Steps for cities trying to brand themselves

Most cities would love to attract more business and visitors and thereby expand their tax base. But, how can cities brand themselves today amidst so much competition?

Cities of varying sizes struggle with two related, but seemingly opposing, global and local forces. At one level, every city would like to benefit from the global flow of capital and the emerging landscapes of prosperity seen in “other” places. At another level, to be a recipient of such attention, a city has to offer something more than cheaper real estate and tax benefits.

What cities need is a sense of uniqueness; something that separates them from other cities. Without uniqueness, a city can easily be made invisible in a world of cities. In other words, without defining the “local,” there is no “global.” Here is where identifying a coherent message about a place, based on its identity, becomes crucial. One of the major challenges facing many cities, small and large, is how to make themselves visible, and how to identify, activate, and communicate their place identity – their brand – through actions.

The challenge of urban branding is that cities are not commodities. As such, urban branding is not the same as product or corporate-style branding. Cities are much more complex and contain multiple identity narratives; whatever the business and leadership says, there are other local voices that may challenge the accepted “script”. In fact, while city marketing may focus mainly on attracting capital through economic development and tourism, urban branding needs to move beyond the simply utilitarian, and consider memories, urban experiences, and quality of life issues that affect those who live in a city. A brand does not exist outside the reality of a city. It is not an imported idea. It is an internally generated identity, rooted in the history and assets of a city…

To make a city visible takes more than a logo. The future of a city region depends on a diversity of political, managerial, community and business leaders who will participate and sustain a process that will lead to an inclusively created brand, followed by actions that embrace it. Cities without articulated identities will remain invisible, lamenting at every historical turn the loss of yet another opportunity to be like their more successful neighbors.

The primary parts of this argument are: (1) have a cohesive and dynamic set of local leaders; (2) identify and/or develop a key unique feature or identity to build upon; and (3) focus not just on economic factors but cultural scenes. I don’t know that these have changed all that much in recent decades though the second and third pieces may seem more difficult today due to increased competition, both for perceived limited resources and the reality that cities now compete against a wider set of cities. Boosterism has been a consistent dimension of American cities for a long time but their status anxiety may have increased in recent decades.

I wonder if part of the branding issue today is defining what makes a city successful. What should the average city strive for in terms of development? Is it better to shoot for the moon? Should a city set more realistic goals? Is it okay for many leaders to be more of a regional center appealing to a more immediate population or should everyone go in on a global game? Is this about increasing population, having more tourists, attracting more businesses, rehabbing rundown neighborhoods, being able to pay their own bills, a combination of all of these or something else? Communities have all sorts of narratives they tell about themselves that can range from the stable community that pays its bills to a friendly, helping place to the city that has all of the quality of life amenities to the suburb that has a disproportionate of valuable white-collar jobs. Some of this branding/narrative development/character happens in relation to other cities geographically nearby or in a perceived similar category (Chicago might compare itself to New York City but they compare themselves to cities like London and Tokyo) but there is also an internal dimension they may not be intended for outsiders.

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