If you want to get a sense of the branding challenge facing Columbus, Ohio, consider this:
This weekend in Columbus, Ohio people will be watching a film called “Columbus” that is set in Columbus…..Indiana.
People don’t like it when I point out that internationally, more people are probably familiar with Columbus, Indiana (pop 46,850 in a metro of 81,402) than Columbus, Ohio (pop 860,090 in a metro of over two million).
How is that possible? It’s because Columbus, Indiana has one of the world’s foremost collections of modern architecture, designed by a who’s who of architects such as Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, and IM Pei. The AIA has ranked Columbus as the sixth most architecturally important city in the country. Its reputation in architecture circles extends globally.
That architecture was mostly built long ago through the inspiration and financial assistance of local business magnate J. Irwin Miller. But even today the city continues to get significant amounts of tier one press.
For example, the city has a new art initiative called Exhibit Columbus, which currently has a temporary exhibition of public art installations that interacts with the city’s architecture.
This is top quality press for a type of initiative that is hip, cool, and forward looking. Not to mention one with visuals that pop, like this street corner installation.
Then there’s the new indie film release Columbus, the debut feature from Kogonada. It’s a drama, not a documentary, set in the city involving the son of a famous Korean architect who fell ill while visiting the city, and the daughter of a struggling local working class resident, who dreams of being an architect herself one day. It played at Sundance.
I saw the film at the BAMcinemaFest over the summer and it’s really good. I recommend it.
Again, the film has great place branding, excellent visuals, and itself is high quality. Again, it obtained top drawer mostly (though not entirely) positive press, including from the New Yorker (“precocious genius”), the New York Times (“auspicious feature debut”), the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Variety and many, many others.
The lesson here for Columbus, Ohio is simple: If you aren’t one of the usual suspects and you want to make the world pay attention to you, you have to do something so compelling they can’t ignore it.
Or, as one local talked about in a recent article about the identity of the city, you have to put a flag in the ground – a really, really good flag – and make your stand.
Obviously this takes time. These recent Columbus, Indiana items were built on the architectural legacy from long ago. But you have to start somewhere.
Speaking of which, another lesson is that when you do something truly compelling, you attract other compelling people like Kogonada to build off what you’ve done. Columbus, Indiana didn’t have to do much to profit from his film. Presumably even the financing came from elsewhere.
Again, you don’t have to want to create some big global brand or rep. Most places don’t and many of them are very successful. Columbus, Ohio is doing great just the way it is. But if you do aspire to have this sort of marketplace identity, this is what it takes to make it happen.