This post originally ran on August 15, 2010. Some anachronisms have been left in the piece, so keep the original date in mine.
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.