what is and making it what could be. Hoosiers have a sort of contrarian, even ornery attitude towards the world. Indiana stood virtually alone on DST for the longest time, for example. But this is exactly what I advocate – having the courage to go your own way and not follow the lemmings. In a world where everyone else is following the pack, Indianapolis (and perhaps Indiana) dare to be different. The key is to start applying that attitude towards shaping the future, instead of digging in about the past (e.g., DST). The exact same attitude that so many view as a weakness is in fact, when used properly, a huge strength. This is what I mean by forging the “New Midwest”.
- Figure out how to leave behind some of the more negative aspects of the current brand image such as environmental degradation, racism, and, for the city itself, some of the more overtly rural imagery inappropriate to an urban envirnoment. For example, I’ve argued before that the black community of Indianapolis should be front and center as one of the central growth pillars for the central city, and represents one of the great untapped resources of the city. Virtually no other cities have blacks as one of their target markets. This leaves a big opportunity for Indy to build on its rich black heritage to create an image of one of America’s great cities for blacks. Incidentally, this was one of the things that has been absolutely critical to Atlanta’s success (“the city too busy to hate”).
- Be optimistic about the future, and set high goals and ambitions for the city. There are places in the Midwest that deserve to feel gloomy. Detroit, for example. Plenty of places are in bad shape. While Indy is not immune to the current economy or the forces of globalization to be sure, it is actually beating not just the Midwest but the nation at large in things like population growth, percentage of residents with a college degree, new high tech jobs, etc. I personally believe that Indy is a city with huge future potential. It’s not the only Midwest place like that to be sure. But it belongs in the top tier of places, no doubt.
- Embrace getting bigger and boosting national and international prominence. This alone will create better brand recognition among the public at large. So many people in this day and age are anti-growth. They cite all the perceived negatives of it. But growth is good. Growth is what provides opporunities for people and what ultimately provides the scale necessary to support those urban amenities like rail transit that so many people want. Those types of things take people and wealth to support them, and growth is how you get it.
These are just some ideas. I had intended to let this bake more and think harder about how to extract the current brand image and how specifically to update it and strategies for implementation. Instead, I decided to throw them out there and let the world collaborate on it with me. This is a complex, difficult matter, not one with simple answers. And ultimately, a culture and vision of a place grow organically out of the people who live there. Good leaders can point the way, but it can’t be imposed top down.
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.