Monday, October 15, 2012

Perspectives on branding Houston

Early 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!

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At 12:40 AM, October 16, 2012, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

"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."

This is very important. Real global cities do not have hang-ups or identity issues: they don't try to be something they're not. This show's Houston is maturing as a major city. The city telling UA off about Hobby expansion is another sign of this and why it is, in my view, a step up above all its other Sunbelt competitors except L.A.

At 8:45 AM, October 16, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Good point, RC. Total agreement.

At 10:25 AM, October 16, 2012, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm surprised there was no mention of raoches, misquitos, potholes, water main leaks, and the lousy weather. But I wasn't part of the research.

At 11:22 AM, October 16, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps we shouldn't focus on creating a brand for Houston. Maybe I'm naive (or I don't feel like doing the research on my phone before I post) but I feel like cities who do have some kind of brand: Big Apple and the City that Never Sleeps, Chicago as the Windy City, Philly as the Liberty City, LA as the city of palm trees and celebrities, Las Vegas as the city of fun (maybe Miami has this same aura too?), San Antonio and the Alamo, New Orleans as the Big Easy. Correct me if I'm wrong but these seem to have come about organically as I feel Houston's should. Plus, what's wrong with Space City? To me, its connotation rings of the future which is how so many of us feel about the city.

At 12:21 PM, October 16, 2012, Anonymous Chris said...

As a former Detroiter now living in Houston, there are a good deal of us who are proud of Detroit. No, we are not proud of the political turmoil that has lasted for the past 30 years. But, for people that have taken blow after blow, we're still fighting and won't be knocked out. That's Detroit's identity, and we are proud of it. We don't accept no as an answer, and want to strive for change.

If you are speaking for Detroiters, I think you are painting with too broad of a brush. If you haven't lived there, or spent a good amount of time there, please don't speak for the city.

At 12:35 PM, October 16, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I am just passing along the perspectives of others on Detroit. Absolutely not speaking for the city.

At 2:25 PM, October 16, 2012, Blogger cdandrews said...

Thanks for the clarification Tory. I apologize for coming off a little strong on my defense of Detroit. I suppose it's ingrained as a transplant. It's a similar position to the article from a few weeks ago entitled "Don't Believe What People Tell You About Your City" I saw on the Urbanophile blog.

Working in the planning and development industry, and being relatively new to Houston, I have enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for your work.

At 3:55 PM, October 16, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I saw that Urbanophile post too, Chris. I completely understand. Thanks for the kind words.

At 8:59 PM, October 16, 2012, Anonymous George Marshall Worthington said...

The Big Apple. The Windy City. The City by the Bay. America's best-known cities have brand recognition that any marketer would covet. A principle of brand management is that properly handled the brand creates value for the party that owns it. A strong brand can influence what meaning consumers give to a branded entity and encourage desirable perceptions. A strong brand can attract new residents, business investors, shoppers, tourists, and other types of consumers. Therefore it is not surprising that attempts are made to brand cities.

In other cities there's been a shift in how they are thinking about themselves. Instead of just selling themselves, other cities are looking at how they come across as a brand in an integrated, holistic way. These cities are way ahead of Houston in recognizing that they have certain assets which if deployed in a strategic fashion give them a competitive edge in attracting the well-educated workers that drive the 21st century economy.

Houston’s competitors will continue seeking more sophisticated efforts to develop their brands, their personality and their buzz. We must emulate these other cities to capitalize on our uniqueness for both economic advantage, to create new businesses and to market Houston as a leading center of creativity and innovation.

At 11:49 PM, October 16, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Chris: I should have put a disclaimer up before the comments got going, as I knew proud Detroiters like yourself would slam my comments on Detroit. So, please let me clarify.

First, I by no means am trying to speak for all Detroiters. The information conveyed in Tory's post is just what I have learned in my research so far. As for my comments on Detroit, I was not trying to say that there are no Detroiters who are proud of their city. Obviously many of them are (including yourself), and there are indeed many aspects of Detroit that they should be proud of. However, at least from my research, in comparison to Houston, there seems to be much more of a sense of civic pride in Houston--Houstonians love their city despite the bad rep that it gets--than there is in Detroit, where it seems that for many (but not all) residents, the bad rep of the city seems to affect their own views of their city in a negative way. All of this was meant as a possible explanation for why the "Detroit: It's Worth It" campaign was not successful like the "Houston: It's Worth It" campaign.

Finally, I have not yet read the Urbanophile blog post yet, but from the title "Don't Believe What People Tell You About Your City," I would totally agree. One of the main points I am trying to make in my dissertation is that cities often approach branding from the wrong angle. Many (but again, not all) cities approach branding as a way to improve their image, focusing their attention on how outsiders view their city. While this seems like a logical approach, what is often lost in this type of branding is the perspective of locals and what they themselves actually think about their city. Prior research has suggested that the best branding is done via word of mouth by locals and not by spending millions of dollars on catchy slogans and expensive advertising campaigns. Thus, those responsible for branding cities should focus less on trying to find a way to combat the negative opinions of outsiders by hiring (often non-local) branding experts and ad agencies and should instead find out what locals themselves are proud of about their city and should work in partnership with the community to foster a sense of civic pride that will encourage locals to talk up the positive aspects of their city whenever they encounter non-locals.

At 10:45 PM, October 18, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you have explained this in previous posts, but what is the main objective of the brand? Is it to promote tourism? Is it to attract businesses? Is it to attract/retain people to the city?

It seems like most well-known brands benefit tourism, particularly Las Vegas, New York and New Orleans. As you mention for Las Vegas, a brand focusing on tourism can work to the detriment of other objectives.

Houston is not a tourist city and will never be, except maybe on a regional level. So why bother with a tourism-oriented brand? I don't think businesses are influenced by a city's brand - they want workforce availability, transportation and low costs of business. Which leaves one objective, attracting people. HIWI is actually geared for this purpose.

Still, I think the whole idea of a brand is overrated. For attracting people, job opportunity is by far most important.

At 10:48 PM, October 18, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You've hit on the core problem with city branding. GHCVB tends to drive it. Their mission is to fill hotel rooms, so they're focused on business and leisure tourists. So that's the type of branding they do. But I agree that's not Houston's strength.

GHP has traditionally targeted attracting businesses/jobs, but they've mostly done it without branding. Houston branding should be more about attracting talent. And I think GHP is looking at that now.

At 2:50 PM, November 12, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Let's all be sure to understand that a brand is not a corny tag-line. A brand is so much more and these types of things can't be assigned, only embraced. Houston's lack of zoning truly does encourage amazing diversity allowing neighborhoods like Montrose to exist. Houston business should be encouraged to work with local branding agencies to avoid putting up ghastly signs and unnecessary cables to prevent visually polluting the skyline any further.

Houston has so much to offer in regards to food, culture, art and business. Branding of the city should promote these items to incentivize people to want to stay in Houston and to talk about how much they love their city. Friends from NYC and LA visit us in Houston regularly and the number one thing we hear that upsets me is that Hostonians seem to just live in Houston to work - how boring!


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