Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Houston branding identity week: History and Strategy

Continuing our series, today we'll review Houston's branding history and talk a little about strategy. It's a lot to cover, so let's dive right in. First, a quick list of previous Houston brands (thanks to Mack for the list).
Honest attempts - some better than others - but none have really stuck, and obviously not for lack of trying. A quote from GHCVB CEO Jordy Tollett in the Houston Business Journal: "We've probably spent in excess of $75 million in the past 30 years on image campaigns, and we keep coming back and saying, 'Well, that didn't work.'"

Now, a few of my attempts:
Now, because I want this post to have comprehensive links on branding Houston for when I refer to it in the future, I'm going to throw in a couple more links:
Now, moving on to strategy. I got to sit in on a fascinating focus group a couple weeks ago talking about branding Houston. A few key words and phrases that I heard and jotted down: open, opportunity, ease of living, affordable, "big small town", "cowboys from all countries" (I really liked that one). Somebody there noted the importance of identity branding not just to tourism and economic development, but to building local cohesiveness - a point I heartily agree with. A feeling of unity instead of fragmentation in a metro region is a subtle but important one, and a strong consensus around an identity can make a big difference.

A point I made that the group agreed with was the inherent conflict between GHCVB branding for tourists and conventioneers vs. GHP branding for economic development (i.e. attracting businesses and talented residents). The former only cares about attracting people here for a few days, while the latter needs them here for the long haul. The former is all about local attractions, while the latter cares about things like opportunity, quality of life, education, and affordability. GHCVB has handled branding in the past, and I think that could be at the core of the failures. Houston is simply not a tourist town, and trying to brand us like one is folly. Houston's strength is livability and weakness is tourism - which do you think we should build our branding identity around? It's the difference between branding the way Austin, Portland, Boulder, Denver, and Seattle do it vs. the way Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami do it.

So let's talk about what people are looking for in a place to live and what sets Houston apart. People today want the amenities, diverse culture, and career opportunities of a big city with the heart of a smaller community. They also want a "sense of place" as well as aesthetics in their city and neighborhood (often a Houston weakness). This is an over-simplification, but I'm going to categorize our competitors into two broad categories:
  • Big, international cities with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, but are often unaffordable and tend to be have more a feeling of cold "big city" anonymity or fragmentation for residents than genuine community (at least for the metro as a whole - individual neighborhoods can exhibit a strong sense of community). Examples include NYC, LA/SoCal, SF/Bay Area, London, and to some extent DC and Boston.
  • Smaller, often faster-growing cities that are more affordable and have a better feeling of community, but may be more mono- or bi-racial than internationally multi-ethnic - and thus less culturally diverse, maybe even a little bland and provincial. Examples include Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, DFW, Charlotte, Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, and Seattle.
It seems to me that Houston's opportunity is to offer a "best of both worlds" between these two categories: a big, multi-ethnic, international city with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, while also being affordable and fast-growing with a feeling of community (the "big small town" comment and unity link above). Dr. Stephen Klineberg at Rice has noted that Houston has one of the most balanced ethnic profiles in the nation. Even locals often don't realize how international we've become. We've obviously drawn a lot of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, but also India, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Being headquarters for the global energy industry has brought in a large international population of Middle Easterners, Russians, Brits, and Africans, among others. We have 82 foreign consulates (third-most), 37 foreign chambers of commerce, and 20 foreign banks. This diversity spills over into our amazing restaurants, festivals, and shopping.

The closest match I can think of to this "best of both worlds" positioning is Chicago. They are larger, slower growing, and less affordable, but our branding profile is similar in many ways.

OK, so now we have a compelling differentiation strategy, but how do we sum that up into a concise branding identity? We'll wrap up Houston branding identity week on Thursday night with a proposal for your consideration. Stay tuned...


At 1:24 AM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll have to agree with commenters in prior posts about the sheer ridiculousness of "branding" a city. (In case you're wondering, I'm part of the demographic that city planners and leaders supposedly covet -- the near-graduated college student.)

Case in point -- in your list of "well-branded" cities (Austin, Portland, etc.), I really don't know what sort of slogans any of those cities have, except Austin. I only know Austin's slogan because it's ridiculously annoying. I have a gist of what each city's known for (eg, the green/sustainability schtick of Portland or the rain of Seattle), but slogans? Fugghedaboutit.

What brands or slogans do I remember? "The Big Apple." "The Windy City." "Beantown." What do all of these brands or slogans have in common? They mean absolutely nothing, they weren't formed by committees, and they weren't overanalyzed or focus-grouped to death.

The modern brands I remember? "I [heart] NY." "Only in San Francisco." and "Keep Austin Weird." Really, what do all of these have in common? They're extremely simple, they have a grass-roots quality to them, they're not the result of committees. "HIWI" has a lot of those qualities (and really, it resonates pretty well with my crop of graduates at Rice), but it certainly won't appeal to everyone.

Anyway, this "branding exercise" is going to produce another ridiculous, totally forgettable name ("Open City"? Are we affiliated with the American Express Business card? What the hell is a "Closed City"? [Detroit, perhaps.]) that nobody in their right mind would use to refer to Houston. Not to sound too much like an ass, but there are few "brands" that truly unify a city. (The only one that's really unifying is the Milton Glaser "I [heart] NY." That's because unity's really only point of that "brand." Again, simplicity works -- but only to a point [Space City? Wtf.])

Houston is what it is. Branding isn't going to change it, and people will migrate here even if we don't have a brand or slogan. Let's just continue calling ourselves the Bayou City, and forget about stupid names that try to mean something more.

(Side note: Why hasn't there been a "Law and Order Week" or "Quality of Life Week" here? Those seem more important to Houstonians than some slogan.)

At 8:45 AM, July 26, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ouch, Clarence. I agree, the very short slogans are often not very meaningful (inc. Open City, unless people take the time to understand what's behind it - locals might, outsiders won't). But there is something to be said for branding in ads that shapes peoples' thinking about a city, esp. local ads at places like airports, taxis, tourist attractions, and hotels. If you read the CEOs for Cities report linked in the Sunday post, it talks about how a brand is much, much bigger than a tagline. It's understanding how you want to differentiate from other cities, and then reinforcing that in everything you do, including local policy decisions (as Austin, Portland, Boulder, etc. do). The best cities not only go beyond a slogan to branding, but beyond branding to an authentic identity for themselves.

To answer your last questions: Law and Order is outside my area of expertise and interest. Quality of Life has been woven into many posts. I've only done a few week-long themes, and the Jane Jacobs one was essentially about Quality of Life.

At 9:08 AM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always liked the slogan of the "bayou city". As people in other threads have noted, many assume that Houston is some dry, dusty cowtown just because it's in Texas. I'll echo others in saying that I've heard many first time visitors to Houston remark how surprised they were to find that the city is in fact quite lush (not to the extent of Seattle, mind you, but much more like New Orleans than El Paso).

The word bayou conjures up several images that do suit Houston well. Hot and humid, yes, and at times pleasantly lazy. But also full of character. Some might think of gumbo, which actually is a pretty good metaphor for what we are... a gumbo city.

Anyhow, I look forward to what you've come up with, T.

At 11:22 AM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just another supporter of Bayou City chiming in. Bayou City has stuck and has been the slogan of Houston for a long time and it's too bad that we've developed over that identity. We should embrace flooding and all of this water. Ducks should live in the flood plain not people. And we should all be proud of our beautiful network of bayou parks.

Also, I am sincerely sorry to say it, but none of your attempts quite cut it. They are well thought out and interesting, but Open City is nowhere near as powerful as Mayor White talking about City of Opportunity, and we should let him do with that slogan what he is trying to do.

(Also, space city has always strangely also fit perfectly in my mind alongside bayou city)

At 11:52 AM, July 26, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Ditto for Bayou City. It's classic and unpretentious. It's also well-established and accepted within Houston, even if it doesn't really have a message.

At 12:11 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this may be of topic but attached is a link to sign a petition to save the river oaks theater and the theater on alabama.

At 12:51 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree Tory for a brand to truly stick, there has to be conversion to identity. That means that the citizens have to get behind the idea and promote the city with the brand in mind.

I hate to shameless steal from Maureen McNamara, but why not use "Hot Town, Cool City." Perhaps it doesn't properly convey the economic opportunities nor the international flavor that Houston offers. However, it plays on one of the first things people think of when they hear Houston....heat and humidity. This tells the world that the city is not afraid to say it's hot. This slogan also uses the interplay between big city opportunties and small town atmosphere/living conditions.

At 1:03 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

New to this blog, and enjoy the topics.

I have to admit, "Bayou City" conjures images of home (Houston) more than any other brand. Space City is second. The rest of the country would have to be "educated" as to where Bayou City, refers, but locals already recognize the name.

Perhaps "Bayou City" can be expanded to include a slogan (like "HIWI") that reflects a specific message/direction— something like "Bayou City, gateway of the Americas" or some such.

At 1:43 PM, July 26, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I would pick "Hot Town, Cool City" over many in the list. It does have some nice connotations.

Bayou City is growing on me as more people support it, but it seems a better fit for a slow-lifestyle Southern city than a fast-paced global metropolis. I think it's a fine nickname, like "The Big Apple" or "Windy City", but not our brand or identity. Chicago certainly has wind, but it is not their identity - same for bayous here.

At 6:33 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bayou City is a terrible moniker. Why not just call Houston "Bubbas Crawfish Shack City"?

Successful cities dont need a moniker to get a rep. Bay Area is hardly unique to SF yet SF does just fine. Big Apple means nothing yet NYC does fine.

Instead of wasting time and money on poor advertising, we should focus on improving mass transit and education in Houston-- that will attract the kind of people this city needs to thrive...

At 7:44 PM, July 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston. It Sticks.

At 12:39 AM, July 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's absolutely adorable.


I sound a little harsh in my initial comment. Well, I might be a little harsh in this comment, too. I think it's nice that we're thinking about what's interesting about our city. But, in some way, it's just that. It's nice. That's probably why I'm a little harsh.

That's why I think taking something that Houstonians say on an everyday basis and elevating it to a slogan works. It's taking something true to the city and its residents (and not contrived). It's not going to take that much effort. It's not going to be overthought.

My sentiments on Bayou City is just that -- it's a great nickname, and I think it's absolutely great that it means nothing at all. (It's sort of postmodern. Let's bring out some Foucault to analyze Houston's brand/nickname.)


"Hot Town, Cool City" has a nice ring to it, I guess. (It does have a little bit of a mid-90's thing going on, but then again, so goes Houston fashion [outside of our good Project Runway winner Chloe Dao].) But, I mean, it doesn't have that directness that lends itself to everyday use. I really have absolutely no idea where I would ever use the phrase "Hot Town, Cool City." Also, I think "Hotlanta" has us beat in overall hotness. (And god, that is such a terrible nickname that EVERYONE KNOWS. That's how not to make a nickname or slogan.)

I think that's the great part about the Las Vegas and San Francisco slogans -- they're sonorous and they fit into conversation really, really well. ("I saw a homeless bum make out with two leather daddies the other day. Only in San Francisco.") Like any good marketing phrase, they insert themselves into the minds of residents and/or visitors (just visitors, in the case of the Las Vegas one) and get repeated... over, and over again. To the point of ridiculous annoyance, but that's the way good slogans seem to work.

That's my little quibble with that idea.

Anyway, I feel like enough of an ass now. I'll shut up and let you all bring up more ideas.

At 8:28 AM, July 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's face it. What branding is really all about is faking people out a bit. None of those slogans really tell the story of a city. Like political slogans, they are intended to fake the populace into thinking the city is one thing, when in reality, it is many things, some good, some not so much.

The thought that a CEO is going to uproot his entire company to another city, because it has a catchy slogan, is hilarious. All of the slogans mentioned apply to tourism campaigns. Tory already said Houston is not a tourist mecca. If the city wants to remake itself for tourism, do so, and coin a phrase to match it. If it is touting its attractiveness for business and Quality of Life, then put its money where its mouth is. Improve the air quality and recreation and parks and education, then brag about that.

I don't think the problem is the need for a slogan or a brand. I think the problem is modern Americans' current obsession with remaking everything for the sake of remaking it. Our sense of self-importance has convinced us that everything old is wrong, and we must redo everything to make it hip and current.

Houston IS its bayous. It was born on the bayou (sorry, couldn't help it). It IS the Bayou City. Projects are underway to improve the bayous. Keep it up. Then point out that the Bayou City MEANS Bayou City.

And, please, please, PLEASE, stop with the cowboy and Texas tie-ins. Nothing says less about Houston than cowboys and Texas.

At 12:07 PM, July 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the process is already underway to make Bayou City the main label. With Andrea Yates, Enron, flooding, Astros run-for the-pennant,gas prices, and our efforts to help Katrina evacuees, Houston has been in the national spotlight more of late.

I have noticed more and more references to "the Bayou City" at the national level.

I totally agree with RedScare: Houston has been making improvements to the bayous that are its birthplace. If those efforts continue and expand, then all the more reason to use the Bayou City moniker.

PS Yes, let's leave the cowboy imagery to Dallas.

At 12:16 PM, July 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you first have to define what you are trying to accomplish with the branding. "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" isn't going to convince a CEO to move his billion dollar company there unless he works in the tourist or entertainment business. But that slogan tells you that Vegas is an adult playground.

If you are looking to brand Houston's culture, nightlife or theater then "Hot town Cool city" would work. Place that in a travel or entertainment magazine. Similar to Hot'lanta.

If you want to encourage business to move here or open an office, steer the brand to commerce.

I think Bayou City is more like Crescent City of New Orleans. It doesn't portray anything except that its name.

At 4:55 AM, October 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The list of previous Houston "brands" in this article are actually taglines. If you're going to write about this it's important to understand the difference.

At 7:58 AM, October 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I understand the difference, but they are linked.


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