Sunday, July 23, 2006

Houston branding identity week: Why brand a city?

Continuing with themed weeks here at Houston Strategies, this week will be about developing a branding identity for Houston. Earlier this year, I noted that the Greater Houston Partnership has launched a $30-40 million "Opportunity Houston" fund-raising campaign to market the city. In the last few weeks, I've been exposed to some new thinking on the topic, including a CEOs for Cities civic branding report, the Chronicle story on Houston's invisibility to young professionals, and a focus group with urbanist Joel Kotkin.

The topic today is "Why brand a city?"

The LA Times had this to say in an article on civic branding a couple years back (reposted here):
"It is a very challenging process," said Tom Horton, a senior associate with the San Francisco-based planning and design firm hired to help develop the new logo, set to be stamped on everything from city stationery to bus shelters. "People feel very passionately about where they live and how their city is publicly portrayed."

California cities have long wrestled with issues of civic identity, generating new logos and slogans designed to polish their image and advertise their attributes like so many boxes of breakfast cereal. In some cases, cities have gone as far as changing their name to whip up civic pride or get out from underneath undesirable reputations. (a Houston problem)

Civic branding takes those efforts to new levels, with a growing number of cities taking a page from corporate America to market themselves to the outside world in order to attract new residents, promote economic development and draw tourist dollars.
Here are some key excerpts from the CEOs for Cities report "Branding Your City":
As international place branding authority Simon Anholt writes, “Unless you’ve lived in a particular city or have a good reason to know a lot about it, the chances are that you think about it in terms of a handful of qualities or attributes, a promise, some kind of story. That simple brand narrative can have a major impact on your decision to visit the city, to buy its products or services, to do business there, or even to relocate there.

“All of our decisions, whether they are as trivial as buying an everyday product or as important as relocating a company, are partly rational and partly emotional. No human activity is exempt from this rule, and the brand images of cities underpin the emotional part of every decision connected with those places, which in turn affects the rational part.

“Paris is romance, Milan is style, New York is energy (!), Washington is power, Tokyo is modernity, Lagos is corruption, Barcelona is culture, Rio is fun. These are the brands of cities, and they are inextricably tied to the histories and destinies of all these places.

“In today’s globalized, networked world, every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, businesses, investment, capital, respect and attention. Cities, the economic and cultural powerhouses of nations, are increasingly the focus of this international competition for funds, talent and fame.”
Put simply, branding is a tool that can be used by cities to define themselves and attract positive attention in the midst of an international information glut. Unfortunately, there is the common misconception that branding is simply a communications strategy, a tagline, visual identity or logo. It is much, much more. It is a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for a place that is relevant and compelling to key audiences. Ultimately, it influences and shapes positive perceptions of a place.

Most of all, a branding project is anchored in a community’s societal, political or economic objectives by focusing on its relevant differences, identifying the core promise that it makes to key audiences, and developing and consistently communicating the core, positive attributes of the place.
There are many reasons why it is critical for a place to have a brand strategy, but the most common is to stimulate economic growth. That’s because a strong brand can:
  • Shift the perception of a place that may be suffering from a poor image among external and internal constituents.
  • Create a common vision for the future of the community and its potential.
  • Provide a consistent representation of the place.
  • Enhance its local, regional and/or global awareness and position.
  • Shed unfavorable stereotypes associated with a place and make it more appealing.
I am probably in the minority in that my top priority for branding is local civic pride and vision, over tourism or economic development (see bold bullet point above). This excellent excerpt from another CEOs for Cities report pretty much sums up why (if it sounds familiar, it's because I previously excerpted it here):
Although we identified some common elements that were attractive to many well-educated young adults, we would not say that there is one single ideal community. An important element of authenticity is distinctiveness. We live in a nation (and a world, thanks to globalization) where culture has become increasingly homogenized, where one suburban community, strip mall, freeway exit looks exactly like every other. But a reaction is brewing, emerging from the ground up. Many people want choices and a sense of place that moves past the bland of the national brand.

The essence of this notion is that every community will have to find its own unique identity. Just as quality of life means different things to different people, so too does sense of place. We know tastes differ regarding climate. Many people will find the quality of life eroded by "bad"” weather. Some will think Minnesota too cold, Portland to wet or Phoenix too hot. Just as there are many dimensions of climate, there are many dimensions of community. No city can offer the best quality of life to everyone. The challenge is to find one's niche. The Twin Cities, for example, can'’t be cheaper than Mississippi, or sunnier than Phoenix or more aggressively entrepreneurial than Silicon Valley, but they can offer their own distinctive combination of attributes that a significant set of knowledge workers will find attractive. As Michael Porter reminds us, strategy is about being different: What do you choose to be or to offer that is different than others? (Porter, 1996) This notion stands in stark contrast to our traditional view of economic development, which has asked simply whether one place was cheaper than another. The challenge for every community is to decide what kind of place it wants to be.
I think that's enough for today. In the next post Tuesday night, we'll talk about previous attempts to brand Houston (others and mine), and the inherent conflict between branding for tourism vs. economic development. I'll unveil my own new concept in the last post of the week Thursday night (very long drum roll please...).


At 1:28 PM, July 24, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I know. I was just noting they took our word, even though they mean it differently.

At 3:31 PM, July 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth... I've spent the summer hanging out with a bunch of graduate students at Harvard University (read: very talented, cultured people). I have told them a lot about Houston, partly to gauge the perception up here, and partly because I just can't help telling people about Houston.

As far as brand name... when I told them that we were known as "the Bayou City," that drew their attention. For one thing, it dispels myths about our geography (i.e. that we are on a dry Texas plain). When I tell people up here that we are laced with bayous, they say, "really," and you can see them thinking.

For another thing, it sounds authentic. It gets a whole Creedence/Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe going. People imagine groves of trees with waterways buried in them, live music concerts, New Orleans-style architecture. Granted we don't really have those in any great degree, but it's a nice image.

Whenever I use any other brand to describe Houston, it falls flat. Energy City sounds schmaltzy and tourist bureau-ish. Space City is worse. The fact is, people - especially young people - know when they're being taken for a ride. Better to just be yourself.

At 3:55 PM, July 24, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Mike - that's funny - when I visited Houston for the first time (a business trip in the late 80s, when I lived in Boston) I remember looking out the window of the plane as we landed at IAH and thinking, "Hey, it's green down there." I honestly thought it would all be brown and dusty.

About the only consistent perception of Houston around the country, in my experience, is that it's big, sprawling, and tacky (so 2 out of 3 of the ideas are right). Also - people who don't really get how big Texas is (like me, coming from a little New England state) will sometimes visit some other part of Texas and assume it's all the same.

It's not a bad place to start from, though; the perceptions are negative, but I don't think they are terribly strong or entrenched.

(Have you seen the "Mississippi, You Better Believe It" campaign that's going on now?)

At 5:46 PM, July 24, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Just looked at it. I'm impressed. My perceptions of the state definitely changed in the few minutes I spent clicking around the site.

At 9:52 PM, July 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe Houston's slogan should be:

Houston Don't Believe It

/joking (kind of)...

At 10:47 AM, July 25, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory has already heard this, but to me the problem of branding Houston is that we rate as "pretty good" on many (or most) things, but "best" on few (or none). Considered as a whole, that's actually *very* good for actually living your life. But it's hard to craft a brand around "solidly top 40% in most categories you find important, which doesn't sound like it but is actually quite impressive". Picking one thing sounds dishonest or forced, since everyone can think of a place that is better for that one thing.



Post a Comment

<< Home