After my “Checking In On Columbus” post last week I was surprised that quite a number of people in Columbus, though a minority, took great exception to it and posted a number of negative comments about the post and me. I had thought it was a mostly positive take and I’m long on record has being bullish about the city and its future.
I asked someone I knew there about this and he suggested that Columbus had a history of insecurity, highlighting an incident a while back in which, upon visiting a fantastic Japanese restaurant in a suburban strip mall for an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, Columbus native Michael Ruhlman made a throwaway remark about it being surprising to find such a place in “Applebee’s country.” This provoked quite a firestorm of blowback in Columbus, leading Ruhlman to respond that he was only referring to the suburban setting, not Columbus as a whole, or so he claimed. Earlier this year the Columbus Dispatch, saying that “if there’s one activity Columbus loves, it’s cheerleading,” reported on a Reddit forum created as a safe place for unpopular opinions about Columbus.
When people who highlight good things about Columbus but aren’t 100% positive about it are attacked, that will hardly inspire anyone from out of town to want to cover the place. But beyond that it shows that Columbus is still laboring under insecurity about itself, for not much good reason if you ask me given that the city is very solid. It also shows this is a place unaccustomed to out of town press beyond the always positive travel piece genre.
I bring this up because today is my promised post about branding Columbus. Changing and elevating the brand position of a city or a company in the market is difficult in the best of times. It really challenges us to get out of our comfort zone. These experiences suggest – and I do mean suggest as I don’t want to read to much into limited data points – Columbus may not be ready to take that step. And it might explain why I hear leaders voice some of the same frustrations today that they did three and a half years ago.
If a city can’t accept any judgments from the marketplace that deviate from its self-perception, it’s going to be hard to move that market. Also, when you want to be known on a first name basis nationally, big a “world class city,” seen as a top tier urban player, etc. the scrutiny and the expectations are just going to be at a higher level. You can believe everything that happens in New York gets put under the microscope and poked at by people near and far. If you want to play at that level you have to accept that, flash in the pan hot cities of the moment excepted, there’s actually going to be more negativity about you than when the rest of the world didn’t care much about who you were. It comes with the territory.
As for my post, I corrected my misspelling of Franklinton and am happy to correct any other factual errors. It’s also clear that my perceptions are rooted in only a short visit. Nevertheless, I stand behind what I wrote.
What Is Your Ambition?
One of the Twitter responses to my post from someone named Craig Calcaterra brings up an interesting point, however:
Guy says Columbus has “yet to develop a compelling, unique brand positioning.” And acts like that’s a problem. http://t.co/PHbfZlwS62
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) May 29, 2014
The truth is that Columbus doesn’t have a powerful brand in the market outside of Ohio. Having said that, the city is growing rapidly in population and jobs, is extremely livable and improving day by day, and seems to make its residents very happy. Is there any reason the city has to be better nationally known in order to be complete or something?
I say No. As I said in my 2010 talk, there’s nothing really wrong with what the city is today. It’s a valid choice to simply stay with the status quo.
But while many citizens may indeed feel that way, the city’s leadership doesn’t. This was hammered home in a 2010 New York Times piece on the city’s rebranding efforts. That desire to be seen as a high caliber city at the national level clearly came through in my most recent trip, even from Mayor Coleman himself.
So I’ve been operating on the assumption that’s what the city wants. But it’s certainly not the only valid answer. I also tend to be personally biased towards high ambition, particularly in a place where it’s obvious that the ambition can be realized. Places like Detroit and Cleveland are really struggling to rebound from severe problems. And no matter how successful they are at it, they’ll never been as important and prominent places to the comparative level that they used to be.
By contrast, Columbus is both operating from a baseline of strength, and also at a point where it is still on the way up as a city. Whatever the deficiencies in its marketplace recognition, Columbus has never been a larger, more important, more prominent city in the world than it is right now – and it has the potential to reach still higher. For so many cities, their glory days will forever be behind them. But Columbus has the opportunity for its glory days to be ahead of it. Not every city and not every generation is granted the opportunity that Columbus has right now. So before taking a pass on going after it, think hard about it. Be sure you’re comfortable asking the “What if…?” questions years down the road.
Finding Columbus’ Mojo
But assuming the answer is go for it, then what needs to be done? I previously talked about the need to go beyond the checklist. Today I’ll more about the how to get there.
As I said, the first is to really be committed to change and going after the brass ring. Because I can tell you, this is not an easy journey to make. Some of the things you are going to have to do are really, really hard because they involve looking those civic insecurities right in the eyes, and also questioning perhaps your most fundamental and cherished truths, especially the truth about what you’re best at.
It’s very hard for cities to admit where they are weak, but it can actually be even harder for them to admit where they are strong.
One of the sayings of the Greek oracle was “Know Thyself.” Sage wisdom, indeed. Knowledge of yourself is often the most difficult to come by but valuable of commodities. Because as the saying goes, “Without awareness there is no choice.”
Where does a city get knowledge of itself that’s useful for branding? I argue it very often comes from the past. Cities didn’t just take their present form overnight. They are the process of a long process of growth and change. In particular, the founding ethos of a place profoundly stamps its character, usually in a permanent way. The Dutch trading culture and spirit of openness of New Amsterdam is still present in contemporary New York, for example.
When a new creative director comes in to revive a failing fashion house, what’s the first thing he does? He goes to the archives. He investigates the history of the house. What does this brand stand for? Who were the people who founded it? How did they become who they were? What happened along the journey of that house?
To use a hackneyed phrase, that new creative director wants to understanding the “Brand DNA,” and the key to the brand DNA is in the past.
I think that’s as true of Columbus as anyplace. Columbus certainly had good luck in getting where it is today, but I’d argue there’s more to it. One of their historical keys to success was a fateful decision in the 1950s to pursue an aggressive annexation strategy. You can say that was one mayor’s choice, but I believe the fact that it happened in Columbus and not elsewhere in Ohio was already signalling that there was something different about the city. What is it?
Midwestern cities always profoundly struggle with questions of identity. What is the identity of Ohio? It can be hard to articulate. Yet visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and it’s clear they are three radically different cities. It hits you immediately. It’s like a cold bucket of water in the face. But we have trouble putting that uniqueness into words.
Why is Columbus an outlier in Ohio? How did it get that way? Why did Columbus choose to annex? How and why did Columbus become so gay-friendly ahead of many other cities?
There are tons of questions, but at the end of the day what you want to do is distill down the essence of the city’s mojo, Austin Powers style. And when you have that vial of mojo, that’s the secret sauce on which you build your future brand presence in the marketplace.
This is cultural spelunking. It’s an anthropological, archeological, historical deep dive into a city, its people and its culture. I’d suggest tapping into Ohio State’s cultural anthropology resources. There might even be a dissertation in it for someone.
One you have the mojo, you not only use it to build the future reality, you also sell it by telling the story of Columbus to the world. You need to create an aspirational narrative of the city that people can imagine themselves being a part of.
Think of the story of New York. TV shows like Friends, Sienfield, and Sex and the City have created a contemporary positive narrative of life in New York. People know what it’s about. If you can make it there, etc. (This wasn’t always the case. Escape from New York, Death Wish, and Fort Apache the Bronx told quite a different narrative in a previous era). Portlandia tells a story about the place where young people go to retire. Think about the Bay Area, LA, Miami, etc. and the stories come to our heads without much thinking.
What’s that story of life in Columbus? You create that story around the authentic mojo of the city.
Beyond finding the mojo, there’s another key task that goes along with the investigation. That’s finding the missing or defective genes in the civic DNA that have been or will sabotage the city’s ambitions.
Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not we know what’s on ours. When I was working in corporate America I’d tell people working for me that they should be expecting me to be giving them 3-5 substantive things that they need to improve on to make to the next level. My thought process is this: if I’m getting nothing but glowing feedback from my boss, if I’ve got nothing I need to get better at, why am I not the CEO of this company? Clearly, there’s a reason why I am where I am and not the President of the United States or something. If I’m not giving that same tough feedback to my own reports, I’m not doing them any favors.
It’s similar for cities. When a defect is external and easy to fix – say, building bike infrastructure – we tend to be pretty open to hearing it. But when things start getting into our character, our behaviors, things that are more personal in nature, it’s a lot harder. It gets uncomfortable. We’re probably blind to what others are seeing and thinking. We probably can’t see it ourselves. Change can be really, really hard. I dare say nearly every top level executive in America has turned to outside, professional coaching for at least some things they needed to get right. As my old boss once put it, even Tiger Woods has a coach. If elite athletes need coaches, how much more aspiring cities? That’s why I say the Ohio State history and anthropology departments might be good resources.
So Columbus needs to understand not just checklist items it is missing like a major transit investment, but also cultural items that are holding the city back and what they are rooted in. Then it can attack them with a change program that can hopefully work, like the civic equivalent of therapy.
On a related note though methodologically different, the city needs to be willing to take a hard look in the mirror and realistic assess its assets and accomplishments and how compelling they are in the market. The cold reality is that while Columbus is a great city in many ways and has lots of great stuff, what it has doesn’t add up to a nationally or globally compelling story. You need to take the marketing glasses off and ask how people who aren’t in or from the city are are going to see things.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you recategorize your assets as bad. But you have to understand that checklist items that lots of other cities are doing (e.g., bike infrastructure) are probably not going to set the city apart in the marketplace. If you don’t have it, you’re in trouble. But if you do, it doesn’t win the game. These things are just the new urban ante.
Illustrative Applied Examples
I want to give a quick examples – and let me stress this is provisional and speculative to some extent – illustrating these three points.
On the mojo front, the city’s previous branding effort that identified “smart” and “open” as two key civic attributes is right on in my view. It’s a good start. But why is Columbus open? That is, why is it easier for newcomers to acclimate, penetrate networks, accomplish things, etc. in Columbus than in many other places?
I speculate it’s rooted in being the state capital and is one legitimate advantage of that. I’ve seen a similar trait in other capitals. I speculate that because people from all over the state are coming to Columbus on political business, and because there’s always churn in elected office, civic networks don’t become closed and calcify in a sort of “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” effect.
For the missing gene example, I think it’s very possible that one reason Columbus didn’t create a compelling, unique product in the market is that it doesn’t have the civic mentality to do so. It’s just not in the civic DNA. One local leader I talked to speculated that the city’s values were shaped by those of Ohio State football and Woody Hayes. That is, the secret to success is to work relentlessly at the fundamentals and always be pounding the ball ahead with the running game – “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Not exactly the West Coast Offense. This may be too facile, but it is clear that Columbus excels at the fundamentals, at the blocking and tackling of city stuff, but hasn’t thrown the civic equivalent of the long bomb. This may be a DNA issue.
For the asset evaluation example, I think Columbus needs to be realistic about Ohio State’s stature. Ohio State is a great school, but it’s not Harvard or Stanford. I went to Indiana University and I’d say the same about them. Now, obviously you’d never come out in public and downplay Ohio State, which legitimately is a power house for the city. But you don’t want to mistakenly believe it’s doing to spawn the next Cambridge or Palo Alto without some major change either.
Forget It Jake, It’s Cow Town
I said earlier that it can be harder to acknowledge your strengths as a city than your weaknesses. My belief is that is doubly true for Columbus. To truly discover the secret of its mojo, Columbus needs to be willing to stare into the abyss of cow town.
Talk to people in Columbus and you’ll hear them claim that they are not a “cow town” anymore or how people used to refer to them as a “cow town.” I have seen this as an analogy to the case of Indianapolis and “naptown.” I’ve always doubted that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis itself ever used the term Naptown historically as an insult. No one would ever have cared enough about the city to even bother insulting it.
Similarly, I’d never heard the term cow town until somebody from Columbus told me about it. I strongly doubt it’s ever really been a term of derision nationally, but it’s possible it was for some people in Ohio. I definitely know there’s a strain of Cincinnatian who loves heaping abuse on places like Columbus and Indy. As Columbus has grown while other cities in Ohio wandered in the wilderness, it’s easy for me to believe there’s been a lot of sniping. So while the market would never think of Columbus as cow town, there may be some legitimate in state reasons for them to be sensitive to the term.
The impression I get, again provisional based on my limited experience, is that in an attempt to rid itself of the stigma of being a cow town, Columbus has sheared off its past, in effect repudiating everything that happened before 1990 or 2000.
I observed to Mayor Coleman that Indianapolis in recent years has downplayed the 500 Mile Race. I asked him whether or not Columbus was similarly neglecting its greatest brand asset in the market by downplaying Ohio State football. He said, “No. There was a time in the 60s and 70s and the 80s, and even the 90s, where Columbus was nothing but Ohio State football. And I love the Buckeyes; I love the football team. It’s better than any professional team in the state of Ohio. And they’re still amateurs. That’s good. But having said that, Columbus is no longer just the Ohio State football team. We don’t view ourselves that way anymore [emphasis added].”
This is just one statement but it seems consistent with what I hear from other people. There’s an embedded idea here that there’s little to nothing of value in the city’s past and in fact that past is something to be embarrassed about or outgrown. I have never heard anyone from Columbus brag about their city and tout it for anything related to the past, apart from historic architecture. There may be historical things that are mentioned, but they are seen as valuable in reference to what is happening today. For example, the mayor went on to talk about the importance of Ohio State in terms of its contemporary research impact. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a city talk less about its heritage. I’m certain there is a proud heritage worth of celebrating, but I haven’t heard about it from people there. That lack of historic rooting may be one reason why the city can come across as somewhat generic.
As I’ve noted before, this is normal for us to go through. When we go off to college, Mom puts our high school letter jacket up in the attic. We try as hard as we can to fit in at the new level, and treat the stuff we left behind as little kids stuff.
But eventually we become comfortable in our own skin. We learn who we are and what we stand for, and we stop becoming so concerned about what other people think of us. Of course we are social creatures and will never stop caring about others’ perceptions of us. We keep growing and yes, follow fashions. But we find a healthier balance.
The same is true of cities. And as I noted at the top, from the insecurity I sense I’m not sure Columbus is far enough along in its growth path to really be comfortable being itself, and acknowledging and embracing its past.
This doesn’t mean Columbus should be or ever was a cow town. What it does mean is that things from its past that Columbus thinks are cow town are actually its strongest brand assets and things to be proud of and build its future on.
Let’s give some examples. The Midwest has a history of local, low grade lager brands. Virtually all of these were abandoned and ceased production. The hip, cool thing to do was to drink microbrews, not even Bud or Miller Lite, to say nothing of Sterling (my dad’s brand).
Then one day the hipsters on the coasts started drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and all of a sudden back in the Midwest, we started drinking it too and now are relaunching or re-embracing all those old blue collar brands (including Sterling). The same thing happened with workwear clothing, which is now selling for quite a premium in some places and very popular among the Bearded Ones.
In effect, we had to re-import our own heritage after a bunch of other people elsewhere saw the value in it – the same heritage we rejected as “cow town.”
The clearest example of this is agriculture. The Midwest is all about ag. Ohio State is a huge ag power house. Columbus could have owned urban agriculture, farm to table, organics, etc. But it didn’t. And now it’s doing them, but it’s doing them as the follower, not the leader. It’s also listed “AgBioScience” as one of its economic clusters, but that’s an industry it could have gone after a long, long time ago.
Unfortunately, it was impossible for Columbus to ever have embraced agriculture until it had been reduced to a checklist item because to do so would have meant almost literally embracing “cow town.” It had to wait until the cognoscenti pronounced it safe. But then it was too late.
This is one of the tragedies of the Midwest. We turned away from our heritage and a bunch of guys in Brooklyn bought it from a thrift store for a song.
The South avoided this. Look at Nashville. Did they turn their back on country music as “cow town”? No, they embraced it as central to their identity past, present, and future. Of course they are more than country. But they kept it front and center. But they also updated it. It’s not the old AM radio country. It’s not Hee Haw. They respect those people and institutions and see them as in continuity with today, but they have evolved. Today’s it’s glitzier, more Hollywood. It’s “Nashvegas.” Think Carrie Underwood, not Minnie Pearl.
This is what it means to know thyself and build the future out of the authentic mojo of the past. Columbus surely has many things in its past and in its historic civic character that are of immense value. The question and the challenge to the city is being willing to find out what those are and own and embrace them and champion them as a key part of the mojo on which it will build its future reality and aspirational civic narrative.
I believe the potential is right there. The question is whether the city is ready and willing to step up and grab it.