Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Who’s Your City?

A couple months back when visiting the home front, my dad and I popped into the excellent New Albanian brewhouse for dinner and microbrews. Sitting outside, I watched various of the Bearded Ones parade in and out with their growlers and thought to myself that hipster culture had invaded even the most blue collar precincts of small city Indiana. Great beer, beards, and tattoos no longer define Portland or any other “cool” city. They are now ubiquitous, which is to say that they are as distinguishing for your city as McDonald’s. (That doesn’t mean they are unimportant – small cities are much more livable than ever today thanks to the vast increase in quality of what’s available there – but they aren’t distinctive).

Alas, too many places seem not to realize this and market themselves as if they are some sort of mini-Brooklyn instead of as who they really are at heart.

Lincoln, Nebraska fell into just this trap. That city just unveiled a new identity and in conjunction with that released a video trying to lure young creatives to the city (if the video doesn’t display, click here – h/t Carl Wohlt):

As Brand New notes of this:

I haven’t been to Lincoln, so I speak as a member of the potential audience Lincoln is trying to attract. Looking solely at the logo and identity, I would think it’s a city led by the high-tech industry — not true — or a city with lots of street intersections and busy interconnected stuff happening all around — not true either, at least not in the way it’s portrayed, which looks more like a high-density metropolis. Neither of these two impressions is what I would like to think of if I were considering moving to Lincoln. Seems like charm, small-town feel, tranquil lifestyle, and creativity are attributes more real to the city yet none of that comes through. The identity is contemporary, I’ll give it that, but it is also quite generic: Replace “Lincoln” with any small size city name (or software company) and the result would be equally effective, or ineffective. I appreciate the ambition of the identity and the message it’s trying to communicate but it just seems to miss the mark, even when there is an arrow pointing at the target.

Bingo. Someone sent me a link to the video which I watched with no context, and my instant reaction was that this could have been any city, anywhere. It’s totally generic imagery. As someone commented, turn off the volume and see if you can figure out what city it is for. Not likely.

I hate to beat up on smaller cities like Lincoln too much. I prefer to go after bigger cities that clearly should know better. But this was a classic example, and I’ll take Lincoln seriously enough to grade it versus the big boys.

I’ve long noted that while companies go to great lengths to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, most cities seem to do just the opposite. They want to convince you that in various ways they are exactly like this, that, or the other really cool city. It’s totally inauthentic and completely ineffective.

To really brand your city you need to go back to that ancient wise inscription – Know Thyself. It’s not easy. It requires a lot of introspection, and digging deep into things that aren’t always easy to uncover. But I’m convinced every city, like every person, has a powerful story to tell.

More on civic branding:
The Authentic City
The Brand Promise of Indianapolis
Learning to Love Naptown
Rebranding Columbus
Don’t Brand Your City
Louisville: Vice City

Topics: Civic Branding, Talent Attraction
Cities: Lincoln (Nebraska)

15 Responses to “Who’s Your City?”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Lincoln doesn’t have to be generic. It is like Madison, WI, MSP and Columbus, OH: home of a major Big Ten university with a proud football tradition (redundant, I know) and a state capital.

    Like Madison, it is a small city away from a major metro.

  2. Alex says:

    Well said. Watching the video, I was thinking, “How do I know this isn’t Ft. Wayne?”

  3. Nice article. I think we are seeing this kind of faux-identifying marketing for northern virginia as well (though the region itself is doing it, not one particular town/city). Also in planning discussions there is a lot of “comparison” style planning where places in Arlington (nearby urban region) are used to create images for layman, but its unfair to box a new area in to just being similar to another. Each place has its uniqueness and should be designed as such.

  4. pete-rock says:

    Interesting video which I also believe misses the mark. It reminds me of attempts by large cities in the ’70s and ’80s to build pedestrian malls in their downtowns to compete with suburban malls. Major fail (for the most part). Only when cities started to pull out the ped malls and remake them as downtowns again did many of them begin to rebound.

    Yes, Aaron, the key is to Know Thyself.

  5. Jeff Gillenwater says:

    Your first paragraph aptly described half my life these days. Ha.

    Every time I see another misguided attempt at city branding I’m reminded of how badly we need better graffiti. Seriously, I think the whole notion of “branding” has been overused and too heavily associated with image creation. Your last paragraph begins to capture that. “Branding” gets in the way of authentic. Semantics? Maybe, but I read “branding” largely as an epithet directly equating to the lack of digging and self-knowledge you mention.

    I’m prone to saying I live in post-historic New Albany as a result. If people get the joke, we can probably work together.

  6. Matthew Hall says:

    What was Lincoln’s old identity?

  7. Carl Wohlt says:

    Aaron, thanks for the h/t.

    For communities that want understand the qualities that truly differentiate them from others, I strongly suggest reading Kevin Lynch’s The “Image of the City.”

    It’s written in a somewhat academic style and not nearly as accessible as Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” But in many ways it is just as relevant a work if not more so for today’s image conscious world. There are places where planning, design and image converge, and Lynch identifies them quite clearly. “The Image of the City” is a masterpiece that has not gotten enough love beyond the urban planning world.

  8. Frank Navarrete says:

    Wait a second, wasn’t Socrates a bearded beer drinking Athenian hipster? Or were those fellows you’re stereotyping just introspective Lincolnian philosophers?

  9. visualingual says:

    You’re absolutely right, Aaron, but I think part of the problem is that a lot of cities [regardless of size] are not that distinct. There’s topography and different ethnic mixes, but it seems that a lot of cities no longer have niches when it comes to industry, for instance. The Lincoln video is not that different from “Cincinnati Growing Cincinnati,” a recent promotional video [which includes us] that was shown at the CEOs for Cities conference. I can’t speak for Lincoln, but the Cincinnati video is both accurate and generic, because what’s happening here is not necessarily substantially different from what’s happening in a lot of other cities.

  10. Brett says:

    For what it’s worth, this site is the ONLY place I ever see these kind of videos.

  11. CrossedWres says:

    No matter how many generic videos for generic cities trying to attract the next taxpaying economic demographic of hipsters, the elephant in the room is partner benefits. Hipsters are less likely to get married early and more likely to support their same-sex couple friends rights to benefits than previous generations. If Mr. Nosering screenprinter can’t get healthcare because his girlfriend’s job at University of Nebraska does not offer partner health benefits, guess where they are not moving to.
    (Every institution in the Big Ten, except for the University of Nebraska offers some form of domestic partner benefits to employees.)

  12. CityBeautiful21 says:

    1. Turn down the volume before playing the video.
    2. Imagine yourself as narrator.
    3. Start talking about how in this city, we know how to fold our arms and/or lean on things better than anyone else.
    4. Be surprised at how well it fits.

  13. ed says:

    Who is the intended audience for this ad? Does anyone think that someone with a nose ring is going to suddenly want to move to Lincoln as a result of this ad or are they more likely to think after watching this ad that nose rings have become such a hackneyed cliche of counter culture that its time to give up on nose rings and/or counter culture?

    Hipsters are ripe for parody and backlash. What some city ought to be doing is positioning itself as the anti-hipster brand. In the 1980’s California Cooler positioned itself as the hip surfer brand. Gallo didn’t respond by trying to be the even hipper surfer brand because California Coolers already owned that position they responded by positioning themselves as the anti-hipster brand creating a direct contrast with California Coolers brand identity.

    To address visuallingual point that cities often are pretty undifferentiated- well so were wine coolers. As a product, Bartles and James was pretty similar to California Coolers, but there brand identities were dramatically different.

    See the ads.

    The way to respond to cities like Portland trying to define themselves as home to the hipsters is by positioning yourself as the anti hipster brand. If they are slick, then position yourself as sincere and earnest. If they are hip, you want to own being square.

    Gallo did a brilliant job of this in the 1980’s. But cities don’t position themselves as well as liquor companies.

    If I was a small city in the midwest like Lincoln or Des Moines or Council Bluff, I would bring back someone like the farmers in the Bartles and James commercials as promoters for my city.

    Tap into the part of the country that hates hipsters. There is a rich vain of resentment of hipsters in this country. Why not tap into that?

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    I had to smile. I know people in Lincoln, some of whom are associated with the University. They are not hipsters, neither jaded nor ironic; they are educated, earnest, family-oriented and religious; they understand and appreciate farming, rural, and small-town life as well as features of a small modern city.

    I think ed hit it: if that’s what you are, own it, and own it big.

  15. Christopher says:

    While I agree Ed has an interesting point, I have to say I am not sure how well it would work as a marketing campaign.

    As Chris Barnett notes, he has friends who live in Lincoln who appreciate a the blend of a rural life combined with amenities of a small modern city. Well, I am quite certain his friends did not move to Lincoln because of a folksy marketing campaign based on “old time values” and Hee-Haw country folk characters thanking them for “your support.” People who find the Lincoln lifestyle appealing already live in Lincoln or in a similar small town. If they weren’t born in the small town they live in, then they moved there because the already knew what they were looking for and they knew such small towns offered it. They did not need a YouTube marketing campaign to tell them this. Moreover, they would probably be LESS likely to move to a town that had to sell its “sincerity and earnestness” on YouTube.

    I think the whole attempt at civic branding is a waste of time for most small towns. It is better for them to focus on improving the quality of life for their existing residents, and let potential new residents learn about what great places they are to live through word-of-mouth.

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