Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Indy: ICVA Hits Home Run with New Brand Concept

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.

Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Indianapolis

11 Responses to “Indy: ICVA Hits Home Run with New Brand Concept”

  1. E. says:

    It’s refreshing to see you post a post speaking so highly of Indy. Great job!

    I’m cautiously optimistic for our city in 2009.

  2. urbangirl says:

    I agree – the concept of this new brand is phenomenal. Kudos to Indy and the team at Y&L – I am anxious to see it played out. I have no doubt it will resonate with our peer cities, but I continue to believe that, as a city, the biggest battle remains right here with our own residents. We need desperately for this confident attitude, an awareness of reality, to reach the people who make their lives, and their livings, in Indianapolis.

    And thank you for posting Max's speech. Since the annual meeting I have on more than one occasion, tried to recall his exact wording to share with others. I thought is 4 themes were right on, succinct and well-stated.

  3. Christopher says:

    This makes me happy.

  4. Adam says:

    Once again, great article!

    Two things popped out to me in Max’s speech.

    First- “Indy needs to commission an exciting building by an internationally renowned architect. Soon.” Instead of shuffling through the submissions to in the Star, what if the city did commission an exciting building by an internationally renowned architect. MSA perhaps? No one said a skyscraper needed to be built on the site, but a multi-use, multi-building, architecturally inspiring facility. Something that maybe 10 to 15 stories high at it’s max. Something that, like you said, held a new home for the museum of modern art, other art galleries, shopping, dining, nightlife, apartments, condos, office space, government offices, a center for smaller concerts or other performances, and a hotel. And as a focal point, some sort of intricate fountain or monument. If I have some time (which is highly unlikely) I will try and sketch something up in Google SketchUp. Obviously times are rough, but is now not the time to build? Everyone builds in the good and then opens or gets delayed in the bad. Why not start planning in the bad times in order to open when times are better. Take a year or so for planning, a couple years for construction, this opens in 2013. If we’re not out of the recession by then, we’ve got bigger problems. The problem is that there are so many things vying for so few funds. I don’t know if it could happen.

    Second: I did not know that IMA help that high of a standing in the arts community? Why to we not try and capitalize on this? I’m not sure how, maybe Don Welsh has an idea, but I think this is something we can really build on.

  5. thundermutt says:

    Too bad Max wasn’t around when IMA commissioned its expansion. That’s one missed opportunity.

    The airport and stadium are done. Cross off two more.

    Convention center expansion is already designed and underway.

    Lilly is in shrink mode. There’s another crossed off the list.

    Simon already built their new HQ.

    This pretty much leaves IUPUI, State and City government. Good luck there.

    Realistically, it’s just not likely to happen soon. (Please note, I’m not one of the hometown “gloom and doomers” who don’t see anything good in Indianapolis…I’m a transplant too.)

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the all the comments.

    E – hope you don’t think I’m too negative. If you ever disagree with something, please speak up. Well reasoned dissent is always welcome here.

  7. Craig says:

    Thank you for the thread and the topic, but I think I must politely disagree with much of the sentiment here. And this is a difficult position for me because as a board chair myself, I am in the position of constructing and promoting our city and not merely critiquing who we are or who we want to be.

    Historically, we have struggled with branding our identity as a 'sports city.' And the rift between the sports brand and any other identity has been great. In the late 80's and 90's, the 'amateur sports' brand was relevant, ideological, and created an identity of individuality for the city, not to mention a relief from the "there's more than corn in Indiana" taglline. And the actions of the city in marketing to these events followed the campaign. Arguably, for a time, we did become the amateur sports capital of the world.

    A reversion to the simplistic ‘sports brand’ of Indianapolis seems like a regressive step to me. Two of the best cross-discipline cultural exhibits connecting our sports affinity to the arts have been the IMA’s Ingrid Calame Drawing Exhibit connecting to the Motor Speedway and Christopher West’s IMOCA work with Chakaia Booker creating sculpture from used tires. These were huge steps of faith by the arts community to connect to our sports heritage.

    Our new brand should be a more sophisticated tagline based in a grassroots perspective, a diverse logic, which speaks to the love of sports contextualized within the language of the arts – with some consideration of the reconstructive economy that we are in. If I had it hashed out, I would sell it to Y&L. But 2009 and 2010 promise to be interesting years…: "the Spirit of Competition". The tag line is "Raising the Game"… just doesn't feel right. It's missing all the work that the rest of our city has been doing in arts and culture – work which already feels under-appreciated due to the Mayor's sad budget cuts.

    And I must bring up one major disagreement that I have with Max Anderson – my first really, as I truly admire his work here. A major work of architecture commissioned by any significant party and given to an international starchitect is yet another slap in the face to those of us in the ‘brain gain’ who have chosen to return from our graduate degrees in architecture and establish our careers in architecture in Indianapolis. Our careers, which are now sinking with the dire economy, and our talents, rarely challenged or called upon in Indianapolis.

    Mr. Anderson says: “Indy needs to commission an exciting building by an internationally renowned architect. Soon.”

    We’ve done this – don’t we remember? The Indianapolis Arts Center by Michael Graves… or how about Thompson Electronics… or whatever that spec office building is called now. Who designed the airport? Or the Fieldhouse – which one? Of course, they are relatively indistinguishable. We do suffer a crisis of identity because of our weak architectural commissions in Indianapolis. And hiring the big names from afar will not truly help the identity of our city.

    What we should do is hold public competitions to design our civic buildings, choose the best designs from our local architects, and promote and market that work as the great architecture that it is. This is what is happening with Studio Gang in Chicago and many other firms whose modern design has been embraced by their city and promoted into the greatness that it deserves.

    Our true identity as a city will never be built upon the work of architects from elsewhere. We have the talent and the strength to do this now. Why don’t we, in good economies or bad?

    Craig McCormick

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Craig, you don’t post often, but when you do, it’s always great stuff, so thanks. I’ll respond in two separate comments.

    One about the branding campaign. I think part of this comes down to the mission of the ICVA. For good or ill, they are going to be judged principally on the events they bring to Indianapolis, and a good chunk of them are sports. I’m intrigued by the idea of somehow linking sports to arts through this. However, it isn’t coming through to me right now how this would work, and I do not think that Indy could truthfully brand itself primarily around arts and culture. While the city has made great strides there, it is simply not the core of the identity and indeed still too often treated by some as a checklist item. I think of Columbus, Ohio saying it is the “Indie Arts Capital of the World” and cringe.

    There is certainly a broader concept of civic identity needed. But I think this platform can can be supportive, not antagonistic. Consider: you advocate architectural competitions for major civic projects, which would seem in line with the spirit of competition theme.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    On architecture, the biggest change needed isn’t with the architect, it is with the client. The city and its leadership have to seriously value excellence in design and be absolutely committed to getting it.

    On the other hand, I’m not sold on the locals only approach. Firstly, while Michael Graves did get a couple of commissions for secondary structures, that’s the exception that proves the rule. There is also a difference between an out of town firm, and an architect of international repute. HOK designed the airport. Most of the other out of town designed buildings have likewise been from corporate design firms.

    Even so, I prefer the airport to the library, the NCAA Museum to the IMA. And when we’ve had a “locals only” competition, the results haven’t always hit the mark either (see the “Circle Truss” proposal for example).

    Interestingly, I almost added a coda to Max’s speech myself. Great cities aren’t just known for having lots of culture either, they are great because of the important things that happened or were created there, historically, culturally, and yes, architecturally. Indy can’t achieve a high degree of recognition living purely on imported talent and ideas. It has to be an originator.

    And I’ve been critical of starchitecture (you may have just prompted me to crank out one of the posts on my ideas list about it very soon). It is too often utterly contextless and says nothing about the town it is in. However, this given Indy the chance to step in and do it better.

    Yet I’m not sure that local firms will “raise their game” until there’s a legitimate fear that the business might go elsewhere. Just using an international firm as a stalking horse like KC did Frank Gehry for their arena won’t cut it. Maybe if Indy gave its next big commission to Renzo Piano, that would be the event that causes the local firms to turn loose the talent they have to try to create something really special.

    In the meantime, I’ll put out a challenge myself. Indy actually has a nice heritage of solid residential architecture. Why can’t our local architects do first class small scale residential work that is not just world class but truly innovative and what’s more establishes a true local vernacular style for the modern age? Are there no people person with money out there who will commission someone in this manner? That is where the city can step up and show the way. If nothing else, I would one day like to be such a client.

  10. Jeffrey says:

    I’d be interested in you expanding on this assertion: “sports is key to the city’s convention business.”

    I work with the meetings industry and have never heard any meeting planner bringing a convention to Indy in any way indicate it has something to do with sports … other than those very large city-wide events that leverage our sporting venues.

    What they always speak of is what was articulate in the last campaign: “so easy to do so much.” They comment on Indy being one of the most accessible, clean, friendly, value-priced convention cities with a myriad of entertainment, dining, and arts options within walking distance of the main convention hotels.

    I have high hopes for Don Welsh and greatly admire what Maxwell Anderson has already been contributing, but share some of the sentiments Craig expressed so well about a retread connection to sports and the over-reliance on starchitecture.

  11. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeffrey, thanks for the comments. I suppose being an outsider to the industry, I use terms a little different. They aren’t conventions per se, but Indianapolis hosts a huge number of athletic events in its downtown. Really, the sporting events are as significant as conventions proper. The ICVA has to be involved in both. Check out Benner’s latest blog entry for a sample of what I’m talking about:

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