As Sacramento struggles to find a branding strategy that works; Destination City –ridiculous on its face, whereas “great place to raise a family” is more authentic–seemingly the standard fall-back, this insightful article from the Manhattan Institute offers some guidance.
People think of a brand as the name of a consumer product, such as Budweiser or Tide, or the name of a company, such as Target. However, cities also have brands. Atlanta is the “Capital of the New South.” Las Vegas is Sin City. Detroit is the Motor City. New Orleans is the Big Easy. Los Angeles is Tinseltown. New York is the Big Apple.
Branding of places—countries, states, cities, and even neighborhoods—is also big business. States alone spend about $700 million just on tourism promotion each year.1 Cities spend many millions more. Essentially every city of any size has a convention and visitors’ bureau to market itself to event planners and tourists, along with an economic development agency to market itself to prospective employers. Entire firms, such as Development Counselors International, exist to market cities and other places. Cities also invest large sums into civic initiatives driven by branding strategies, such as attempting to become known as a startup hub or a capital of the creative class.
While there is significant debate about public policy related to services such as education, transportation, or public safety, branding has not received as much scrutiny. Measuring the return on investment in marketing is notoriously difficult. There’s a famous saying in the advertising business, attributed to many executives: “I know half of my advertising spending is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” Nevertheless, given the amount of direct marketing spending that is, and will continue to be, undertaken by cities and other places, it’s important that these funds are spent in the most effective manner. Far more important, a city’s understanding of its brand helps determine the strategic decisions and investments that it makes.
This paper will review why cities, unlike companies, often struggle to identify effective brands, as well as the results of getting branding right and wrong.
What Is a Brand?
This paper will use a traditional definition: At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.
This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility.
For many, branding is synonymous with marketing. In this view, a brand is a tagline or a logo. But marketing is actually downstream from brand. Marketing is how you communicate your brand promise to the people you are attempting to reach. The process of marketing is very important but is secondary to what you are marketing.
A city’s brand is fundamentally its sense of identity, shaping how it communicates and markets itself to the world, and what it does—how it sets policies and makes civic investments. Because of this, the brand is important to get right regardless of whether or not the city’s marketing efforts are effective. If a city believes that its brand is as a Silicon Valley–style start up hub, it will devote civic leadership time and make investments in an attempt to make that a reality. If this brand is not a promise the city can deliver, it will fail to realize the anticipated economic gains of its branding while its leadership suffers a loss of credibility.
The challenge of promising something unique is extremely difficult for cities. We see this from the observed fact that while most companies are trying their hardest to convince you of how much different and better they are than every other company in their industry, most cities are trying their hardest to convince you they are at least equal to the peer communities they most admire. Cities often promote the same basic assets their competitors promote, sometimes even with similar language. Thus, despite often touting their unique qualities, cities fail to differentiate themselves.
Look at corporate brands and marketing. For example, Apple positioned itself as a premier product provider with a distinct, superior user interface and industrial design. It is an innovator that created entire device categories, such as the MP3 player and the smartphone. Apple’s marketing slogan used to be “Think Different,” which correctly embodied how the company thought about itself. Another example is GEICO, whose brand promise and marketing slogan are one and the same: “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” It provides lower-cost insurance to people with good driving records.
Now consider how many cities market themselves. They mostly talk about technology startups, coffee shops, microbreweries, bike lanes, fashion, farm-to-table restaurants, downtown apartments, having a creative class of residents, etc. These are all good things. But many cities tout the same things. These things are not strictly promises of everything to everybody, but they represent a certain conventional wisdom about the most critical markets to reach (particularly young, educated adults) and what those markets demand. They represent a generic appeal with a brand promise based on what is popularly portrayed by Portland (Oregon) or Brooklyn.
Note how many cities have labeled themselves with some variation of Silicon Valley. This includes Silicorn Valley (Fairfield, Iowa), Silicon Prairie (Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska), Silicon Forest (Portland), Silicon Alley (New York), and Silicon Beltway (Washington, D.C.), among others.2 (City marketing videos that further illustrate the generic marketing of cities are listed in the Appendix.)
The problem is that most cities are not Portland or Brooklyn or the string of cities dotting California’s Santa Clara County. They have completely different histories, economies, demographics, geographies, cultures. It’s highly unlikely that any other city will ever re-create the magic of Silicon Valley, so the brand promise ends up being false. Even to the extent that a city can successfully create it in part, it will likely be an inferior imitation. Why move to a Rust Belt city trying to act like Portland when you could just move to Portland?
Consider the large number of cities that have built light rail systems, partly to create the environment that they feel is needed to attract educated young men and women. Light rail is an extremely costly technology. But very few cities are suitable to rail transit in the way that Chicago or Boston is—they have comparatively small downtown employment bases, highly dispersed origins and destinations of trips, and low-density development that is not supportive of rail transit. These light rail systems may not be white elephants, but they represent a poor allocation of limited public capital-investment dollars. And these cities will never be able to create the type of transit-oriented lifestyle that exists in Boston or Philadelphia.
Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.
So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.
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