Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Rebranding Columbus

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Columbus, Ohio, one of those under the radar cities that’s a whole lot better than its external brand image would suggest.

That frustrates local civic leaders, who’ve undertaken a major re-branding effort, as discussed in a recent NYT piece, “There May Be ‘No Better Place,’ but There Is a Better Slogan:”

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting…. And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve. This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy….What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.” As a result, those working to attract new companies, top professors, conventions and tourists have a hard time explaining how Columbus differs from dozens of other cities that likewise claim to be livable, progressive and fun.

As I’ve said many times, branding isn’t marketing. It isn’t about tag lines, messaging, or talking points. Yes, there’s an element of that and getting your message out. But branding starts with what’s on the inside not messages to the outside. It’s about who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you aspire to be when you grow up. The marketing part just helps communicate that.

I won’t reprise my general prescription on branding, but here are a few pieces you can review if interested:

Despite what the title of the NYT piece might suggest, I think Columbus gets it on this:

How do you stoke the imagination of outsiders and the enthusiasm of residents? Columbus, starting from relative obscurity, has found that you cannot just hire an advertising agency, like New York and Las Vegas did, and come up with a slogan. It needs to find something real and heartfelt to trumpet, a task force of business, educational, political and arts leaders here concluded.

Your brand has to be something that is authentic, that’s true to the place. It has to resonate with the people who are there. That’s not to say it can’t be aspirational. That’s how we grow. But to simply chuck your past and trying to be something completely different is overwhelmingly difficult and often fails. So kudos to Columbus for trying to find something true to the character of their city.

Apparently they’ve been at this a while, and one of the techniques has been involving residents in helping to define the new brand: “But this time, three years into their inner journey, city leaders expect to succeed by drawing the whole population into the process and teasing out shared points of pride.”

When I read something like “drawing the whole population into the process”, alarm bells go off. It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive – I even served on the steering committee for one – but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle. Think about it. Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.

That’s not to say you ignore market research. There’s certainly an element of archeology and anthropology here. And it certainly has to go beyond simply hiring a fancy pants advertising firm, something Columbus wisely avoided. But community involvement isn’t probably going to get it either. Partially that’s because people who are too close, who are on the inside, probably have difficulty articulating the uniqueness of a place. I don’t have enough personal experience with Columbus to go into depth there. I’d have to get more deeply embedded in the community to really understand the place at a deeper level. But I’m confident that the qualities they are looking for are there to be discovered in Columbus. The city is doing well in a tough region. There have to be reasons why. It’s going to require digging deep though.

The Fallacy of Awareness

I gather from the NYT piece that the people in Columbus think they’ve got a pretty great city, and that if they could only get other people to see how great it is, their standing in the league tables of public estimation would go way up. I believe the first part is true, but not the second.

Wanting to have your city taken seriously is likely wanting to be a member of the cool kids club. How do you get in? Well, it goes without saying that you need to have the qualifications – to be good looking, rich, to suck up to the right people, etc – but is that enough? Sometimes yes, but more often not, particularly for people who don’t score overwhelmingly high.

Think about it, the defining characteristic of a clique is exclusivity. If it was too easy to get in, membership would lose its value. So if you think about cities, the urbanists, media types, academics, activists, etc. who are the arbiters to the public at large about what cities are the coolest and best generally all pick the same ones – cliques also enforce conformity of mindset – and it just so happen that those are the places that contain most of the said taste arbiters. Why would any of them choose to champion Columbus, unless they had some personal connection there?

People who are members of an elite clique generally spend most of the time talking with and about each other, and little time about anyone else, even to put them down. To be ignored is the ultimate penalty of being an outsider. This is true of almost any field.

Here’s a classic example from the blogosphere. There was a minor kerfuffle a while back about Andrew Sullivan using “ghost bloggers.” Fellow Tier One blogger Ann Althouse took extreme umbrage at this in a way I find very revealing about the mindset of members of an exclusive clique:

I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog.

Of course when she says Andrew Sullivan is important, what’s she’s really implying that she’s important, and can’t be bothered wasting her time on anyone who isn’t also on the VIP list. To have fooled her into debating mere peons – whose writing she admits she can’t tell from Sullivan’s himself – is treachery of the highest order.

In fairness to Althouse, she does link to lesser known bloggers (including, once, me). The point is not that she’s evil, which I don’t think, but that this is how the world really works.

If you are the Columbus, Ohio of bloggers, how do you get Ann Althouse, Andrew Sullivan, etc. to care about you? I can actually share a personal story in that regard. The first two and a half years of this blog was almost exclusively about Indianapolis, and I had very wide readership there. But I received very little recognition or acknowledgment in that city. Quite the opposite in fact. As an example, one journalist I assisted with a story told me flat out I wasn’t authoritative enough to quote in the piece. While I hope I’m getting better over time, I don’t think my content was that much less compelling then than it is today. And it was obviously being read. So why the difference? It’s the same dynamic I’m talking about. They might not have known who I was, but they knew who I wasn’t – and that was one of the boys. Quality product and awareness had nothing to do with it. Having experienced that end of the spectrum is one reason I try to be a champion for new voices.

There’s an industry out there that creates the myth or fantasy of the instant or overnight success who achieves fame and glory when their talent is finally seen by the public or the right people. Susan Boyle for example. I’m sure that does happen from time to time. But is that the way it ordinarily happens? And how much staying power does fame and recognition have in those circumstances?

I’d suggest that this sort of thing happens far less than we are generally led to believe. I read a lot of magazine profiles of people and when I hear them talk about how they got their big break, I’m always amazed at how often there are one of two basic tales. The first is, “I was sitting in my office one day wondering how we were going to pay the rent when my phone rang and it was Frank Gehry asking if I could design some lighting fixtures for his new Guggenheim Museum”. The second is, “I just showed up at Vogue and lied that I was sent there by Steven Meisel and they interviewed me and I got the job.” How likely is it that most of these stories are true? Or at least that they are the whole truth?

One of my guilty pleasures is the New York Observer. One of the things I love about it is, that due to the gossipy nature of the publication, they always give you the back story on who the people they are talking about are. That 27 year old chief curator at the top tier museum? Yeah, his mom was an heiress. He wouldn’t advertise that fact in most of those other magazine profiles. I’d bet most of these stories would fare similarly under scrutiny, though perhaps in different ways.

Clearly, awareness, and awareness by the right people, is critical. You really do have to get out there and knock on Vogue’s door – probably getting it slammed in your face the first few times you do it. Everybody needs lucky breaks. I have no doubt that if my personal promotional skills were better, I’d be further along in achieving my own ambitions.

But there’s a lot more too it than that. You want to be a member of the club? You’ve got to break the door down yourself. You’ve got to make it so that they can’t ignore you. If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously. Simply being a great place to raise a family, having a relatively good economy, high quality of life and low costs – a value proposition virtually identical to lots of other cities regardless of what locals might think – is not going to get the job done.

One Columbus official said, “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.” One of the brightest stars in Ohio? I’m sorry, that’s not going to cut it. It’s like I tell the people in Indy when they get excited about being the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”: that sounds an awful lot like bragging that you won the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. There’s nothing wrong with being in Ohio – and Columbus would be ill-advised to try to pretend they are something different from the state. Columbusites can be proud of Ohio and their role in it. But if they want America to pay attention to them, they need a message and reality to match that ambition.

That’s what Portland did. Portland didn’t get to be Portland through superior marketing and talking points about having the lowest costs and quality of life on the west coast with all those natural amenities to boot. They went out and did nothing less than define a new vision of what a small city in America could be. And they delivered on it through relentless hard work and actual execution over the course of decades.

Staking Your Claim

If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.

I’ll be the first to admit that this section will be unfair to Columbus. I’m going to compare it to its “twin city” of Indianapolis, a place I know far better. So keeping in mind that I just probably know more about what’s going on in Indy, and that I’m clearly a partisan of that city, I’d like to note a few things.

First, Columbus just seems more with it than Indy on a host of matters. In fact, when it comes to things like urban design, density, public transit, and many other matters, Indy is almost worst in class. It’s hard for me to even name one urban infill project that exhibits proper urban design, for example, while in others cities I tend to note that the majority of new developments do. Columbus, by contrast, just seems to get it on most issues, from urbanism, to pedestrian investments, etc. Yet why is Indy much better known?

One reason is that while Columbus does a very good job of ticking all the boxes, I can’t name many areas where it has gone above and beyond the checklist. And therein lies its problem. Columbus is a quality follower and implementer of the right things, but isn’t an urban innovator or a place that has carved out a distinct and compelling offering versus broadly similar peers.

A lot of people from bigger cities don’t care for Indy much. If you want walkable neighborhoods, tons of independent restaurants, etc. it is not your place. But time and again Indy has gone out and pulled things off that many other cities can only dream about, and put themselves in the spotlight.

The NYT notes of Columbus leaders, “One model they have studied is Indianapolis, which raised its profile by describing itself as the amateur athletic capital of America.” The NYT gets it completely wrong. Indy didn’t raise its profile by describing itself as anything. Back in the 1970’s a group of glum city leaders sat around a table wondering what they were going to do about a city best known, if as anything, as “India-no-place.” They hit on the idea of amateur sports. But rather than a marketing program, they instead committed themselves to going out and making it a reality, a process that continues to this day, though not limited to only amateur sports.

Indy built a downtown arena in the 1970’s. They built a domed stadium at the bargain price of only $80 million in 1983 without a team to play in it in an era before widespread pro sports franchise relocations. This let them pick the Colts up in 1984 on the cheap. Yes, that was a lucky break, but one they were ready to exploit. They put the domed stadium next to the convention center, not just to help conventions, but anticipating that major sports events would have ancillary activities that would use the co-located space. They created the first of its kind Indiana Sports Corp. to oversee all aspects of luring and hosting events. They saw the benefits of industry clustering, and recruited sporting sanctioning bodies to town, culminating with the NCAA headquarters. They started off with unglamorous events like the trials for the 1984 Olympics. They took risky bets when opportunity presented itself such as jumping in to host the 1986 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. They built state of the art facilities for sports few people gave much though to like swimming and bicycling.

In effect, Indianapolis created the entire industry of using sports events hosting as an economic development platform, and they did it in a holistic, extremely intelligent way that involved putting some major chips on the table for projects with an uncertain outcome. And they are still at it today, 35 years later after, as all successes do, everybody and their brother has tried to get a piece of this pie. The competition is brutal, and Indy has spent big – some say too big – to stay at the front, such as by going full out to host a Super Bowl in 2012. Indianapolis is arguably still the best place in America to host a sporting event.

I’m a believer in all the research that suggests sports investment is a bad idea with a dubious payoff for cities. But Indianapolis is an exception. There’s no doubt this was a major force in transforming the city – and getting its name out there. How much would the city have had to pay for all the de facto advertising impressions they’ve gotten from all this sports investment?

Is Columbus willing to stake a similar claim in another speculative area and put big money behind it, staying with it over the course of decades? Is Columbus ready to pile $3 billion in chips on Red 14 the way Indy did?

Indy also conceived many other similar types of programs that not only add to local quality of life, but also get the city’s name out. Consider the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious such competitions in the world. Why would anyone take seriously a fine arts competition in Indianapolis? Well, they wouldn’t, all things being equal. So when the city did it, they had to come up with an unbeatable package. First, they partnered with the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music to give them musical credibility. And they set up for the winner a year’s loan of a Stradivarius violin, a recital at Carnegie Hall and other places, intense coaching from some of the world’s best violinists, and more. That certainly got people’s attention.

Or consider the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation. Again, why would anyone think of Indianapolis in this field? They wouldn’t – except that they city anted up and made it the single biggest cash prize in this field in the world and recruited a top international nominating committee and jury.

Or look at the currently in progress Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is taking over 8 miles of downtown street lanes away from cars and giving them to people. It is a unique project, that includes the highest quality bicycle boulevard I’ve seen, along with an often separate pedestrian walkway, significant green features, and major public art installations. While honestly this has not received the publicity it deserves, it has been covered in Surface, Dwell, Streetsblog, and elsewhere. It’s a totally unique project. From now on anyone who wants to undertake a major downtown urban trail project is going to go to Indianapolis to see what it did. Why? Not because they want to, but because they have to. Because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, did you look at the Indy Cultural Trail? – and if they development team says No, they are going to look pretty stupid.

I’ve also noted how suburban Carmel, Indiana is staking out a claim to be a nationally premier suburb, with 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the United States, the largest deployment of roundabout interchanges in the United States, an ambitious agenda of New Urbanist retrofit, a $150M concert hall, and much more.

You might not know any or all of these, but in their fields, they are known. They are all projects of major ambitions, that attempt to innovate and set the agenda, and which serve a branding function for the city. They were also conceived with a recognition that nobody is going to pay attention to Indianapolis unless the city forces them to. And it has. And it’s not just in the traditional civic sphere. Here’s a point to ponder: with Columbus’ vaunted gay community, why is it Indianapolis that is home to the Bilerico Project, the Huffington Post of the LGBT community?

I could go on and on – best airport in the United States, anyone? – but I think you get the point. Indy isn’t in the club yet, and may never get there – but it has come a long way.

Again, if I knew Columbus better, I’d probably be able to give examples there too. I’m sure Columbus isn’t totally without these types of programs. But my blog has been traditionally Midwest focused. And I’ve tried to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all these cities, including Columbus. I read the Dispatch online for over two years and still read Columbus Underground regularly. But I haven’t come across that many truly compelling stories of national relevance – and certainly nowhere near as many as I’d expect for a city that’s rocking and rolling as much as Columbus is.

Maybe the painful truth is that Columbus today just isn’t very different from the other places with which it competes – and that’s what this re-branding should really address.

Columbus has most of the blocking and tackling nailed. It’s a city that gets it. But to break through at the national level, Columbus is going to have to do a lot more than get it. Columbus is going to have to start playing offense, start dictating an ambitious – and let’s face it, risky – agenda around items that are so compelling the world won’t have any choice but to sit up and pay attention. Because it’s unlikely anybody is going to start giving Columbus the props it craves otherwise. It’s just like they told me at my old firm about the secret to making partner – you’ve got to already more than be there.

Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis

44 Responses to “Rebranding Columbus”

  1. Anna B says:

    Columbus does indeed need to reconsider its image, or maybe get one in the first place. I’ve heard it sporadically referred to as “Cap City” (capital), similar to Madison WI, but it has to do better than that.
    Two options I see:
    First, dig further into Columbus history. The city is a very old one by American standards, but between loss of buildings to mid-century urban renewal and its growth primarily occurring on the fringes of the suburbs, it doesn’t look old. Reclaiming some of Columbus’ history, even if much of the physical traces are gone, could be a way to build stronger self-identity.
    Second, the whole metro area (especially suburbs) should more heartily embrace the international, multi-cultural identity of its people. Ohio State University and other entities have attracted people from all over the world to Columbus, as well as its having long-established minority communities. For the average (white) resident, however, Columbus seems to still perceive itself as a very white, homogenous city, or perhaps a diverse city surrounded by white suburbs. I believe greater self-awareness of its diversity is another key to Columbus’ identity.

    (More in my blog posts on the subject)

    Parking is Easy in Downtown Columbus

    Columbus, Ohio: White City?

  2. Jung says:

    Regarding the example of Portland, here’s an eye-opening article on how that city marketed itself:

    Even without this kind of marketing, those of us who are urban planning professionals or aficionados might still be talking about Portland. But I’m not sure if it would be as renowned in the mainstream. In 2007, I was interviewing for jobs in Columbus and Portland. Friends and family (in NYC and NJ) thought I was crazy to choose Columbus. Around that time, Portland seemed to be covered in the NY Times every week in different sections (Travel, Food, Real Estate, etc.).

    I think Columbus is a great city (and the right choice for me) but it still could be much improved as a “product.” On the marketing side, the contrasts between Columbus and Portland are clear. Columbus has an obvious top-down marketing message coming from the usual suspects (government, convention bureau, business leaders, etc.), while Portland has made its message seem more word-of-mouth, authentic, and cool. When people rave about something without knowing they have been influenced, then that is scary good marketing.

  3. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    I think that your analogy of “joining the cool kids club” is apt. The thing is that not everyone wants to join that club as a kid. Or as an adult.

    Speaking as someone from an “uncool” city[Baltimore] , i actually like the fact that Baltimore is a town that is what it is.

    I think that instead of trying to “brand” themselves. Americas cities should try to provide basic services.Many of our cities cant provide basic services.

  4. D R E W says:

    at least columbus has a blank slate and isn’t constantly fighting against inaccurate and unfair negative perceptions like cincinnati does (along with cleveland and sometimes pittsburgh).

    columbus is all about the people living there, not about the physical place (which is mostly boring and suburban looking). i hope they go with that angle when marketing themselves, and not the usual sports, low cost of living, museums, etc. route.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think outside image is really the issue here. Las Vegas didn’t become Las Vegas because of advertising, but because it was on Route 66 and had legalized gambling.

    There’s nothing wrong with Columbus’s image. It’s not in growth or decline based on how cool the mainstream media thinks it is. Atlanta, Ann Arbor, and Austin are cool; it hasn’t stopped them from having negative real per capita income growth.

    Also, on the subject of things beginning with an A, Ann Althouse blogs and has always blogged like she has room-temperature IQ. In Celsius.

  6. AmericanDirt says:

    One of my favorite pieces of apparel features an Ohio reference that somehow seems to “get it” better than a great deal of the Columbus leadership. It was a simple black t-shirt with white screen printing. The outline of the state of Ohio took up the entire front and center, and inside the state outline was filled two simple words “F*&K YEAH”. It may be profoundly cynical, but to me this shirt spoke volumes of Columbus, which may be the most Ohio of all Ohio cities–a dogged persistence to try to make cool something that is ruthlessly (and often unfairly) perceived by the outside media world as hopelessly square and middle-america. Columbus exerts so much effort to radiate coolness that it might even elevate the humidity level in the region, yet it seems to continue to spin its wheels. Perhaps it should just celebrate the positives of being a perpetually unhip stepchild–that its Midwestern lack of pretentiousness, its collegiate spirit, and its affordability make it extremely desirable to young, educated families, which may be far more important in sustaining a healthy economy over the long term than appealing to BoBos the way Portland does (which, by the way, often has an unemployment rate double that of Columbus).

    In Columbus’ defense, it has witnessed a far superior array of spin-off developments through its sports venues. Indianapolis, the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World” has seen relatively little housing in the immediate vicinity of pro-sport venues Lucas Oil Stadium or Conseco Fieldhouse, whereas the Arena District in Columbus brought housing aplenty in a formerly windswept area–framed by a minor league ballpark and an NHL Arena.

  7. cdc guy says:

    I think Indianpolis still has more downtown residents than Columbus; its residential center of gravity is further north away from the convention and stadium district. Columbus built its amenities toward OSU and existing neighborhoods instead of away from them.

    In the absence of a defining initiative, Columbus’ most defining characteristic is indeed the presence of OSU. An indirectly tied brand identity, such as “Columbus|Ohio|State” that would play on both the capital and the university might get it. It’s definitely t-shirt and bumper-sticker worthy, and its implication is clear. Even Coastal sophisticates are familiar with major universities. (Aaron will recognize my regular “play to your strengths” argument here.)

    After all, Indy piggybacked on the 500 for its identity for the 30 postwar years…when car culture was king. (I’m old enough to remember the “racetrack in a cornfield” meme; it stuck for a long time.)

    Columbus, why not piggyback for a while on a huge and well-known educational institution while education is hot?

  8. Jim Russell says:

    Concerning the comparison with Indianapolis, the state context makes a big difference. Ohio has a negative national brand (hence the quip about not being Ohio). Indiana is more of a blank canvass.

    I’m reminded of Ann Arbor versus Madison. Ann Arbor struggles in the shadow of Detroit/Rust Belt. Madison doesn’t have that stigma and aggressively tries to promote its proximity to Chicago. My brother interviewed for a job at UW and he mentioned that the Chicago pitch was used to bolster the quality of life picture.

    Most cities shoulder a brand that stems from a regional abstraction. Portland is in the Pacific Northwest and benefits from the positive branding of Seattle. Few cities have an image that allows it to stand apart from the regional context (e.g. Chicago). That means either Columbus emerges as its own superstar metro or that another city nearby picks up the slack.

  9. CrossedWires says:

    Depends on what you are looking for. If you are trying to get there from more than 4 hours away – why bother? I know of no one that flies there. Their airport is non existent on connecting to the national level. Most people I know drive to Columbus. Cousins in Ohio will drive to Indianapolis to fly to Denver, rather than use the Columbus airport or the Cincinati airport with its inflated hub prices. And to drive to Columbus, you have to go through Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

  10. George Mattei says:


    I actually had the opportunity to attend the session that was the topic of the New York Time article. I appreciate your thoughts, and I will forward a link of this blog to the organizers. I think there are things to learn from here.

    I would like to say that I do think Columbus has “stepped up its game” so to speak recently. I think we are somewhat behind Indianapolis in this regard, which started in the 70’s, but there has been much refocusing in the past several years in this town on a few areas where we can really excel and become great. That is what gives many people here hope that we can break through. The Columbus 2020 initiative is as much about growing Columbus as it is branding it.

    Also, I think the sessions that the Columbus 2020 initiative is using is as much about buying into our brand internally as well as externally. The reference about everyone participating was not about getting everyone’s input as much as getting the locals on board to see what we are, and then communicating that to others. While this alone won’t do it, I have met far too many locals bemoan Columbus for various reasons. We have a serious self-confidence issue in this city, and I think this effort is partly designed at addressing that.

    We do, in Columbus, have a very strong marketing/branding industry. They volunteered time and effort to research what Columbus is and isn’t. Here’s what came out of it. Columbus:

    1. has the largest concentration of college students in the U.S. outside of Boston
    2. is a very progressive place that welcomes newcomers
    3. is one of the premiere tech centers in the U.S. (that’s a true statement, not a marketing tag line)

    I know #2 sounds bland, but it isn’t. It’s about being able to come here and make your mark-be successful. While that may not play well in branding arenas, it’s very true, and its one of the reasons why Columbus is a growing city. We foster success. If that doesn’t market well, so be it, but again, I think part of the exercise was about getting US to see what we really are, and being proud of it.

  11. cdc guy says:

    George, besides OSU (and the relatively small Capital and Ohio Dominican), I’m at a loss to think where all those college students might be going to school in the Columbus Metro. Are Springfield and Granville now counted as part of the CMSA?

  12. George Mattei says:

    The Columbus MSA includes at least a county out, and perhaps two in some cases, so Granville is in the Columbus MSA. First OSU’s 53,000+ students is 2-3 schools put together. They count Columbus State, which has 24,000-ish students, plus all the smaller schools-including places like OU-Lancaster & Newark, Otterbein, Franklin University and the Columbus College of Art & Design. I don’t know the whole list, and sure, they aren’t all high-caliber schools, but I bet ANY city counts all their smaller and community schools in their count as well.

  13. DUer says:

    You got Denison Univ in there too :) and I heard that the downtown schools have as many students as OSU…

  14. Thanks for the comments.

    George, I appreciate the insights. What are the areas where you think Columbus can focus going forward? I’d also be interested in what the consensus view locally on the city’s weaknesses.

  15. Alex says:

    Having visited Columbus a few times I can’t believe that German Village isn’t promoted more/better known. I grew up not far from Indianapolis and know that city well. Naptown simply doesn’t have a neighborhood like German Village. And the great thing is that very modern architecture is allowed to mix with the historic neighborhood.

  16. Wad says:

    Columbus is taking a rational approach to its branding. Perhaps the problem lies in the rational approach.

    The more energy that is devoted to branding, the more by-the-numbers it becomes.

    Think about all the brands with the best marketing. They are so successful that they don’t even need marketing.

    Apple is now the best capitalized tech company by flying in the headwinds of the contemporary state of the business. People buy their Mac-based OS computers despite it costing several times more than a ubiquitous Microsoft-based PC and has limited selection and high-priced software. People buy iPod portable music players solely for the brand, even though the device is now basic hardware that’s easily duplicated. Ditto for the iPhone, even as other established cell phone makers are lapping it in functionality.

    People are buying the Apple brand, and the rationale behind Apple’s success is that it defies rationality.

    Conversely, branding is botched when you see the fingerprints of the marketing team all over it. You can learn all about it from “The Simpsons” episode about Poochie the dog.

    Continued …

  17. Wad says:

    … Continued from above.

    You know where’s an even better place to watch marketing as laboratory — one that could be applied to Columbus’ efforts to find and sell itself?

    Professional wrestling.

    I kid you not.

    In the span of one generation, WWE went from a heritage of a carnival sideshow to a highly-disciplined billion-dollar multimedia and live event empire.

    Ultimately, it all comes from the men and women pretending to fight one another in the ring. Yet the live participation of the crowd provides a valuable feedback mechanism into the success of a wrestler, and in turn, a whole show, and in turn, the WWE’s revenue platforms.

    The adage for success came not from WWE’s corporate offices, but from a fan, writer Scott Keith.

    He writes: “If you could boil (owner Vince McMahon’s) major problems (and there were lots) down to one simple reason, it is this: Gimmicks sell t-shirts, characters sell tickets. Vince’s inability to make that distinction cost him dearly as fans became smarter and expected a different product as a result.”

    Keith was referencing the then-WWF of the mid-1990s, when it was at a creative and financial nadir while wrestling was beginning to boom elsewhere.

    I bolded the statement about gimmicks and characters because it is the essence of marketing. Later, Keith writes: “The people knew who they cared about all along — it was those who had characters they could relate to, or personalities they could connect with. It didn’t matter what color the tights were or what profession they held … outside of wrestling, it was the wrestler that counted.”

    This was from the “King Lear rant”, found at .

    A gimmick is an idiosyncracy or a concept. A character is a person who is a collection of concepts, who can put together those concepts, have the timing to execute concepts and be so good that the people develop an attachment to the person, not the concepts.

    The thing to understand is that it’s the wrestler and the audience doing all the work, while marketing is there to stay the course.

    The business of wrestling is about what characters are able to put butts in seats and move merch. For cities, it’s about attracting people and moving both the tangible (goods and services) and intangible (ideas).

    George Mattei illustrated Columbus’ three gimmicks:
    1. has the largest concentration of college students in the U.S. outside of Boston
    2. is a very progressive place that welcomes newcomers
    3. is one of the premiere tech centers in the U.S.

    These are Columbus’ gimmicks, but Columbus is searching for its character.

    For each of these three points, I can say “So what?”. Any area within 50 miles of a college can make the same claim to No. 1. Any place with population growth can make the same claim. Also, “progressive” is a politically loaded term. What about people who desire to be prejudiced and intolerant without consequences? As for “tech,” technology is a concept, not something tangible. Steam engines, telegraphs, and even hand tools were technology of their times. What is Columbus producing for the world, and what is there to gain from proximity to Columbus?

    I could associate those three attributes with dozens of other cities. What could be associated with Columbus that can’t be associated anywhere else? Columbus is a state capital with positive population numbers and a university.

    Then again, I could be talking about Austin or Sacramento.

  18. George Mattei says:


    I disagree, with the exception of #2 of my statements. Many cities can claim to be progressive and open.

    The only major city that can claim to have a higher concentration of college students than Columbus is Boston. Period. There are not “a dozen other cities that can make this claim”.

    And Columbus, Route 315 Research & Technology corridor has over 50,000 technology and medical-related jobs, more than North Carolina’s vaunted Research Triangle Park. It encompasses 10,000 acres and has over a billion dollars of managed research a year. It includes some of the highest-profile research and technology institutions in the world. Ohio State receives more federal grants every year than the University of Texas. And yes, we have, and continue to produce, some of the world’s most cutting-edge medicines, medical tools and new processes.

    These are not gimmicks or platitudes, these are facts. It’s what Columbus is. Does Raleigh-Durham say, “We’re not going to tell people we’re a tech center, because that’s a gimmick? Let’s not talk about Duke, UNC, NC State and Research Triangle Park?” No.

    The problem is, does anyone know this about Columbus? I don’t think so. When Columbus leaders went to visit Austin a few years back to study how that city achieved its success, and met with Michael Dell, he provided a very blunt assessment of why he would not pick Columbus for a new Dell facility. He basically said, “Why would I locate my new facility in a city that’s a bunch of rusty old factories and blue-collar workers?”

    Now, anyone that knows Columbus knows that this is a completely inaccurate vision of the city. Are there other cities that somewhat fit this mold? Yes. Raleigh-Durham and Austin come to mind. But I bet Wad you would not say that these cities are using “gimmicks” to sell themselves.

  19. cdc guy says:

    George, I did a quick lookup on college/university enrollments in Indianapolis: IUPUI (30,000), Ivy Tech (18,000, downtown campus only), Butler (4400), UIndy (4300), and Marian (2200). By my math, that is 58,900. That does not include extension campuses or the proprietary schools. ITT Tech is headquartered here.

    I’m afraid Wad is probably right: state capital, high concentration of college students, high-tech life-sciences center is also true of Indianapolis. (There are four major homegrown life-sciences companies in the region: Lilly, Elanco Animal Health, Dow Agro, Roche.)

    That set of attributes may, in fact, be merely the ante in the growth and attraction game. Features, not benefits.

  20. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, to answer your question, I think there are several areas where Columbus can focus going forward.

    First, we do have an image problem. I agree gimmicks won’t solve our problems (we tried that and it didn’t work), but if your reputation is not a good one, that hurts.

    Second, Columbus’ biggest problem is that we have been somewhat a generalist to date. We have grown many industries at a nice clip, but we haven’t had one or two that have come to be “what Columbus is”. This is partly a focus issue, and partly an image issue. Our leadership in years past focused on population growth and expanding the city’s borders. “Grow or die” as they said, because they didn’t want to be hemmed in by the ‘burbs much like other Ohio cities had. So there has not been a focused economic development effort in a few clusters, unlike Indianapolis. This has led to the perception, both within and outside of Columbus, that we are just another sleepy Midwestern city that relies on gimmicks to get by.

    This is ironic, since, despite our lack of focus until recently, we have, somewhat by “accident” begun developing some clusters. The Columbus Partnership, which is a roundtable economic development agency led by some of the area’s biggest business figures, has identified a few areas where we can grow:

    • Research & higher ed-already discussed strengths
    • Logistics-we are ideally located and have the infrastructure to serve as a national distribution hub
    • Arts & culture

    Yes, these sound generic, but we have strengths in each of them. For example, the Columbus College of Art and Design is one of the top-ranked art schools in the nation. We have thousands of students every year coming to Columbus to become artists. Not all of them stay, but enough are that we are beginning to have a real grassroots arts community in the area.

    To further expand on the point of lack of focus, despite Columbus’ substantial presence in the technology field, we have done a poor job to date leveraging these assets to create new companies. For example, Ohio State receives less licensing & commercialization revenue annually than Ohio University, a much smaller school. That’s embarrassing. Ohio State has only recently begun to really focus on commercialization and generating new products for commercial use. Additionally, until a few years ago, there were several organizations that were responsible for technology growth in the region. Now they have merged and there is one-TechColumbus.

    This has been the case in many areas. We have underfunded our economic development efforts, and there has been a lack of focus regionally. We have more or less been successful by accident, not by focusing our talents and resources wisely.

    That is changing. The Columbus Partnership had a wake-up call recently when we almost lost the headquarters of NetJets to Raleigh. Aaron, I will send you an article that really sums up the issues that they realized they had when they saved this company from moving. I think the concept of how we do economic development was changing before that, but now it’s really become more focused. See the following document for a very direct summary of the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that Columbus has as seen through the eyes of the region’s leaders:

    Also, look at the Columbus 2020 website generally, as well as this site:

    The reason why I am so optimistic is that we have great resources here, great talent, and we are finally figuring out how to use it.

  21. Thanks, George.

    The Columbus benchmarking report that the Columbus Partnership sponsored a couple years ago was really good work, I thought.

    There’s no shame in what Columbus did to get bigger. The logic proved to be right! Columbus expanding the city borders was a good thing in my view. I’ve said of Indy the region is too small. Another million would really help with scale issues. I presume the same is true of Columbus.

    Every city has a lot of college students, but Ohio State is simply of another order. I believe it is the largest college campus in the United States – that’s an impact. Of course, there’s more than quantity involved of course. OSU (and my old school IU too) isn’t MIT or Harvard. But it looks like they are trying to amp up the spinoffs.

    The challenge with high tech and logistics is that they are the same industries almost everyone is chasing. And lots of people can tell good stories. The question I’d ask is: How much of what Columbus has is legacy assets? I’ve raised the same question re:Indiana. Subtract out what was there 10 to 15 years ago and ask what you’re producing new. That’s the measure.

    I think most cities should go for “fair share” amounts of these segments, but find niches within them to focus on, plus find other, less competitive industries to go after. Not “high tech” but “logistics technology” or something like that.

    Ultimately, I think the challenge for Columbus is to transcend “best practices.” I read some of the working materials and presentations for the new downtown plan. Not bad, but there’s nothing special there. There needs to be something special in Columbus.

    Regardless, Columbus has a lot of forward momentum so I wish the city luck.

  22. George Mattei says:

    Columbus has 125,000 students in the metro area. That’s almost 3X more than Indianapolis.

    I’m not saying that other cities don’t have some of these features. Only that these are very desirable features and Columbus can beat the pants off most other cities in these areas.

    For example, I avoided doing this before, but here is a list of what I see as the major tech institutions in Columbus:

    • Ohio State
    o $750 million a year in government research, larger than the University of Texas-Austin
    o OSU is # 2 nationally in the amount of industry funded research behind only John Hopkins
    o Embarking ion a $1 billion expansion of the medical campus
    • Battelle Memorial Institute-the largest non-profit research institute in the world with one of the largest budgets of any scientific institute in the world
    • Cardinal Health-the largest company in Ohio and the second largest medical equipment company in the world
    • Nationwide Children’s Hospital-which after the $750 million expansion is complete will be the 2nd largest children’s hospital in the country, with one of the largest research budgets for children’s health research in the nation
    • Chemical Abstracts Service-the largest scientific data company in the world
    • Headquarters of Ashland Chemical Company and Hexion Chemicals, two of the largest specialty chemical companies in the world
    • The Online Computer Library Center, which is the dominant online library service in the nation

    I understand that other cities do have some of these attributes. However, I think there are very few that have them in the same abundance that Columbus has. Tech has been something that many cities have tried to develop. Perhaps Indianapolis is very much like Columbus and has many of these attributes too. Good for you, and it’s probably partly why you have grown in step with us as well.

    But honestly, I kind of get the sense that CC and Wad are saying this: Austin and Raleigh and Indianapolis are “prettier” or “flashier” than Columbus, so despite the fact that Columbus is in many ways their peer economically, it doesn’t really count, because Columbus isn’t as cool, it’s not “the Live Music Capital of the World”.

    If I wrote this message about Austin or Raleigh-Durham, no one would be saying “Oh everyone can claim that” because Austin and Raleigh already have that reputation. And sure, everyone else is TRYING to be that. But we ARE that already. I kind of feel that “Keep Austin Weird” is a gimmick. Dell Computers isn’t. Neither are our assets. Maybe we’re not LeBron James, but we are Dwayne Wade, and we should be proud to be a member of the select few that really are drivers of the new economy.

    I’m sorry that we don’t have a great catch-phrase, but just because we happen to be great at what everyone else is trying to be great at, we shouldn’t try to distinguish ourselves by becoming “weird” or “green” or the “amateur sports capital”. We have depth, and if that’s not enough, than I don’t know what is.

  23. George Mattei says:

    “The question I’d ask is: How much of what Columbus has is legacy assets? I’ve raised the same question re:Indiana. Subtract out what was there 10 to 15 years ago and ask what you’re producing new. That’s the measure.”

    Aaron, this is a great insight. I totally agree. We do have many “legacy” asssets, but they have been growing exponentially. Ohio State, specifically the medical center, was the #1 job producer in Columbus in the 2000’s. They added over 10,000 jobs.

    The trick is to take it to the next level. And I think we are ready to do that now. If we weren’t, I would bemoan the fact that we were about to become a has-been. But we get it now, and I think we will leverage these assets to become a greater city. The work isn’t done-it’s just starting.

  24. cdc guy says:

    One of Columbus’ significant issues is the airport situation. In some ways, having separate freight-hub and passenger airports hurts the passenger business there, and the willingness of the airport authority to speculatively reinvest in CMH.

    Logistics, going forward, requires a significant airfreight component. Columbus simply cannot compete with Indianapolis, Louisville, and Memphis in logistics (DLA notwithstanding) now that DHL is gone from the scene.

    Columbus may be “ideally located” but it is not “ideally situated” in the marketplace. FedEx does not need a third central hub because IND stands ready to grow another runway for them if needed; if UPS outgrows Louisville, CVG would be competitive with Lockbourne because of Delta’s de-emphasis/pullout, and because it’s in Kentucky. Columbus is behind its central US competitors in logistics without a clear path to even catch up.

    Re students/universities: 125K is only a little over twice the 59K at the colleges I listed. Since reliable data from proprietary and adult/executive education programs is hard to come by, I don’t know how many more students there are in the region. I counted only the main campus of the community college; if we count their whole central region, their number doubles. An hour’s drive out from Indy captures the three big state universities in the region (Ball State, Purdue, IU). That’s like another OSU plus. It’s not enough of a distinction for Columbus.

    All in all, Indy has the same depth and diversity as Columbus. Despite losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the decades I’ve lived here, the city has still grown.

    The real challenge in branding Columbus will be selling a unique bundle of benefits. There may not really be one, despite its all-around success.

    George, I’m compelled to add this: I’m a native with century-old Columbus roots. My parents graduated from Columbus universities; one set of grandparents built a house in Bexley in the 1920’s, and the other grandmother was born and grew up in German Village when it really was German. I am not writing from an ignorant or dismissive viewpoint, but from a relatively informed and comparative one. Our tit-for-tat arguments are not going to significantly sway someone who’s comparing Columbus and Indy with one or more of the growing Sunbelt cities.

    I think that’s Aaron’s point about branding the second-tier Midwest cities: to sustain the growth trend, we’ve all got to come up with something.

  25. Joe says:

    Indianapolis and Portland are both the primary big cities in their respective states. Columbus is often overshadowed by Cleveland and Cincinnati.

  26. Carl Wohlt says:

    I have the sense that Columbus is going to be okay now that they’ve started a serious conversation about their global image and identity.

    Aaron is so right about the need to stay focussed on “product development,” a la Indy’s decision to pursue a unique niche as the country’s amateur sports capital. There is danger in promising things that may not be delivered in a timely manner.

    Kevin Lynch might say that Columbus doesn’t have an “image” problem so much as an “imageability” problem. World class public relations and marketing are great, but without a critical mass of the imageable features (that all great cities possess), Columbus will struggle to establish a toehold in the broader public consciousness. Creating an imageable city takes time – sometime decades – once the process is understood and addressed. Paris and London have a thousand year head start on Columbus, so citizens should take heart.

    Columbus does have some great features that can be leveraged right away. Here’s a clue – the Midwest has few truly famous streets.

  27. Alon Levy says:

    Wad, the rationality you talk about in respect to Apple actually shows in sales figures. The PC has a far higher market share than the Mac. Where Apple shines is in the iPod and iPhone, where it makes good product and as a result has a very high market share.

    I’d rather Columbus remembered this and focused on being a good city for its residents than spent too much money on packaging.

  28. s. ng says:

    Columbus has a brand- it’s just more of a problem than not having one. “The Best of Everything” See? – or “Not in Columbus”: – I’m not sure what this is supposed to be exactly, but there evidently are lots of great things you won’t find in Columbus and the tourism department thinks that’s pretty clever. It isn’t and the one-size-fits-all message/video is bland.

    And that’s part of the problem.

    Many failed attempts at brand contribute to the idea that Columbus doesn’t have an identity. Columbus leaders have it all figured out, thank you very much… despite the fact that every idea they throw against the wall performs very poorly upon implementation. Columbus would experience a radical transformation if it’s leadership suddenly decided that they didn’t have all of the answers and could somehow start fresh based on that. But the “top-down marketing message coming from the usual suspects” is just something Columbus leadership simply can’t or won’t give up- even though it is clear that it has gotten them precisely where they are today.

    See, this Columbus brand business isn’t in the thought-phase as Columbus leadership might like to suggest. There have been deliverables and they have been massively disappointing. Yet when messaging fails the same exact folks seem to go back to the drawing board to concoct the next big disappointment… and pretend they are still working on it every time their deliverables clearly do not resonate.

    Moreover, in addition to many past failed branding efforts Columbus continues to publicly scratch it’s head over the matter. When Columbus conducts and publicizes meetings and focus groups about their image or identity problem, when Columbus residents post and repost links to discussions like this one on the web, Facebook, what-have-you (even thoughtful discussions, such as this), when Columbus leaders are quoted on the matter in the Times- each time they slip further from awesome and the more into a “sans identity” identity- having no brand/style/identity becomes their agreed upon de facto identity for a huge national audience of onlookers.

    The Columbus 2020 web site is embarrassing. It looks dreadful, it says next to nothing of substance, and it puts all eyes 10 years in the future (!!) – People and compelling narratives are right here, right now. They would be best served to give up this 2012, 2015, 2020, 2050, whatever nonsense and spend a bit more time in the present. A business plan fronted by a terrible looking WordPress blog… good God. How completely out of touch with what might make a city attractive to the young and ambitious… and they even highlight the image project (problem) coverage in the Times on their news page. Beautiful.

  29. Wad says:

    George, you seem to grasp what I have outlined in my wrestling allegory.

    Let me clear some things up.

    I kind of feel that “Keep Austin Weird” is a gimmick. Dell Computers isn’t.

    It’s the other way around!

    Dell Computers is a gimmick. “Keep Austin Weird” is a character. How so?

    The link of a prominent company, or a business sector or an industry, to its hometown is a tenuous one.

    Successful companies tend to grow and expand their businesses. Successful companies can do business anywhere. And if a successful company can do business anywhere, it will do business anywhere.

    That’s the upside risk. What’s the downside risk?

    Look at Columbus’ regional neighbors, particularly around the Lakes. You can have businesses, or worse, entire sectors and industries, become obsolete or fall out of favor. You can have industries become commoditized, in which price advantage is the sole advantage. In this environment, half or more of a company’s health is tied to the fortunes of the sector or industry as a whole.

    Cities’ identities derived from a famous business presence is a gimmick.

    A character is something that’s organic, homegrown and something you can identify as unique.

    “Keep Austin Weird” fits the bill perfectly.

    The slogan had its start in the Austin independent business community, which was facing encroachment of chain stores.

    The KAW effort stressed the urgency of the situation, yet at the same time didn’t browbeat to support local businesses out of pity.

    Some cheaply made bumper stickers were produced, but the simplicity of the slogan took a life of its own that its creators didn’t even anticipate.

    The whole world knows about Keep Austin Weird, even though it addressed a provincial concern. It’s become too successful, in that there’s a Keep Austin Weird backlash at the business that co-opted the trademark ( )

    Yet no one could ever take away Keep Austin Weird from Austin, Texas. It spawned legions of imitators, but you could immediately sniff out the derivatives. It works in Austin, but that doesn’t mean something like “Preserve Indianpolis Eccentricities” or “Maintain Columbus’ Uncouthness” will work for those cities.

    Keep Austin Weird is more than a slogan, it’s a character.

    What city has character?

    New Orleans has little for it economically, but it does have Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, food and jazz.

    Memphis: Preservation of its music heritage; barbecue, and yes, pro wrestling. :)

    Philadelphia: Revolutionary War history, cheesesteaks, and extremely vicious sports fans. :)

    Miami: Miami Beach (yeah, it’s a separate city, but it’s a short trip along a causeway), pleasant weather, and Caribbean and Latin American culture.

    San Antonio: The Alamo and Riverwalk.

    Santa Fe: Southwestern arts.

    The common thread among these cities is that there’s an aspect of enjoyment and its something that has its roots in a city yet can still be accessed by outsiders.

    That’s what Columbus has. It’s just probably lurking around while everyone is watching a Buckeyes game. :)

  30. George Mattei says:

    I’m going to make a quick “tit-for-tat” post on a couple of items, and then I will post my closing argument, so to speak.

    Wad, in the 30’s to the 50’s, the Motor City wasn’t just about cars. It was about a progressive city of the future, powered by the latest technology. It referred to the culture of the area and the future of a nation. Keep Austin Weird is the same thing. It’s a funky college town, and that is captured by the slogan. Michael Dell moved to Austin partly because of the benefits that the University provided in terms of young graduates. The brand and the product are intimately linked. Apple would not be Apple if it produced mediocre products. If Dell moved out of Austin and the University somehow moved or went into serious decline, then “Keep Austin Weird” would be linked to a declining city.

    Some of the cities you listed, New Orleans, Memphis and Philly, are economically moribund and crime-ridden. Maybe they have a better cultural vibe than Columbus, but there’s much more to being a great city than character.

    CDC guy, in terms of Indianapolis, I don’t know what the count of college students is. Maybe you are up there too. However, there’s a BIG different between Columbus and Indy in terms of the college presence. OSU is now one of the top 20 research institutions in the U.S. They have grown exponentially in the past 10 years and hired top professors away from the top universities in the nation. It’s a huge institution at the heart of our city. Columbus is a major college town. Indianapolis isn’t. Some of that isn’t just numbers, but also how the resources are arranged within the community.

  31. George Mattei says:

    I have been thinking about the comments of CDC guy and Wad. I realized that I think we are somewhat talking about different things, to a degree. And I think Wad that your last post confirms that.

    The way I see it, there are a few topics here. One is branding, the other is economic development. The two are somewhat related, but not identical.

    Let’s start with branding. For cities of Columbus’ size, there are cities that are brand superstars, a few all-stars, and then average and poor. Right now I would say Columbus’ image borders on average to poor. Indianapolis’ borders on all-star. A good superstar example is Portland or Austin. All star might be Raleigh or Charlotte (they don’t get near the props that the superstars due in the “cool urban livability” factor).

    First question, does Columbus need to be a superstar? It would be great, but I don’t think so. If it did, yes we would have to go out and do something completely unique and individual, maybe many things, reinvent the world.

    Does Columbus have to be at least average? Yes. Being anything below average hurts. If you have a negative image, that just keeps people away. You don’t even get in the door.

    Now there’s economic development. How does that tie to branding? Well, successful cities generally have successful brands. It’s why Raleigh, which doesn’t have anywhere near the great urban amenities that Portland or Austin have, still has a very successful brand. That generates more growth, and is self-fulfilling.

    But very average cities can generate economic growth and be successful too. They just don’t get props on all the blogs.

    It’s the interaction between these two that I think Aaron was somewhat referring to when he said this:

    If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously.

    If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.

    In other words, Columbus needs to do what Indianapolis did, what Charlotte and Raleigh and Portland and Austin did. They went out, staked out some turf, and then became one of the best at what they do.

    In order to be a superstar, I think you need to be the first trailblazer, like Portland. But let’s look at Charlotte. This is a fairly new, suburban southern city. What did they do to get themselves known? They became the second biggest banking center in the U.S. They had the talent and resources, and some luck, but they also went out and aggressively cultivated the banking industry. It didn’t get them superstar status, but it did get them to a strong all-star status. Their success became their brand.

    Take and apply this to Columbus. What are our strengths that we can build off of? Higher Ed and technology leap to the forefront. THIS is why I believe that we do need to start marketing and branding ourselves as the higher ed and tech capital of the Midwest. This will help people, and more importantly, company execs like Michael Dell, understand that Columbus has the talent and resources they need to succeed.

    Both Wad and CDC guy are right, this won’t immediately vault us next to Portland and Austin as the superstars. I totally agree with that. It might take 30 years. That’s ok. We need to start somewhere.

    After all, who in their right mind would think 30 years ago that Charlotte would be the second largest banking center in the U.S. after New York? Probably no one outside of Charlotte. And I bet there would be many people that would have said, “Hey, that’s not good enough. You already have Wall Street, and San Francisco is Wall Street West. That’s not unique enough to distinguish you.”

    So what I was really referring to is the short AND long-range strategies, and how they interact. Just like Charlotte, if we go and say, “We are a higher ed and technology center already” AND then go and implement a long-range strategy to grow those areas, we will get to all-star status at some point. Our biggest fault in this area right now is that we haven’t been using these assets to churn out new companies and new ideas like we should. We haven’t connected the dots yet to get to the next level like Raleigh did. That’s changing. We’re now laying the foundation for using these large tech institutions to grow smaller new ones, so that in 20 or 30 years we may have techies on every corner, instead of just a bunch focused in a few large institutions.

  32. s. ng says:

    I’m still a little unclear just which tech areas really jump out about Columbus and what indicators suggest which larger technology companies in Columbus might actually spin off a number of smaller tech organizations “on every corner”.

    The higher education claim might be valid… but I just don’t see the kind of tech explosion you are talking about in Columbus. Community Research Partners’ Benchmarking Central Ohio 2009 report indicates that Columbus ranks 10th of 16 comparable cities in the high tech industry- behind Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Raleigh, San Diego, Portland, and Austin (in successively higher ranking with Austin being #1).

    That rank is for 2007 and indicates a downward trend- Columbus ranked 8th in 2005, 9th in 2006, and then- as I mentioned- 10th in 2007. So we’re not only among the bottom half based on IT indicators, but we’re on the decline in that area. A similar situation exists with respect to venture capital indicators based on that report.

    (section 2.08 –

  33. Keith Morris says:

    Columbus in general most certainly does not “get it”. Involved urban residents and entrepreneurs do, but government leadership and out-of-touch middle-aged suburban execs such as those featured in the article do not. In fact, the city government acts as an obstacle in urban revitalization much more often than as an aide. Bureaucratic BS has delayed new downtown businesses for months, forcing them to lose money they would have made. The Public Service Department was going to double meter rates across the board and only stopped after intense public outrage. The city council gave ODOT an OK on an unnecessary highway project on the east end of Downtown which will hurt businesses in the small up and coming districts just east of there. Business owners have spoken against it and two will have their buildings demolished for the highway, but that’s not important to city council. Downtown streets like High and Long continue to languish with high vacancy rates as a result of the prioritization of rush hour traffic over a healthy, vibrant downtown. Heck, High St in much of our downtown has no on-street parking at all and despite dense urban blocks sees lots of empty retail spots. Who would have guessed that prospective businesses in such a setting would want parking before opening shop? Other dense urban business districts that could resemble thriving ones like the Short North and Old North Columbus currently have a bad image and on top of that burdened with pedestrian-unfriendly streets thanks to the city’s insistence on fast traffic flow over adding more quality business districts.

    There’s more, but I think you get the picture. If the city were to do their part to actively encourage entrepreneurs in our downtown and other large but empty urban business districts, rather than maintain them as hostile places for pedestrians who are needed to make these places work, we would see the number of urban amenities multiply and actually rival the quantity found in “hip” cities like Portland.

  34. Ohioan says:

    Here’s an idea for Columbus’ new slogan:

    Columbus: Big State Government Sucking the Rest of Ohio Dry to Fuel our Growth!

  35. Christoph says:

    So many good comments and insights here. Keith, I think you sum it up pretty well that there is a ton of discussion about this happening online and a lot of passion on the topic, but that the leadership in Columbus is way off the mark.

    So the question is, how do you build a movement to bundle this energy and define the personality of Columbus from the ground up? I’d really love this conversation to become productive instead of comparing and complaining.

    And while I’m writing here, I’m going to shamelessly promote my own effort at contributing to the Columbus community. Check out Now in Columbus ( to see what’s happening in the city right now. It’s an effort to create a place where the population can present the city on it’s own terms, and for Columbusites to learn more about the place they inhabit. Plus, it will make your wildest dreams come true. Guaranteed. Now enjoy.

  36. Javaid says:

    Honestly, I’m from Columbus Ohio, and I agree with your painful truth: Columbus just really isn’t that different from other cities, despite what locals may believe. If ever you suggest that Columbus is just a typical Midwestern city with a better economy, you get hoards of locals screaming “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE SHORT NORTH?!,” as though a few blocks of High St. can make up for the miles of drab stripmalls, or the horrendous downtown scarred by acres and acres of parking lots.

    Sure, the SN is pretty good, but its not phenomenal by any means – especially compared to other cities. It’s a good neighborhood compared to what one can find in Ohio, its not a national draw. When Columbusites stop relying on the success of SN or the german village to justify their grandiose self-image, then maybe we can move forward.

  37. Javaid says:

    Oh yea, as for self-image, we must not forget Columbus’ last horrible attempt at a slogan: “The Indie Arts Capital of the World.” vomit. How about we play up the fact that we’re the capital of Ohio. Lets just call ourselves “Capital City,” and emphasize that image.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I can tell you that the trend to “self brand” a city is inherently flawed. Branding, a marketing term out of the consumer realm is dependant on the exchange goods or a product. While a city can “sell itself” – promote the positve aspects, location, low taxes, educated work force, local goverment….. a city is still fixed in time and space. So no physical exchange can take place. Most if not all cities attempts at branding come off as contrived and forced, capital of alternative music..really, other forced contradiction- that only makes the power that be in Austin look imature and unsophisticated. I am old enough to remember the past attempts at improving Columbus’ image…”Columbus , Columbus the star of the state, Columbus Columbus were making it great”…. pathetic. There are more substantive ways to have a city have a better sense of itself and a more distinctive image in the collective minds of Americans. None of which involve branding.

  39. mark says:

    My comment is above… hit the enter button to soon…I am an architect born and raised in central Ohio, schooled at the University of Cincinnati, educated at Columbia University, lived and work in NYC after a two year stint in London.

  40. Keith Morris says:

    A positive, multi-faceted image, would already exist if the city was serious about making the city more accessible by making it visitor-friendly and promoting more than just three neighborhoods. Right now there are only downtown kiosks and way-finding for pedestrians in Downtown and the Short North. Wayfinding signs for drivers is minimal. There are only a handful of modest, basic German Village signs Downtown to guide visitors driving Downtown, although some for the Arena District which look much nicer have popped up. The cost of making the city visitor-friendly with additional wayfinding signage and place markers is nothing compared to how it would pay for itself and then some. Right now, you have to do your homework and seek out good local sources of info whether it be Yelp, my blog’s neighborhood guide, or CU and the reality is that many simply don’t. The Short North and Arena District hold a limited range appeal and there are other great neighborhoods that appeal to those who aren’t all that interested in what the AD and SN offer, but they just aren’t publicized.

    I thought the whole High Five Branding effort ( would take care of a good deal of that, but it’s still nothing more than a fancy map that links to the respective neighborhood association websites. They don’t even have Clintonville listed. All you get from those neighborhood associations is a bland laundry list of businesses. Salons, hardware stores, etc, are also listed on my neighborhood maps, but they are not in any list of destinations. I focus on bars, restaurants, etc, that appeal to visitors and provide a blurb on each establishment.

  41. Wad says:

    George, perhaps Columbus should decouple the branding and economic development aspects.

    It sounds like it has all of its economic development strategies in order. If it is sufficient, it is working. Businesses attract other businesses.

    Columbus’ brand doesn’t jump out in a crowd. Economic development alone won’t propel a brand, and it should be kept at an arm’s length from the business community.

    A brand, as I have said, is a character. To me, the only character I can associate with it is anything related to Ohio State, particularly its sports.

    Ohio State is a character. That’s something that cannot be taken away from Columbus. It’s also something that outsiders will recognize. Sports fans will know Columbus every time a college football poll is released.

    As a state capital, what can Columbus offer about the character of Ohio? Does it have anything like California’s capital, Sacramento? Even if you don’t have a governmental purpose there, Sacramento is a repository of California history. There are tours of the Capitol building, as well as a state history museum, hall of fame, and various other subject-themed institutions.

    Ohio has a great deal of history and culture to offer, and Columbus would be a prime place to showcase it.

    This is character.

    Think about the things people want to do out of desire, not duty. If people just go to Columbus because their jobs are there, people are in Columbus for work, not working because they want to be in Columbus.

    This is why it’s key to emphasize something about your city that can’t be taken away or imitated.

    Other than what I have suggested, I don’t know of any other way to build a plan around it other than to just let the brand bubble up. Portland and Austin are superstars, yet they didn’t set out to be superstars.

  42. Elli Davis says:

    I have couple friends living in Columbus and I have to admit that I hadn’t known much about the city before I met them. So it seems that the leaders of this city should definitely work more in the image of this capital because there is much it can offer to the tourists.

  43. Keith Morris says:

    Wad, local residents have mentioned a desire to have a Columbus History Museum, probably somewhere Downtown. That, unfortunately has not happened. When you know where a city came from that adds a whole new dimension to a city’s character. I’ve spent time in our main library, constantly ranked the nation’s best, yet outside of Downtown you’ll be hard pressed to find anything on other neighborhoods unless you dig through old newspapers from decades ago. Even with our showcase neighborhood, the Short North, you’ll have a hell of a time trying to find any pictures or descriptions of what it was like back in the day. And then there’s Flytown that used to sit to the west of that neighborhood and all I can tell you is that it was a low-income neighborhood full of blacks and immigrants: that’s as much info as you’ll find without investing a lot of time and effort, but I digress.

    We do have an Ohio Historical Society which serves to showcase the state’s history, but it’s located off in an isolated, quasi industrial area in between some railroad tracks and a highway: not at all where the majority of visitors on foot would ever venture. The building itself is not so historical either, but is a testament to the lack of architectural taste that was rampant in the 60s. It really should be Downtown.

    I say we just keep building more gateway arches for more of our best neighborhoods and reclaim the title of Arch City. While it doesn’t say anything about the many faces of Columbus, everyone likes arches.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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