Thursday, May 13th, 2010

The Authentic City

There are many different meanings and definitions of the word “brand”. It is used by people in different contexts to mean very different things. Often it is about marketing or tag lines or logos. But ultimately a brand is much more than that and includes two basic components at its core:

  • A set of desired internal aspirations, goals, character, culture, competencies, etc. that describe what a product, organization or person is or would like to be.
  • A set of external thoughts, feelings, images, and associations that others have of that product, organization or person.

There are two aspects: how you are/see yourself and how others see you. Among the core challenges of executive leadership are understanding and articulating the desired internal brand, making sure that the organization lives up to that brand promise, and synchronizing the external perceptions with that reality. (Of course for cities, there isn’t a unitary brand – each of us who chooses to make our life there gets a say and has a voice).

Marketing is often confused with branding. But marketing is to a great extent a tool a firm uses to raise awareness of its brand and to inspire the desired external perception. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.

The challenge for cities that currently have rather dowdy brand images is that they obsess over how over people see them. (Or even about how they think other people see them. For example, Indianapolis frequently says people used to call it “Naptown” and “India-No-Place”, but I’m extremely skeptical that these ever had wide currency outside of Indy itself until the city started talking about them).

Seeing this negative brand image, they then look at what the cool cities are doing and say, “If we want to be cool too, we’d better be like that.” In short, they think just like high school kids who want to be part of the popular clique. They fail to consider both that this attitude is itself adolescent, and that no matter what they do, they are highly unlikely to get into the club. Cliques are by definition exclusive, so the minute you think you’ve caught up with everyone else, they are on to something else. I think one of the main reasons we’ll see starchitecture start to wane, for example, isn’t just a lack of money, it’s the fact that everyone is doing it, from Milwaukee to the Middle East.

I do recognize that as social creatures, this notion of being part of the tribe never leaves us, even in adulthood. We all engage in actions designed to display our membership in a class, a status, a group, etc. Dress for the job you want, they say. But we move beyond purely thinking of these as the road to success. We recognize them a bit for what they are – part of the game you have to play. More importantly, we grow more comfortable in our skin. We figure out who we are and what we do best. We don’t always just follow the crowd or the trend – at least few people who wants to be truly successful or move up in the ranks – or be happy – do.

Unfortunately, most cities are still stuck in high school. They think it is about having the accouterments of the cool places, not realizing that they are just like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. What’s worse, they actually seem determined in many cases to downplay or leave behind many of their strongest brand assets in any attempt to be like the cool kids. (For more on this, see my piece, “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis” ).

Some cities go so far as to downplay their very name. Detroit comes to mind. A lot of the marketing and things put out by booster groups now refer to it as “the D” – Model D Media for example. But no one knows or cares about “the D”. In fact, I’ve seen other people in cities like Dallas call their city “the D”. But “Detroit” is a name with international resonance and power. It’s what I call “the power of brand Detroit”, and it is overwhelming. Has Cleveland, Buffalo, or any other struggling city gotten one tenth the national and international media coverage of Detroit? Did Time magazine set up a “Project Toledo”? No. Detroit is simply a city and brand unlike any other, one that has the power to grab the eyes of the world. One small example: when I write posts about Detroit, my traffic goes up 10x. My piece on Detroit as the new American frontier from last summer is still being linked all over the place, including BMW discussion boards in Latvia, forums in Sweden, the New York Times, Facebook shares in Japan and more. If I wanted to maximize traffic, I’d write about nothing but Detroit. Not even my New York City or Chicago posts compete.

Those people are interested in Detroit, not “the D”. They are interested in things that locals would rather forget or not talk about. But while some of it is clearly facile, such as the n-th photo of Michigan Central Station, it shows the roots of what you need to do to revive. How to fashion companies reinvent themselves? Often it starts with a trip to the archives. I was struck by Saskia Sassen’s observation that the re-emergent global cities like Chicago built their new functions out of the expertise and heritage of the old. It wasn’t just some new business that wafted in on the wind. Chicago’s agro-industrial heritage is the basis of much of the high value service work it does today.

To renew our cities, we have to build on what they are, not what they aren’t. The lesson of Portland is not the physical things Portland did. The lesson of Portland is that they went their own way and did what was right for them. Other cities need to find their own paths. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something or aspire to be something you’ve never been. That’s how we grow as people and as cities. But suddenly deciding to just chuck your whole heritage, history, character, etc. and go in a radically different direction is probably not going to work. One reason, for example, the 1970’s era amateur sports strategy for Indianapolis worked is that sports was something that was already compatible with the local culture. It was a reworking of something that was already there, positioned for the future – and it fit the city.

I realize some changes need to be made in many places that aren’t a good fit. That requires strong and courageous leadership (top down and bottom up) to make happen. But it’s a lot more likely to happen if it is alloyed with things that do fit the civic DNA.

A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. I’m reminded of the Jonathan Glancey quote I gave last week:

What’s wrong with a city being ‘world class’? A great deal is wrong. Why? Because it’s yet another manifestation of ways in which cities are beginning to resemble one another all too closely…The joy of great cities lies in their differences. What’s special about Stockholm is different from what makes London or Vienna attractive. The ‘world class city’, and its gormless sibling, the ‘world class place’, is a political slogan, conjured by globally minded, air-travel addicted wonks, that has been adopted, sadly and dimly, by politicians, quangos and planners around the world.

Find out what it is that’s unique and special about your place, your region. What is the joy of your great city? It all starts with that great Greek proverb: “Know thyself”

PS: Detroit is a fantastic name for a city – wear it with pride!

Topics: Civic Branding

14 Responses to “The Authentic City”

  1. Michael M. says:

    Fascinating. Your mention of the amateur sports strategy for Indianapolis brings to mind the ongoing controversy here in Portland over chucking minor league baseball in favor of major league soccer. (It’s not that the soccer supporters want to chuck baseball, it’s that the facility currently used for baseball is the most logical and economical facility for soccer, and we have to choose.) It seems to me a lot of the back-and-forth, while certainly touching on issues like cost and back-room deals and fiscal responsibility, really has been rooted in whether people think major league soccer is a good fit with Portland’s brand. Not being a sports fan, I have no dog in that fight. But it leaves me wondering, is it a good fit? Are results the only determination of whether it fits — I mean, if it succeeds then it fits, if it fails it doesn’t? If that’s the case, then you can’t know going in whether it makes sense.

    Another aspect of planning where your topic comes into play here is the effort to make Portland a “world class” biking city. Many cycling advocates here take that to mean we need infrastructure similar to that found in cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. The argument is that we need to capture the “interested but concerned” demographic that shies away from cycling now because they perceive it as being too dangerous. But the current cycling demographic doesn’t ride like they do in Copenhagen. (I say this a person who makes most trips on a bike.) We go fast. I’m all for better connections and safer conditions, I just have doubts about whether transplanting infrastructure designed for different externalities, attitudes, and behavior is wise. I’m all for “world class,” I just think it should look quite a bit different than it looks like in other world class cities.

  2. Michael, thanks for the comment. I can’t comment on soccer vs. minor league baseball. However, clearly cycling is a huge part of what makes Portland what it is. So major investments there are warranted. But you raise an excellent point. Should Portland import Copenhagen’s design approach, or build something more appropriate to the local geography, climate, built form, lifestyles, and cycling culture? Obviously I’d say the latter.

  3. BrianTH says:

    We here in Pittsburgh are constantly struggling with these brand issues. We have a very powerful, but also predominantly negative, external brand that was built up over more than 100 years. We’ve been engaging in periodic rebranding efforts for decades, but with competing visions, and there is still a lot of controversy and debate internally over what our brand should be (between different stakeholders, different generations, natives versus transplants, and so forth).

    These debates often explicitly or implicitly involve the question of what elements of the entrenched external brand we should be highlighting, or ignoring, or trying to refute. For example, just ask some Pittsburghers about the notion of Pittsburgh as the capital city of northern Appalachia, and watch the sparks start to fly.

    Just recently, of course, Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of good press as a city that has successfully recovered from an economic contraction (the 1980s steel bust), one that in some ways foreshadowed wider economic events today. And the contrast between the entrenched external brand and the actuality of the city likely encourages such coverage (if nothing else, it makes for a nice, easy narrative hook for time-pressed authors). But I think there is a legitimate worry that only so many “Pittsburgh, not as crappy as you think!” stories are likely to be written. Or, in other words, that renaissance is a story, not a brand, and that eventually people will stop being so interested in hearing that particular story told about Pittsburgh.

    And that brings Pittsburghers back to the question of what we want our steady-state brand to be, and how to get there from here. Which is a complex and difficult question, but it can also be an exciting one to think about, at least when the external brand seems to be at least a little in play. And I generally agree with the notion that we should be thinking creatively about how to appropriate our powerful existing external brand and put it to work for our benefit–but then again, I am a transplant with no particular problem with the word Appalachia.

  4. George Mattei says:

    Interesting thoughts on Pittsburgh’s negative brand image. I now live in Columbus. They did a study about 5 years back that surveyed upper-and mid-level executives in companies to see what Columbus’ brand recognition was in the U.S. corporate world. Over half said they had NO concept at all of Columbus. Nothing good, or bad, just…nothing. They followed up a few years later and found that the City’s recognition level was up, but still had a substantial percentage of execs that had no notion of Columbus.

    I wonder what’s better-a negative brand that’s powerful, or a white canvas on which to paint something. Part of Columbus’ problem is it’s a mid-sized city in a bland setting that has a highly diversified economy (i.e. not dominated by cars or steel or tech, etc.). That results in a lot of positives, but a strong brand isn’t one of them.

    Columbus’ strengths don’t stand out. That’s ok. I think this city has a lot of depth, but they aren’t in things that draw attention. It’s like we’re the average-looking kid in school that does really well but not fantastic and just kind of blends in.

    The problem is that Columbus does have a HUGE inferiority complex, especially towards Cleveland and Cincinnati. For 50 years the policy was to expand the borders, partly to avoid getting hemmed in by suburbs, but also partly because Columbus just thought that if it grew BIGGER than Cleveland or Cinci it would automatically be BETTER and more well known. I think City leaders have finally realized that being bigger alone isn’t the answer, and are now investing in things that are uniquely Columbus. Hopefully over time that will forge more of an identity.

    Still, sometimes it has been difficult to draw attention to Columbus from businesses and talented workers. While Pittsburgh may have a somewhat negative brand, it also has this aura of being an older, more substantial, more established city. That can make a difference. It may turn out to be easier to repair a negative image than to create one from scratch.

  5. John Morris says:

    Pittsburgh is a very strange case indeed, as a city that often gets a lot of good press that usually focuses on it’s unique geography, rivers, hills, architecture, ethnic neighborhoods and yet until recently always downplayed or seemed ashamed of those things.

    Almost every positive article about the city mentions The South Side, or perhaps another “real place like Bloomfield, The Strip or Lawrenceville’ as well as the small scale projects like The Mattress Factory but most city tourism stuff hypes the chain hotels, mega stadiums and even out of town shopping malls.

    Personally, I think Public Choice theory explains a lot of this. If people felt better about the small scale things happening in the city and believed things were headed in the right direction they might resist or question the need for more and more government eminent domain land grabs and politically connected mega projects.

  6. John Morris says:

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that you can’t assume all the major actors automatically have your best interest at heart (and what does that mean anyway) They have their own reasons for doing what they are doing.

    I think the sports teams in small and even very large cities are a great example. I mean, it doesn’t look any of them pay for their own facilities anymore and one so the worse they make the city feel about itself the better off they are at pitching the you need us to be important act.

    Look at poor, poor Cleveland. The city seems to being looted by people who are using the town’s low self image as a weapon.

    The destruction of Pittsburgh’s Hill District was only done because people somehow believed nothing of much value was happening there.

  7. kevin c says:

    sigh…civic branding seems to be yet another form of boosting-emphasis on the superficial, marketing BS and political grandstanding rather than on creating and growing a quality community for residents. The language and images employed seem to be the same no matter what city is being promoted. Examples include construction of extravagant public buildings and amenities at the expense of smaller improvements and funding for up-to-date neighborhood planning and community development. Olympic bids come to mind. Sometimes it’s kind of funny, business improvement areas adopting amusing acronyms (SoHo, NoLa, WeHo etc). I used to live in Toronto, where obsession with “world class status” revealed a sense of inferiority. While this sort of distraction seems necessary these days, (doesn’t everything require a “brand” ?), let’s keep our priorities in order-remember that building an attractive, safe and quality environment over time will attract business and new residents-word gets out, and it’s real.

  8. Wad says:

    I am someone who’ll you will lose the moment the phrase “world class” is uttered.

    “World class” is penis envy. This notion of “world class” is desperate and a futile attempt to gain an acceptance that might not be needed in the first place.

    World class cities all became so because they leveraged their natural or economic advantages and constantly improved upon them.

    New York City, Tokyo, Paris and London didn’t become powerful cities through committee thinking or branding. Sadly, they also became great because they attracted away the talents of people from much smaller places, the ones that really needed the talents.

  9. visualingual says:

    Aaron, I actually wrote something about Cincinnati [wow, two years ago to the day!] in response to a post you’d written about what makes a great city. As a transplant to Cincinnati, I watch with bemusement the various efforts to improve the city’s image internally [a major hurdle] and externally. A lot of the time, I actually agree with the arguments and lists of positive traits, but the effort, to me, often smacks of desperation and insecurity.

    In fact, some of the really special aspects of Cincinnati, or of any city, aren’t necessarily positive, just intrinsic. Sometimes, they may even have negative roots — I think that the fact that the city government historically drags its feet may be one factor that protected Over-the-Rhine’s architecture at a time when other cities were razing their 19th century inner-city neighborhoods and building Modern behemoths, all in the name of progress.

    The more I explore different cities and neighborhoods, the more skeptical I become of ANY overt efforts at tweaking the brand image. “The D” is a perfect example, as is OTR’s own “Gateway Quarter” or even the place-making banners you find nowadays on almost any retail strip.

    Maybe I’m just contrarian, but I always recoil from anything I perceive as being encouraged to think based on these messages; it just solidifies my thinking that the opposite must be true. I think civic boosters commit a disservice to their communities if they really believe in the effectiveness of these tactics. I mean, a big part of Detroit’s charm is that it, for lack of a better word, sucks. Within and beyond that, there are many amazing things about Detroit, but they wouldn’t necessarily be so special if they were not mixed in with the many fascinating problems or, in some cases, if they were not spurred on by the problems. These things are intrinsic, and not necessarily positive, but they make Detroit, or any city, what it is.

  10. John Morris says:

    I wish I could give more perspective on Pittsburgh. I’ve lived here about six years and my perception is that in the Tom Murphy period and earlier a lot of the most negative stuff about the city was put out there by the mayor and many of the “power players”. How many times have “non profits like Pitt and UPMC used threats of eminent domain to grab land they usually use for parking garages and lots.

    The pitch was always how if you didn’t have this, you wouldn’t be “world class”. The real issue was that they wanted more power and only a beaten down city would let them have it. Now, it’s more than slightly clear to all that the government’s high taxes and massive debt level is by far the biggest problem in town.

    If the bulk of people felt areas had the potential to regenerate and that other development alternatives existed this would take power away from politicians.
    The situation with The Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland State is even worse from what I can tell.

    Amazingly this happens a lot even in NYC. Look at the Yankees and the Bronx. It’s always implied that they are the only worthwhile thing there. The worse the Bronx got, the more it became a helpless playground for political experiments and subsidised projects.

  11. Hannah says:

    If people put has as much energy into doing something in Detroit as they did into talking about it on the internet, this place would really be something.

    I’ve been in Detroit for 4 years, and it is it’s own unique city like no place else on earth. There’s something “cool” about the post-apocalypticness of it, in a way. Example – we don’t really need bike lanes (although we are adding them) because most of the time, I can have a whole lane to myself anyway especially after 5pm on a weeknight.

    Detroit’s brand is definitely recognizable, what other city in the world gets “you live WHERE?” as a response? But, as visualingual pointed out – how much Detroit sucks makes it what it is. But how do you turn that into something sustainable that people will actually come to? I have yet to figure that out…

  12. Hannah says:

    *has = half. Half as much energy.

  13. Kristen says:

    I’m taking this article to heart and using as further proof that I did the right thing by staying put and working on building institutions in my city (Greensboro, NC). We just approved a multi-million dollar aquatic center, because we wanted so bad to be world class. However, our real charm comes from the number of 19th and early 20th century homes still existing, our five universities (two which are a part of the very strong UNC system), our revitalized downtown and our low cost of living and doing business. Yet, we aren’t very big and people forget our name. Public transit is also a joke here. However, my city does the most important thing it can do, it gives me a roof over my head. We need to remember that’s priority number one.

  14. Evan says:

    To seize on a tiny part of your posting, I’m skeptical that Indianapolis’ “Naptown” nickname was considered derogative, until it was reframed as such. The first recorded reference to the term I know of is in Leroy Carr’s “Naptown Blues,” recorded in 1929. And that song is a celebration of the city (e.g.; “I would rather be in Naptown than any place I know/I can get me a ticket and stop by the Walker show”). Seems more likely to me that “Naptown” started out as a hipster abbreviation, like “Chi-town” for Chicago.

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