Perspectives on branding HoustonEarly in the summer, Josh Dinsman of Notre Dame, a PhD student working on his dissertation on branding cities, came to Houston for a short research visit. He interviewed many key people here on perceptions of Houston, and kindly summarized his findings in an email to me. He authorized me to share those findings with you, and I'd love to hear your reactions in the comments:
There were some common themes that came through in all of the meetings:
1. Everyone I talked to remarked that Houston is a hard-to-define city that lacks an iconic structure or image around which a brand can be built.
2. Everyone also lauded Houston for its economic, political, and cultural diversity.
3. The lack of zoning in the city was also a major talking point, which while perhaps making the city less aesthetically pleasing, was talked about favorably for contributing to the diversity of the city.
4. Everyone mentioned that Houston has great restaurants! (side note: I took my family back to the Original Ninfa's on Tuesday, and everyone loved it. I also got to try Pasha Restaurant over by Rice, which was also excellent).
5. Everyone I talked to described Houston as a city of "opportunity."
6. Everyone noted that Houston is not a tourist town, and all seemed to think it would be a good idea to use the money that is currently used to promote tourism to instead promote economic development.
7. Everyone seemed to think that Houstonians are proud of their city, and while the national image of the city may still be either neutral or negative, they feel that Houstonians have gotten over their self-esteem issue and aren't too bothered by what outsiders think of their city. Because of this, and because the city recovered so well from the recession, continues to succeed economically, and doesn't depend on tourism for its well-being, everyone seemed to think that it isn't really that big of a deal if Houston doesn't have a brand.
Other interesting notes:
...there has not really been any tension between the Partnership and the GHCVB's branding campaigns. In fact, the two organizations do coordinate with each other to some degree, attending trade shows and expos together, and there is even section in the Opportunity Houston quarterly magazine that is reserved for the CVB's current "My Houston" campaign. Perhaps the most interesting point taken from this meeting was that the marketing department for the Partnership focuses solely on promoting "facts and data" about Houston and is not interested in becoming involved in a civic branding campaign. While the image of the city is important to their work, they don't necessarily try to create or shape that image in any way, but rather let the hard data on job growth, cost of living, etc. speak for itself.
Dr. Klineberg was great. From him I mostly got an overview of the diversity and rapidly changing nature of the Houston area. He does not himself do much research on the image of the city or its attempt at branding, but he did provide me with some data from the Houston Area Survey showing that while Houstonians complain a lot about their city, a vast majority of them still think it is a better place to live than anywhere else.
Finally, I had a great meeting with ttweak. They gave me a great overview of the "Houston: It's Worth It" campaign, including the pushback they got from the CVB. They made an interesting connection between HIWI and the Las Vegas brand, "What Happens Here Stays Here," in that both of them were successful because they had a degree of tension built into them (Houston's in that there was tension between the guys at ttweak and city officials who didn't like their unofficial campaign, as well as tension in the sense that HIWI openly recognized the city's many afflictions; Vegas, in that the image of the city being promoted by "What Happens Here Stays Here" is not very popular among the local citizenry, and there is also tension in that while great for promoting tourism, the slogan has also had some negative effects in that it has turned away businesses who could have helped to diversify the city's economy).
Cities' CVBs and other local officials are often afraid of offending anybody, they want to make everyone happy, and in the process end up producing bland, cliched, and often patronizing brands/slogans that have lost that degree of tension. I found this to be a very interesting insight, especially considering the fact that while HIWI achieved this tension from a more grassroots, bottom up, unofficial campaign that depended completely on the participation of local Houstonians, Vegas achieved this tension in a more top-down fashion with no input from locals. Thus, there was tension between locals and city officials in both cases, but with each side coming at the issue from a different direction in each case.
Finally, they also mentioned that someone in Detroit contacted ttweak about doing a "Detroit: It's Worth It" (DIWI) campaign. Although he authorized them to use the "It's Worth It" tagline, the DIWI campaign never gained steam and and never really got off the ground. They believed that this may have been because Detroit doesn't suffer from the same type of bad reputation that Houston does, but I'm not sure about that. When people refer to you as "murder city," I don't think that is a very positive image to have. Thus, the failure of DIWI could have simply been to the lack of leadership/effort in really getting the campaign going, or, in my view at least, I think it also says something about the local culture and the pride that each city's citizens have in their hometown. Despite its afflictions and neutral/negative reputation, Houstonians seem to be very proud of their city and proud to call themselves Houstonians. I am not so sure that the same can be said for the people of Detroit. For a lot of them, Detroit probably isn't worth it!