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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

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