Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Personal Brands and City Brands

Last Friday I posted a link to and a sample of Eric Fischer’s locals vs. tourists maps of geotagged photos. If you missed it, here’s another sample, this one of Chicago:

Someone posted a comment that Fischer was from Indianapolis, and this got me thinking a bit. I can’t confirm where Fischer is from. He doesn’t seem to list it anywhere that is easy to find. I’m guessing most people would probably assume San Francisco, since virtually all of the people who wrote about this project linked the same San Francisco map. We’re lazy like that.

This is a bit of an opportunity lost for Indy or wherever Fischer is from. A lot of people’s positive perception of a city’s brand is based on the cool things that happen there or are based there. Some of those cool things can be buildings, events, natural amenities and so on. But many of them are things done by people, often easily identifiable people. This image series that went viral is a small but interesting example.

It made me think immediately of a straightforward extension of Brand Territory Matrix.

Instead of cities thinking about how they can link corporate brands to their place, or leverage the intersection thereof, we can also think about personal brands in the same way.

Think about Chicago. Its image as a city is tightly linked with various people who are associated with it. Most famous of all, particularly overseas, is Al Capone of course. But you can also think about Michael Jordan or Oprah. The latter is particularly of interest. Oprah’s show isn’t really Chicago inspired, but she’s known for being in Chicago (for now, at least). Thus some of her popularity and positive image burnishes the city brand. Or think about all those celebrity chefs on Food Network. Or all those architects designing buildings around the world like the Burj Dubai. Or the indie musicians who make Chicago’s scene one of the world’s most respected. Consciously or not, clearly all of those people are ambassadors for Chicago’s civic brand.

It strikes me that as with corporate brands, cities should do a market scan of their town and build an inventory people there like Fischer who are doing really cool stuff. Then you try your best to promote them, following the principle of “first do no harm” of course, and also encourage them to associate themselves with the city in some way, so that people at least know where they are from. Then if something cool like these maps goes viral, the city can pick up a bit of cred along the way. Most cities have lists of all the famous people who are originally from there. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were equally or more so focused on those who are still around that are doing cool stuff today? Done right, and in a non-heavy handed way, this could potentially be a win-win.

Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Chicago

20 Responses to “Personal Brands and City Brands”

  1. Portland is rather good at this, at least for people in the arts. I suspect if you did a poll, you’d find that Portlanders who know who Ursula K. LeGuin is will almost all know that she lives in Portland. There’s just always some buzz about that. Ditto Gus Van Sant, Chuck Palahniuk, and many others.

    Actually, it’s interesting how little of Portland’s narrative is about people who came from there and achieved great things somewhere else.

  2. Michael M. says:

    Many years ago I sometimes used to wear a fedora I had bought second-hand, and my winter coat of choice was a typical long dark overcoat. So attired, wandering around Amsterdam in December with a friend on my first trip to that city, I overheard a Dutch teenager pointing at me murmur to his friend, “Het Chicago Gangster.”

    I had not been to Chicago at that point, but hey, I could still carry the brand. :-)

  3. Everett says:

    To a certain extent, the reverse is also true. Right now, Detroit is saddled with that joker Kwame Kilpatrick.

  4. John Morris says:

    I really, really agree with this. People actually working and thriving in the community and local businesses, and neighborhood level organizations should be the core drivers of an urban brand.

    In fact, one of the core reasons not to do top down branding at the government level is that it often ticks off or conflicts with the street level organic brands that are bubbling up.

    It’s not been too conscious an effort till recently, but Pittsburgh is really building it’s diaspora and local success folks into the act a lot more and it’s really working. Another common trend is folks who split time between Pittsburgh and another city.Also, people who are just regionally well known can be very valuable.

    Some good Pittsburgh brand ambassadors include

    The Founders of Modcloth
    Tom Sokalowski the head of the Warhol
    Barbara Luderowski (Mattress Factory Founder)
    David Conrad (actor who splits time between Pittsburgh and I think NYC)
    Girl Talk (digital music sampling phenom)
    Thad Mosley (Sculptor)
    Swoon (A famous street artist doing a big project near Braddock)
    Paper Rad ( A well known three person art collective semi based in Pittsburgh)
    Franco Harris (Steeler legend)
    Golan Levin (Electronics and technology artist)

    The Pittsburgh City paper profiles Eric Singer, a well known creator of musical robots who moved back to Pittsburgh.

    Randy Pausch, the CMU, proffessor known for his famous last lecture also put Pittsburgh on the map.

    Ironically, Richard Florida should be on this list.

  5. John Morris says:

    Of course, it’s a good idea to spread your risk. Both Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisbergher) Cleveland (Lebron James) and Atlanta (Michael Vick) know that massive personal brands can turn toxic or dissapear overnight.

    Look at the psychic investment Cleveland now has in Lebron. It’s a sad reflection on how they placed all their eggs in so few baskets.

    I’m sure, at some level people who are really doing things and investing their lives in the Cleveland area resent this kind of thing.

  6. John Morris says:

    Well, maybe not cause most of those kind of people seem to be leaving.

  7. Spot on!

    I do a lot of work with conventions and meeting planners. Cities could better promote the human r sources of their locales that meetings and conferences could take advantage of (at lower costs than bringing it outside speakers) and help create ambassadors for the city’s identity out of the meeting attendees.

    This already happens with the cultural arts, food, and geography aspects of a meeting attendee’s experience, but we really miss an opportunity to not promote the power of the people.

  8. John Morris says:

    I did a post about this and linked.

    I think this is one of your posts yet.

  9. Rod Stevens says:

    Actually I think branding is a really, really hard image. I’m a fourth-generation Portlander, and recently asked family and friends what Portland’s image is. They couldn’t come up with one, although they did list certain icons, like Mt. Hood and the running drinking fountains, as images they connected with.

    I’ve just come back from three days in Sacramento discussing this, where one challenge is the region’s reluctance to embrace it’s agricultural heritage. (5 of 6 surrounding counties are most valuable ag producers in the U.S.) There are also institutional barriers there that keep people from agreeing, so the default brand becomes “on the way to somewhere else (namely Tahoe and the Gold Country). But what’s the there, there? This is even more of a challenge for a suburban town I’m working with, that has been a sprawling bedroom community.

    One solution is story telling, for places to tell stories about people, places and events that they are proud of. Portland’s most successful ad, ever, was a picture of a man fly-fishing in a wetland near downtown. The state has also run a very successful series of ads profiling farmers and restauranteurs known for their food and food products. They’re called “individuals”, and the style of the ads is something of a cross between J. Peterman and REI, which is also close to Oregon’s style.

    I happen to believe that a brand is a promise delivered, and that promise is based on the distinctive traits and abilities and idiosyncracies of a place. “If you come here you will experience _________.” The best way to do this is with specifics, to celebrate what makes your place distinctive, and the best way to do that is with biographies. After all, John Waters did this with Baltimore through his weird movie characters (Hairspray). What makes us like a place is the things we do there, the people we meet. It’s part of what makes L.A. hard to grasp and define: we never really feel like we’ve met it. But that defining encounter on the street, that personal story we hear from someone else as we are walking along the street (or trail), those become the things we tell at the dinner table when we go back to tell our family and friends what our visit was like, and that are almost never captured on camera! Funny, but those defining events really are not captured on all the images mapped on the graphic that went with this post. Instead, for San Francisco, it is the actual act of walking along Columbus Street, the sound of the cable car bell ringing off all that concrete, the sense of motion as the car lurches up the hill, the strange people hanging out on the street drinking coffee right next to traffic. In Seattle, it’s that fish flying across the concrete at the Market. In Vancouver, it’s that rain coming down in Stanley Park. I could go on and on, but I think this is less about Kodak photo ops, and a whole lot more about people and experiences, and to capture the flavor of those, you really need great story telling, about real things.

  10. Rod Stevens says:

    P.S. Correction: The first line should be “…branding is really, really hard”. And I agree, that perhaps it should not be top down, except when it comes to advertising things that are bottom up.

  11. John Morris says:

    I get your point Rod and it’s very well said but I think this post is about letting people tell their own stories–the things they are doing, and they like, which is the overall nature of social media. It’s also why the control freaks of the world don’t like it.

    A good marketing vision has to be open enough to all of this and somehow paint a picture that’s broad enough to let the actual residents of the city fill in the picture.

    As, you said, it has to ring true.

  12. Eric Fischer says:

    Hi, and thanks for the interest in where I live. I did grow up in Indianapolis, just south of Broad Ripple, and still have relatives there, but moved to Chicago to go to college and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past decade.

    But I was interested to see that the particular neighborhoods that Indianapolis markets with signs at the airport are pretty well aligned with the ones that show up as highlights on the photo map. Either the marketing is succeeding in luring people to those areas, or the marketers are pretty well aware of what the inherently interesting areas of the city are. Probably some of both.

  13. Thanks, Eric. Super-cool maps, btw.

    I guess that commenter meant “from” in the traditional Hoosier sense of the word!

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Before moving to the US, what I knew of Chicago was,

    1. The Sears Tower.
    2. Married with Children, plus a couple of movies.
    3. Al Capone and The Sting. (Apparently, my parents’ generation would say “What is this, Chicago?” to refer to organized crime.)
    4. The L.
    5. The cold winters.
    6. The Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.

    Nowadays you could probably add Obama to what foreigners would know about Chicago. I had no idea Oprah was from Chicago until you just mentioned it.

  15. John Morris says:

    Really? Most people know that.

    The interesting thing about a place like Portland is that it doesn’t have any mega brands like that. Lot’s of people know Nike is near there and after that it’s a bunch of lesser known stuff that forms a “vibe”, people know about.

    It’s somewhat similar with Austin. There’s Michael Dell and Dell Computer. There’s the University of Texas that almost everyone knows is there. There’s South By Southwest, which I think is very well known. There’s Austin City Limits, but the music scene is mostly made up of lesser known folks and people who are legends in smaller sub cultures.

    In fact, one wonders if an Austin superstar on the Michael Jordan, Obama, Oprah type scale would just wreck it’s reputation as an “alt” place. With Portland this is even more true since that’s such a big part of the brand. I mean Austin also has the jobs, jobs, jobs brand while Portland sells a cultural lifestyle.

  16. Curt says:

    Freightliner is from Portland but I know that more because I work in the trucking industry. With all the studying that I do on transport, it seems odd that a company like that would have a HQ in Portland. Odd as it sounds, that is one of the first names I think of when it comes to Portland.

    Sometimes it’s what line of work you are in as well.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    John: exactly. Coming from outside the US, I didn’t get any of the vibes Americans get about US cities. Austin I knew as the capital of Texas; it took me a couple of years of reading about US politics to realize it’s not a hyper-conservative city. Portland I knew as just another West Coast city, vaguely near Seattle but not as big or important.

  18. Michael M. says:

    I think Curt makes a good point, and that a lot of what constitutes a city’s brand (and, to some extent, what branding efforts cities make that can pay off) is industry/interest specific. Most of the years I was living in NYC, whenever it came up that I was from the Portland area, the first word out of people’s mouth was “Powell’s.” That’s because I worked in the book publishing business. (Similarly, my strongest associations with Denver are the Rockies, the University of Denver’s Publishing Institute, and the Tattered Cover.)

    My sense is that most people outside of the Northwest and the sporting goods or advertising businesses don’t know that Nike is based in the Portland area, and that only advertising & media people know Wieden+Kennedy is here. OTOH, there’s more general (as in “general knowledge”) awareness that Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, and Amazon are all out of the Seattle area. So is that a problem for Portland, or an advantage for Seattle? Seattle, for a few decades anyway, developed a strong reputation as where things are happening, mostly new and exciting things, not just because of Microsoft/Gates and Amazon/Bezos, but also because of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc. Portland has long been thought of as Alon describes, “vaguely near Seattle but not as big or important,” yet there has always been strong resistance here to becoming another Seattle (even if that were possible). I think, generally, people like being an “alt Seattle.” We have an amazing and exciting array of custom bike builders here, and to some extent the city is helping to support the development of that niche industry. But I don’t know, even in the cycling community (which is, of course, big!) that there is much enthusiasm for trying to lure Trek or Specialized here, or to grow our own equivalent. We love Powell’s, but we don’t want it to become Barnes & Noble; we love Stumptown (and it’s growing reputation, and that Stumptown is expanding into places like NYC), but we don’t want it to become Starbucks.

    OTOH, we do want (and need) jobs. The branding challenge here is how to boost and extend without franchising.

  19. I would suggest that even if a particular piece of knowledge of a place isn’t ubiquitous, it is still valuable. In fact, it might be more valuable in certain circles and many things are valued by some for their perceived exclusivity. It’s like finding the cool band before they get popular.

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