Branding a city is hard, and although so many cities do it poorly, that does little to discourage cities like ours from continuing to try to do it right.
Since we can remember, Memphis has flirted with branding, but unfortunately, the emphasis has been catchy slogans rather than a real brand. We can think of about 10 slogans developed over the past 30 years, usually by the Chamber of Commerce. The only thing they had in common was they were all about catch phrases and failed to connect with the market that meant the most – Memphians.
That’s because none of the slogans and logos were authentic or spoke to who we were.
“What kind of story can be developed about Memphis that’s so compelling that it gets attention, it’s believable, it’s aspirational but believable so that it has enough legs that it can travel through messages that don’t depend on paid advertising?” said Carol Coletta, our colleague and CEO and president of CEOs for Cities, in recent comments to Leadership Memphis.
Not Enough Money
The problem is that Memphis isn’t FedEx. We don’t have tens and tens of millions of dollars to spend on our brand, and as a result, we need our brand to be embraced and propelled by citizens who see themselves in it and adopt it as their own.
“Rather than a litany, develop a story about Memphis,” said Ms. Coletta. “Think first, best and only.” In other words, build on the things that are uniquely Memphis – things of which we have the first, the best or the only. This concept is part of the Memphis: A City of Choice, the vision that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has announced for his administration.
No one is saying we shouldn’t be brutally honest about our warts and our problems, but other cities have problems too. There’s one 210 miles up I-240 that has crime problems and school problems, but it doesn’t prevent Nashville from telling a positive story about itself.
The brand has “to get people optimistic about the future and invest themselves in how to make it better,” said Ms. Coletta. “It has to be one that can’t be ignored, a strength-based platform. Memphis doesn’t lack a story. It just doesn’t do a good story of telling it in a compelling way.”
Branding was part of a speech given by her in Halifax that sparked the Canadian city to ask: “What is Halifax’s brand?” Here’s a post about that speech on Spacing Atlantic:
HALIFAX - On Thursday, March 25, the Chronicle Herald and the Greater Halifax Partnership presented a sold-out luncheon talk by Carol Coletta, CEO of CEOs for Cities, on the topic of cities as engines of economic prosperity.
CEOs for Cities describes itself as “a national cross-sector network of urban leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors dedicated to building and sustaining the next generation of great American cities”, and Ms. Coletta undoubtedly demonstrates a forward-thinking and conscientious approach to urban issues. She compellingly challenged Richard Florida’s assertions on the economic value of art in cities and rhymed off statistics with the familiarity of someone who obviously crunched the numbers herself. Greatly to her credit, Ms. Coletta had clearly done her homework on Halifax; she was well aware of the region’s post-secondary institutions and it was news to me that Halifax represents 46% of Nova Scotia’s GDP.
The talk focused heavily on the importance of a “vibrant core”, supporting the often-invoked argument that a city’s downtown is the litmus test of the health of the city as a whole: central business districts must, as Ms. Coletta noted, “[radiate] energy to the rest of the region”. Moreover, cities must be capable of innovation and demonstrating uniqueness, and a bustling downtown provides the density necessary for what Ms. Coletta called those “happy accidents” that spark innovative ideas whose execution relies on retaining the brains behind those projects.
The Right Questions
Of particular pertinence to Halifax was the focus placed on retaining talent, which is said to rest on three factors: quality of place, quality of opportunity, and quality of brand.
Identifying an urban brand is a confounding but essential exercise if retaining smart, creative, progressive people is a concern for Halifax — indeed all of Atlantic Canada. Ms. Coletta noted that defining a city’s brand lies in the response to the question of what it means to be a designer, planner, lawyer, student, activist, musician in [insert city here].
So what is Halifax’s brand? What is the city known for, and, fundamentally, is this an image that conveys what we want to share? On the other hand, through what meaningful, reliable process can an urban brand be developed? Efforts to brand a city seem superficial and contrived insofar that they are unlikely capture the silent pulse that makes every city unique. Obvious points of attraction like arts scenes, public spaces, summer festivals, and thriving financial sectors can be showcased in slick and glossy campaigns, but they rarely speak to what it means to live, as opposed to visit or invest, in a city. They certainly contribute to outsiders’ perceptions, which is why people describe Halifax as quaint and picturesque, but these adjectives describe a city only as it appears on a cruise stop, not what it means to truly identify with the community.
Speaking for Itself
Although there is little hope or even necessity in identifying a single, unifying brand for the city, there remains a strong argument for a better-defined vision of what it means to be designer, planner, etc., etc., etc., in Halifax, beyond the go-to answer that the city is a “great place to live, work, and do business” (and what does “great” mean, anyway?). The path cities follow as they develop, Ms. Coletta remarked, makes a statement about ambition. In this, a gleaming new convention centre and public library are the means to an end, and should not be mistaken for identities with which Haligonians can align ourselves. These buildings can purport to be representative of Halifax’s identity only if there are social, cultural, and environmental edifices or institutions that are driven by the same guiding principles.
To be sure, it is unrealistic to expect that cities can be neatly packaged into a swoosh, an alligator, or golden arches. And likewise, a single building cannot epitomize everything the outside world needs to know about Halifax. The reality is that Carol Coletta noticed Barrington’s empty storefronts, and not even the savviest spin doctor can shine that to a sheen. Perhaps the greatest irony is that only when Halifax, particularly its downtown core, is bustling, flourishing and alive for visitors and residents alike, any intentional branding will be redundant, as the appeal of the city will speak for itself.