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.

Ikea survey on American home patterns

Here is one snarky interpretation of some interesting data from a recent Ikea survey of Americans:

Only 1% [of those surveyed] want their home to reflect how successful they have been.
Analysis: This may seem surprising, but in fact Americans often choose to lie to surveys to make themselves appear more humble…

43% state they have assigned seating in their living room.
Analysis: Americans care deeply about personal property and annex even the smallest items…

31% of people with pets answered that the pet cuddles with them in bed “every night.”
Analysis: American pets do not respect boundaries.

I’ve wondered why sociologists don’t spend more time studying what Americans do in their homes. I could see why companies like Ikea want such information (see the survey results here): they want to sell us things for our homes. While such research questions may seem intrusive, Americans have created a superior private realm that keeps them away from community life (the interpretation of several New Urbanists in Suburban Nation) so something interesting must be going on at home, right? We know that Americans consume lots of television (lots of studies on this) and find ways to handle housework (lots of studies on this) but what about regular interactions? What about what they think about what their own home says about themselves? What do they do when left alone in their own homes? Surveys could help us get at this but participant observation would also help: seeing Americans in their natural and prized personal settings.One book that does do some of this is one I read a while back in grad school called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Also, Pierre Boudieu’s classic Distinction looks at numerous household items and activities.

A little bit more on one of the Ikea questions (page 3 of the PDF):

How do Americans feel about home?
•95% say home is a place they can relax
•94% feel their home is a place where they feel
safe and secure
• 78% stated their home reflects their character
•50% believe that when it comes to life at home,
the top priority is for the home to be warm and
welcoming
• Only 1% want their home to reflect how successful
they have been

It is interesting how many Americans don’t want the home to reflect their success but it should reflect their character. Critics of McMansions might charge that the reason those homeowners bought such homes was to try to impress other people.

Gallup to start surveying college graduates to find if their college degree led to “a great life”

Gallup is working on a new initiative to measure a wider range of life outcomes for college graduates:

As the old saying goes, money can’t buy happiness. And yet, in measuring alumni success and satisfaction, colleges – often prodded by those seeking to hold them accountable – typically look at two things: whether their former students are gainfully employed, and whether they’re making a decent salary.

A new project announced today, led by Gallup and debuting at Purdue University, aims to change that. Focusing on a set of factors that are shown to correlate with “a great life,” the survey of 30,000 graduates annually will provide data on how alumni of groups of colleges (public or private institutions in certain states, for instance, or athletic conferences) are faring and how they compare to national averages. The final product will be a benchmark for student success against which any campus can measure its own graduates, if it works with Gallup individually…

The survey’s line of questioning goes beyond job placement and salary, also inquiring about work place and community engagement, personal relationships, physical fitness, sense of purpose and happiness, and economic management and stress…

“No one is going to suggest that colleges and universities are responsible for 100 percent of your great job and great life,” Busteed admitted, “but obviously, if you go to college and you get a degree, the odds are you increase the probability of having a good outcome.”

Given the arguments about the cost of college, I’m not surprised efforts like this are quickly moving forward. And, as the article notes, there are lots of methodological questions in play: what exactly is “a great life”? How many years after college should people be asked these questions? How can the effects of college be separated out from other life experiences (though people’s perceptions about whether college mattered is important as well)?

At the same time, I’m not opposed to trying to get at these life outcomes after college. Colleges often make the argument they improve the lives of their graduates from earning more to training for careers to giving students room to start living to critical thinking to a broader understanding of the world. Is some of the concern about measuring these things that colleges might not be able to live up to lofty claims? For example, given the findings of Academically Adrift from a few years ago, not all college students are benefiting. Once findings start trickling out, it will then be imperative to see what gets counted as “success” for colleges.

How to measure “success” of movements like the Tea Party

In the midst of an opinion piece about the Tea Party, E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post touches on an interesting social movements question: what makes a social movement successful?

Before you dismiss the question, note that word “successful.” Judge the Tea Party purely on the grounds of effectiveness and you have to admire how a very small group has shaken American political life and seized the microphone offered by the media, including the so-called liberal media.

But it’s equally important to recognize that the Tea Party constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers.

In this excerpt (and by the end of the article), Dionne suggests two markers of success for the Tea Party:

1. Getting the attention of the media and political leaders. (Dionne says this has been a success.)

2. Having a majority (or perhaps just a large enough critical mass?) of Americans on its side or as constituents. (Dionne suggests this is not the case.)

There also could be other measuring sticks for success:

1. How many Tea Party candidates reach political office. This could be for the 2010 election cycle or for elections beyond that.

2. How long the movement lasts. Is it here just for this election cycle or longer? Is it going to be a permanent party or will it fade away?

3. How much money can be raised in support.

I’m not sure I’ve read that the Tea Party itself has defined what “success” looks like.

The economics of tutoring

The New York Times has a piece analyzing the ROI of private, non-remdial tutoring.  On the one hand, journalist Paul Sullivan quotes a “cynic” who likened “tutoring and private school as a forward contract on the Ivy League, with anything less being a disappointment.”  On the other, he notes

[o]n the positive side, for children, tutors can often comfort them and let them talk to someone beyond their parents. “They can say what they want and that person will translate it to Mom and Dad,” Ms. [Sandy] Bass [editor and publisher of Private School Insider] said. “That’s what the kid needs because they’re afraid of letting Mom and Dad down.”

I sense that non-remedial tutoring is driven more by the former than the latter.  I wasn’t personally tutored in grade school or secondary school, but I did take the ubiquitous BarBri bar review course after graduating from law school.  I took this course because I felt that I had to:  everyone else was taking it, and I couldn’t afford to not have the same “edge.”  (Never mind that state bar exams are designed to test one’s knowledge of the law, a skill presumably learned during the preceding three years of law school.)

Is non-remedial tutoring just an arms race?  I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and comments.