Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Houston: The City With No Limits

This week another city marketing campaign designed to attract residents, this one from Houston. Their tag line is “The City With No Limits” and they have a web site with that URL. There are also TV ads, etc. to go with it.

If there’s a city in America that has a truly distinct take on urbanism, it’s probably Houston. And Texas is a place with a clearly distinct vision of itself and presence within the American mind. Yet how does Houston choose to market itself? As just another member of the generic checklist club. The video below will give you a flavor. If the video doesn’t display, click over to my site.

With Houston’s traditional focus on being the “opportunity city” you’d think that some portrayal of how opportunity uniquely plays out in the city would be front and center. But it’s not. Other than links to corporate job sites, there’s really nothing on opportunity in Houston. It’s just spin on lifestyle. But if fashion shows, ballet, and light rail are your thing, is Houston really going to be your top choice? I’m skeptical. The Houston selling point is economic opportunity, but it’s only weakly presented. Other than facile fillips like the moon landing, little sense of the distinctiveness, culture, or value proposition of Houston and Texas come through here. The video and campaign also don’t convey any strong sense of limitless. In fact, my takeaway is that life in Houston operates within the exact same confines as virtually every other major city.

I’d have to rate this one as a miss, which is particularly disappointing in light of the “opportunity” presented by Houston to get it right and their willingness to cut against the grain in other areas. It just goes again to prove my axiom that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.

I don’t blame the agencies that create these things, by the way. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking and analysis and believe the underlying problems are structural and embedded in the initiative from the word Go. I may post more on this later.

Topics: Civic Branding, Talent Attraction
Cities: Houston

22 Responses to “Houston: The City With No Limits”

  1. Bob Cook says:

    Maybe it’s unfair to compare because it’s a tourism campaign, and a state, but the Pure Michigan ads do the best job I’ve seen of delineating what makes a place truly unique. And it knows its audience — city dwellers looking for peace and open space.

  2. Chris Andrews says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Currently living in Houston, the campaign doesn’t seem to market Houston in a way to show what sets us apart from other cities. Unless you want to account for our limitless urban / suburban sprawl. But, it could also be an effort to dismiss any negative stereotypes that might exist about Houston across the country. We do have a lively theater scene, a slow-growing downtown core and increased access to public transit.

    You can see some of my thoughts about the “Houston, The City With No Limits” campaign here:

    And Bob, you are absolutely correct! The Pure Michigan campaign has been a great success. As a native Michigander, I can attest to the wide-spread reach of the campaign. I’ve seen a few Pure Michigan ads here in Houston recently, and it’s made me want to go back and visit instantly! It’s almost an emotional response now when I hear that soft piano music, then Tim Allen’s voice…

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    I agree with Bob and Chris re Pure Michigan, although it might be seen by a cynic as portraying the state as “not-Detroit”.

    There are print ads for Houston as well, running in the Wall Street Journal. I really didn’t get them at first, and I’m not sure I do yet. It seems like they are trying to sell the idea that “Houston isn’t all sprawl, some COOL people live here too.”

    IIRC, originally the pictures weren’t captioned with the associations that the cool-looking people had with Houston and I thought I just wasn’t cool enough to instantly know who the people were. Lately, they are captioned, and it didn’t really help…they made me think the way you are: this is a “me too” campaign to show people there are arts, culture, and restaurants in Houston! Who knew?!!

    I still can’t tell if it’s tourism promotion or cool-people recruiting. Again, I guess I am not cool enough to hear the cool-people dog whistle.

  4. JC says:

    These were produced two years ago and they are not city specific, but rather Colorado specific as they were used for marketing campaigns in cities and states around the US.

    Here is a link to a video that discusses how the product was created:

    As an individual living in a city I already know that if I live in any of the top 20 cities in the US I will have access to quality jobs, professional sports, cultural institutions, different kinds of food and other city benefits but I, and I think others, realize that there is more than that. I think that these ads get across the notion that Colorado has more: it has adventure and something new around the corner. That is what much of these city specific ads lack for me. Maybe Columbus and Indianapolis and other midwest cities really are out of the set of cities that young, educated, mobile workers think of going to and they are trying to join the likes of San Fran, Austin, New York, Portland, Seattle, Denver and Texas’ big cities and they are simply trying to join that conversation rather than compete amongst them. But, I think that being more aspirational than that is necessary and to a large extent I think that the midwest city videos come across as: If you want anywhere city, US then make sure you think of us. In contrast I think that the Colorado videos say if you could visit/live/work anywhere wouldn’t it be here? Note that I live in Denver so I’m fairly biased.

  5. Kendall A says:

    It’s interesting to me that Houston’s ad campaign doesn’t try to portray it as the liberal mecca that Columbus’ ad portrayed, instead showing every child with two heterosexual parents, a shot of a christian church in the middle, and typically more “wholesome” entertainment than the heavier focus on drinking, live music and partying seen in the Columbus ad. Both portrayed their developing fashion sectors as a key selling point.

    I’m guessing that Houston is particularly aiming this at a certain type of millennial, the straight edge contemporary christian that doesn’t feel they fit in with the weird and secular cities like Portland or up the road in Austin, but who still wants the same sort of urban experience with like minded, possibly more traditional people. The frequent shots of sporting events aside, this ad also did a bit more to sell itself to women, featuring more groups of happy girlfriends hanging out or mixed groups, mall shopping, the ballet, and the aforementioned romantically portrayed couples. It even had a brief shot of a wedding, so I’m guessing this ad is also aimed at attracting more single women to the city. The sports actually might be a part of that sell too, as women are making up a greater share of live sports audiences lately.

    I don’t know how successful it will be. “Opportunity” in this particular ad seems to be subtly pointing to a higher chance of meeting Prince Charming rather than a higher chance of scoring a great job or starting your own company. If they are really targeting women, I’d have much rather they focused on that last category than playing to our basic reproductive instincts.

  6. Racaille says:

    Oh god…that video is terrible.

    Sure, I will be riding my bike around when it is 110 with 80% humidity breathing in every pollutant known to man.

    Houston is growing for two reasons; immigration and it’s cheap. And in many respects it reminds me a lot of Mexico City.

    A city with no limits….indeed.

  7. Rod Stevens says:

    To a person from a more planning oriented place such as Portland, “City with Limits” can be taken negatively, such as “unlimited sprawl”. The ads for “gentleman’s clubs” on the way in from the airport, put on top of 50-foot tall billboards, certainly describe a ‘city without limits’. Yet it is exactly that robustness, that no holds barred approach that makes Houston such as interesting place, once you look beyond its physical ugliness. It sounds like someone too wholesome got in the way of expressing the city’s brashness, its willingness to boast. That energy is what has indeed created an art scene there, not only with a good ballet but in the visual arts as well. Everybody knows it’s a place to do business; what if they’d talked about brashness instead? That could have been done well, and true to the city’s character.

  8. “It just goes again to prove my axiom that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry”

    In some contexts, but not branding images, as ‘This Is A Generic Brand Video’ highlights. That generic corporate brand video is now what I think of when I see a generic city brand video.

    “every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.”

    I wish cities (and companies) would concentrate on making better places (and products) rather than branding, generic or not.

  9. George V says:

    Who moves to a city because of an ad, anyway? “Well, I used to think Toledo was lame, but then I saw an ad and now I’m totally committed to its revival as dynamic urban city that never sleeps!” We don’t pick the cities we live in like we do tampons or condoms. These branding efforts are cooked up by government employees desperate to justify their jobs. Ad companies are only to happy to assist and collect a hefty paycheck.

  10. Tory says:

    While I agree it’s a bit generic, that’s all it needs to be. People all over the country know there are jobs here, and they’re getting offers if they’ll move here, they’re just wary of the quality of life. This campaign is designed to overcome negative stereotypes and alleviate that fear, not carve a distinctive brand (as cool as that would be).

    I’m going to disagree a bit too on the lack of playing up opportunity here: No Limits is definitely a message implying the levels of opportunity here. I don’t think you could use the same brand with a straight face with another generic, stagnant, mid-size city.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    George, I think the purpose of these is more for those who are already considering a move for job or family reasons. Sort of a self-justifying thing they can show their friends and say, “see? It’s not a dump”. (Wish I’d had one to share with my east coast friends when I told them I was moving to Indy. “See? It’s NOT just a racetrack in a cornfield.”)

  12. George V says:

    “George, I think the purpose of these is more for those who are already considering a move for job or family reasons.”

    That doesn’t sound like it’s worth the money, then. We all know these ads are fluff pieces that ignore reality. You’d have to seriously lack critical thinking skills to use such material as even a minutely partial basis for moving somewhere.

    A potentially good ad, I think, would be one that also addresses a city’s problems in realistic ways.

    “Houston. You see, we’re pretty auto-oriented around here. We eat more fast food than just about anyone else, and we’re consistently ranked as one of the fattest cities you’ll ever see in your life.

    Good news is, Big Oil’s hiring. So you’ll learn to love our drab, unplanned suburban environments, because unlike your city, our economy doesn’t suck. Plus, it’s like 60 degrees on Christmas Eve.

    In fact, our economy is so good, we’re even seeing a something of an urban revival in what we call the ‘Loop’. We know that name is evocative of Chicago, but don’t get any big ideas. It’s like a really dense Midwestern suburb, which around here, is a big deal.

    Houston. You’ll learn to love it.”

    An ad that honest would make me want to move to Houston.

  13. Rod Stevens says:

    The committee that chose this slogan probably did not agree on what it meant.

  14. Rod Stevens says:

    George V:
    There are many jokes about the difficulty of knowing the effectiveness of advertising, but all the big and successful firms run image-building ads, including Mobil, Chevron and Apple. They want to make sure they are defining themselves, rather than someone else doing it for them.

  15. George V. says:

    Rod, point me to an ad for a city that you think would convince someone to move to that place.

    Even you have to admit that the above ad was awful. The only useful information it conveyed was that Houston had light rail. Otherwise, barring the skyline, they could’ve told me the footage was from Des Moines or Nashville or Salt Lake City and I would’ve believed it.

    Wow, Houston has some nice restaurants, a museum, and young vaguely hipsterish people! I’d better move today!

    I’ve seen good tourism ads, but I’m not convinced a complex decision – such as where to live – could be conveyed in ad, unless perhaps the ad was uncomfortably honest. But what city government would dare pay for a truly honest ad?

  16. Rod Stevens says:

    George V.

    Oregon Travel has had a very successful series of ads now that highlight the combination of natural surroundings, food and individuals who work throughout the state. I don’t know what’s running now, but a few years ago they would have a head shot of a chef, describe where he lived, and how he had come to be there. The state’s single most successful ad, ever, was a picture of a person fly-fishing in Oak’s Bottom, an estuary in the Willamette River, the downtown skyline visible in the distance, and a tagline something like,” A five minute drive during lunch”. The state ED bureau said that one ad got more responses than any other thing they ever did, and the ad was beloved by locals who saw it, since it affirmed why they had moved or stayed there. All of these things get to the distinctive qualities of the place and its people, to loving the outdoors, what the place has to offer, and how the people themselves make it an interesting place.

  17. Andy P. says:

    This video has appeared here before, but I still can’t get over visit Denver’s “Breathless” as really capturing the spirit of the city. It even dares to show some parking lots–and a chain link fence. But, really, the story it tells goes beyond the here-be-affluent-white-culture trope to deliver the narrative of a pioneer city on the move again. I’m of course biased since I lived in Denver for a few years, but now that I’m in Michigan, the video feels if anything more compelling than it once did.

  18. George Mattei says:

    Wow, this was a very bad attempt from a city that I consider to have a very strong brand. If you didn’t tell me what city it was at first, I might not have even known until the end!!!

  19. Easy there, George. I thought some similar things about the Columbus video. You recognize the stuff in it, but those of us not from there don’t, particularly when there aren’t a lot of skyline shots or easily identifiable landmarks to outsideres.

  20. David Holmes says:

    Perhaps this is the standard format for this type of video (1 second or less snippets strung together with music). Perhaps the intended message was that we have so ridiculously many cool things in this city that we can only devote a second to each in order to fit them all in. But I think this is a terrible format. I don’t particularly like Houston, but I would much have preferred a video that lingered long enough to take in some of the truly spectacular features (for example, the downtown skyline during a sunset). It was irritating to not have the images last long enough to mentally connect them with something unique to Houston.

    I think Rod S. has it right – sometimes less is more – such as the promotional video for Portland focused on the single image of fly fishing with downtown Portland as a backdrop.

  21. Columbus, Amazing says:

    The “song” was wretched an unlistenable, but the video was pretty good. Houston is doing very well, and it has the right attitude toward planning. Houston is a model for all cities.

    Broad, wide roads, highways with frontage roads, easy drives.

    Houston is a fully scalable city that can expand all the way to Austin.

  22. May says:

    Houston is in trouble! Low wage norm and demographics are key, on top of that is has huge infrastructure bill because of suburban style housing pattern!
    About Canada, but costs issue true of all cities wit this problem.

    Cost of urban sprawl: $960m over next 18 years

    Report is mostly about SOUTH! business/archive/2013/10/ study-almost-half-of-public- school-students-are-now-low- income/280664/
    Study: Almost Half of Public School Students Are Now Low-Income
    A new study reminds us that poverty is the giant backpack dragging down American students.
    Report is mostly about SOUTH! entry/report-poor-us-students- receive-developing-world- educations

    Report: Poor U.S. Students Receive Developing-World Educations

    See for Houston:
    “The median household income in Houston was $42,877 in 2011, compared with the national figure of $50,502”
    Houston’s Household Income at $42,877 in 2011, American Community Survey Shows

    About 60% of population is Latino and African American
    ““The striking redistribution of income is the central political challenge of our times,” Klineberg said.
    And it’s the fastest-growing population groups — the Latinos and African-Americans — who tend to be on the bottom rungs of the income and education ladder.
    Houston’s population now is 33 percent Anglo; 18.4 percent African-American; 40.8 percent Latino; and 7.7 percent Asian.”
    “other major U.S. cities should be keeping their eyes on Houston.
    “The American future is here,” Klineberg said, adding that as time goes by, other U.S. cities will look like Houston, facing the same issues that it is facing.
    The big issue boils down to education.
    While more and more of today’s jobs need a college degree, the demographic trends are going in the opposite direction.
    Klineberg said that 59 percent of Asians (the smallest population groups) have a college degree; 37 percent of Anglos have a college degree; 19 percent of U.S. born blacks have a college degree; 13 percent of U.S. born Latinos have a college degree; and only 7 percent of Latino immigrants have a college degree.
    And as the mostly Anglo baby boom generation gets older and moves on, the education and income gap will only widen.
    Like most big cities, Houston is wrestling with its public education system (which it refers to as “Independent School Districts”).
    Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of a philanthropic organization called Neighborhood Centers Inc., said that “this is a human capital moment for our educational system,” which she described as “completely broken.” It’s time to start over.
    Richard Carpenter, chancellor of Lone Star Community College, said: “There is a growing gap in what we are producing and what we need.”
    Plus, it’s obvious that public schools need to undergo a transformation to be successful.
    “Only the bravest among us will embark on a path of transformation,” Carpenter said. “We tweak it because we are political entities. We in Houston right now are in a crisis mode… We’ve got a train wreck coming, and we see it. We have to do bold things with our K-12 educational system. .”
    Specifically, Carpenter said the major issue is preparing Latino students and other under-performing students to get a college education.”
    As Houston’s population becomes more diverse, the region’s education and income problems intensify –
    Kinder Houston Area Survey
    Segregation by income in Houston is among the starkest in U.S.

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