Don Welsh, new president of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, is a man brimming with energy and confidence. The ICVA held its annual meeting last week where it unveiled its new brand concept. I’ve written a lot about civic branding and positioning in this blog (see “Our Product is Better Than Our Brand“, “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis“, and “Urban Aphorisms“). Knowing of my interest in the area, the ICVA kindly extended me an invitation to attend, which I was grateful to receive.
They told me in advance they thought I would like it. That’s where the confidence comes in as Yours Truly is definitely a tough, though I think fair, grader. The fact that they told me they were confident I’d like it was already a good sign IMO, since I’ve been saying that’s exactly what the city needs to do, walk forward more boldly, confident in its product and what it has to sell.
Before I get to specifics, I will say that CVB type organizations have a more narrow mission than what I call “civic branding”. To me, a community’s brand it is the sum of its reality, its aspiration, its collective vision, and let us not forget the all important perceptions other people have. The job of the branding campaign is to bring all these into alignment. CVB’s are chartered with luring conventions and tourists. That’s a good thing to be sure, but the type of branding and marketing for this is probably only a subset of what a city should have. Most cities seem to outsource branding to the CVB however. This has some pluses and minuses structurally. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
The ICVA partnered with the local advertising firm of Young and Laramore to produce a branding platform underpinned by the theme of “the Spirit of Competition”. The tag line is “Raising the Game”.
To extend the sports metaphor, this concept is a home run for the city.
Why do I like this so much? Well, there are a few reasons:
- It is clearly sports oriented, and sports is key to the city’s convention business.
- The idea transcends sports, and is able to work in other areas, even including arts and culture
- It recognizes how far the city has come and what it can offer now, without suggesting that the journey is complete
- It builds on the city’s heritage in sports competition without engaging in any nostalgia. It is completely present and future oriented.
- It’s bullish on the city without being BS or making over the top claims that can’t be backed up.
- It is a platform on which to launch a rallying cry to civic betterment – it can be a lure to others and a call to ourselves.
That last point is incredibly important. Remember how I said CVB branding is often just a subset of a city’s overall needs? I happen to think that in this case the ICVA took it up a notch and didn’t just create a brand that is good for conventions and tourism, but one that can (hopefully) inspire a community to remain hungry for future success.
The fact is, Indy has raised the game. Even versus a mere 15 years ago the difference is like night and day. I’ll repeat the story of taking my brother out for a birthday celebration at St. Elmo’s in February while Circle Centre was under construction. Downtown was beyond desolate. Illinois St. was lined with chain link fencing, and the wind swept street was deserted. I was the only person parked on the street just north of the construction zone. What a difference 15 years can make.
Yet, the journey is far from complete. It is easy and tempting to judge our progress in comparison to our own past. It’s easy to look at a building, any building, on a formerly vacant lot and consider it a good thing, even if it actually in the long term takes you backwards. And while Indy has grown as a city, so has the competition. A lot of what has happened in Indy – downtown restaurants, new stadiums, condos, etc. – has happened elsewhere too. The rest of the world isn’t standing still. That’s why keeping hungry and doing things right is so important. Because I can tell you this, places like Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, and Portland are still hungry. Indy does need to keep “raising its game”, which is why a brand like this is so fitting.
Now, there isn’t a single piece of collateral to back this concept up yet. It could still go off the rails in execution. So let’s not lose focus. But things like brochures can always be reprinted if you don’t like them. The critical flaws in anything, the irrecoverable flaws, are almost always conceptual. This is a great concept, so the most important thing is already right.
Beyond the concept itself, the speakers at the ICVA were hitting all the right notes. Don Welsh puts it way more succinctly than I ever could:
“We no longer need to apologize for anything here anymore. There needs to be an attitudinal change.”
And someone else made the comment that we’ve gone beyond thinking about brain drain. This is about changing the attitude to “brain gain”. Amen, again.
Y&L had a great take as well on the competition theme. They talked about “creating the mythos” of the city and how it came to be. They put up slides of cities with great natural vistas and contrasted them with Indy on a non-navigable river. Indy is an artificial city plopped down in the middle of a pancake flat plain on the swampy marshes of a puny river. This is a place that could have been, and by rights should have been, a sleepy backwater burg like lots of state capitals. But instead, this inauspicious beginning, and natural handicaps that extend to this day, inspired the city to fight harder and flat out compete harder than the competition to force itself into the conversation. It a bit reminds me of what someone once said of Texas, “Never has a group of people done so much with so little.” Again, it not only creates the mythos, but like all good myths, it has quite a bit of essential truth to it and informs both the present and future.
The next challenge goes along with what another commenter said in one of my threads. Creating a mythos involves telling the stories of the past. But the city also needs to be able to tell stories that create a narrative in people’s mind they could imagine themselves living in, playing in, or being in today. This is where Y&L is going to have to get creative. The ICVA will be judged based on tourism and conventions, but this sort of narrative is more about attracting talent. The challenge is again to bridge the two.
Also, I would challenge the ICVA and Y&L not to lose site of the underlying “spirit of competition” theme over time in favor of the tag line. The “raising the game” tag line is great, but the underlying competition concept is as well and needs to be kept front and center.
Lastly, I’d like to share the brief statement that IMA Director Max Anderson gave at the event. I thought this was compelling enough to present verbatim. I think this shows a lot of the new brand attitude in action. Thanks to the IMA and the ICVA for permission to reproduce. Let’s turn it over to Max.
Thanks, Don, and thank you Mayor Ballard. I have 4 themes to share in under 4 minutes. We’re very pleased to have all of you today in The Toby. This 600-seat theater is about the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s theater—but that one has neither a 65-foot fly loft like that behind me, nor a three-story concert stage like that below me. The Toby is newly renovated in a green way thanks to the generosity of Randy and Marianne Tobias and many other patrons. We went so far as to take apart 600 old seats so that their 24,000 pounds of metal, foam, fabric, and plastic were recycled—-because like our Mayor and Governor, and here’s my first theme: we want Indianapolis and Indiana to be known as a place committed to sustainable practices.
The Toby joins other excellent auditoria and theaters in town with a twist: we will be presenting “culturally adventurous” lectures, films, and performances, meaning that your sensibilities will from time to time be tested, your eyes will regularly be opened, and meaning, and here’s my second theme: that we can help foster a progressive, tolerant worldview from Gary to Evansville by being an unflinching home of the First Amendment in the Hoosier State. That will matter to visitors and business leaders from across the nation, and we need to create a positive image of our state if we are going to compete effectively with Tier 1 cities for leisure and business travelers.
Like Don, I’m an unabashed, unapologetic immigrant happy to boast about our vibrant capital city. We have a safe and clean downtown—and while we need to continue to work on reducing crime like every city, and here’s my third theme: we need as urgently to work on significantly increasing public support for and the visibility of our cultural offerings. Great cities do not become great because they are described as safe—they become great because they welcome and nourish creativity, in all its forms—economic, political, artistic, and architectural, and because they rise above a local definition to an inclusive one. My 4th and final theme: Indy needs to commission an exciting building by an internationally renowned architect. Soon.
No less than our friends in professional sports, Indy’s cultural institutions are well equipped year-round to attract a broad audience for our hotels and restaurants, and by word of mouth send others here in their wake. We have one of only 17 fulltime symphony orchestras in the country, a great Children’s Museum, Zoo, and Repertory Theater, among many other leading cultural institutions.
Founded 125 years ago, The IMA is among the 10 oldest and 10 largest general art museums in the country. We have collections coveted by other museum directors internationally. IMA ranks with only 5 other art museums throughout the US in the depth of our holdings in 19th century European art—the gold standard of art museums–our American peers, as defined by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, are The Met, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the Clark in Williamstown, Mass. That one indicator of our rank among the world’s leading art museums should give you a sense of why the IMA is not just a regional art museum, but an internationally appreciated one. Next year’s opening of 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park will solidify that stature. And this year’s special exhibitions, European Design and Sacred Spain will help us to attract new audiences, not only from central Indiana, but from around the country and around the world.
With Don Welsh’s leadership the ICVA is our partner in communicating the leading status of our cultural institutions nationally and internationally. Don, thank you for your energetic and visionary leadership, and for launching an ambitious and compelling call to arms to make Indianapolis a top tier city.