An image overhaul for Houston?Lisa Gray's Chronicle column last week on an image overhaul for Houston re-sparked my interest in a topic I've explored many times on this blog: our identity. First, some excerpts from her column:
Houston's brandWhile she's right about many of our traits, I'm not a fan of "Energy City." Yes, in theory it can be stretched to encompass the things she talks about, but I think the vast majority will hear it and go no further than, yeah, Houston has the energy industry. Reviewing my old posts on different identity options, I keep coming back to "Open City of Opportunity" as my favorite, or, in an extended version, "Texas' Open City of Global Opportunity." It definitely qualifies as an "idea brand" that reinforces our true identity, with encouraged collective behaviors (nice, friendly, open, entrepreneurial, etc.), rather than a simple brand image.
Martin is at her best talking not about history and sociology, but about the stuff she really knows: marketing. Right now, she says, Houston's brand is in trouble.
The world thinks of us (and with reason) as a city built on oil, the headquarters of the world's petroleum industry. In this era of global warming and disappearing fossil fuels, Martin says, that's not the image you want. It's an "anxiety brand."
Anxiety brands play to consumers' uncertainty or fear. Hillary Clinton made herself into an anxiety brand, portraying herself as the seasoned, known candidate, less frightening than her (then) unknown competitor. The result was about what Martin would have predicted: effective at first but not long-term. People don't like anxiety brands.
Martin suggests that Houston could instead become a "compassion brand," known for its friendliness and big heart. When Hurricane Katrina showcased that side of our civic personality, people in other cities were surprised — just as they're surprised, once they get here, to discover Houston's openness to newcomers and its easy racial diversity. We could be known for our niceness — a city akin to Minneapolis, a brand like Kleenex or Dove soap.
Alternately, and more powerfully, we could be an "idea brand," a brand that seems magically new and transformative. The iPhone is an idea brand, says Martin, and so is Barack Obama.
But if Houston became an idea brand, what would its idea be?
All kinds of energy
Stop being the Oil City, Martin urges. Instead, be the Energy City.
Trumpet Houston's pioneering work in new technologies, such as solar and wind power. At the same time, talk about the other kinds of energy that animate the city. Let the world know about the Art Car Parade, about the Menil, about the opera and ballet and Discovery Green. Encourage the city's art scene to grow. Show the world that, while other cities see their economies are drooping, we remain vital — a place where new ideas can fly, new companies can thrive. Make Houston a place where energetic people want to spend their lives.
"Houston has a story to tell," Martin says. "And that makes it powerful as a brand."
As an aside: at the conference I just returned from, one of my dinner table conversations focused on Houston. The first vibe I was getting from people was, "Is that really where you want to live?" But after I talked about the lack of zoning and the vibrancy and diversity that creates (I even threw out that Houston might, in spirit, be "the Hong Kong of America"), I could see their opinions shift in a much more favorable direction. I think people are starting to recognize how much new energy gets sucked out of their cities with heavy land use controls.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on Houston's identity/image/brand in the comments...