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The Authentic City

There are many different meanings and definitions of the word “brand”. It is used by people in different contexts to mean very different things. Often it is about marketing or tag lines or logos. But ultimately a brand is much more than that and includes two basic components at its core:
  1. A set of desired internal aspirations, goals, character, culture, competencies, etc. that describe what a product, organization or person is or would like to be.
  2. A set of external thoughts, feelings, images, and associations that others have of that product, organization or person.
There are two aspects: how you are/see yourself and how others see you. Among the core challenges of executive leadership are understanding and articulating the desired internal brand, making sure that the organization lives up to that brand promise, and synchronizing the external perceptions with that reality. (Of course for cities, there isn’t a unitary brand – each of us who chooses to make our life there gets a say and has a voice).
Marketing is often confused with branding. But marketing is to a great extent a tool a firm uses to raise awareness of its brand and to inspire the desired external perception. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.


The challenge for cities that currently have rather dowdy brand images is that they obsess over how over people see them. (Or even about how they think other people see them. For example, Indianapolis frequently says people used to call it “Naptown” and “India-No-Place”, but I’m extremely skeptical that these ever had wide currency outside of Indy itself until the city started talking about them).
Seeing this negative brand image, they then look at what the cool cities are doing and say, “If we want to be cool too, we’d better be like that.” In short, they think just like high school kids who want to be part of the popular clique. They fail to consider both that this attitude is itself adolescent, and that no matter what they do, they are highly unlikely to get into the club. Cliques are by definition exclusive, so the minute you think you’ve caught up with everyone else, they are on to something else. I think one of the main reasons we’ll see starchitecture start to wane, for example, isn’t just a lack of money, it’s the fact that everyone is doing it, from Milwaukee to the Middle East.
I do recognize that as social creatures, this notion of being part of the tribe never leaves us, even in adulthood. We all engage in actions designed to display our membership in a class, a status, a group, etc. Dress for the job you want, they say. But we move beyond purely thinking of these as the road to success. We recognize them a bit for what they are – part of the game you have to play. More importantly, we grow more comfortable in our skin. We figure out who we are and what we do best. We don’t always just follow the crowd or the trend – at least few people who wants to be truly successful or move up in the ranks – or be happy – do.
Unfortunately, most cities are still stuck in high school. They think it is about having the accouterments of the cool places, not realizing that they are just like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. What’s worse, they actually seem determined in many cases to downplay or leave behind many of their strongest brand assets in any attempt to be like the cool kids. (For more on this, see my piece, “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis” ).


Some cities go so far as to downplay their very name. Detroit comes to mind. A lot of the marketing and things put out by booster groups now refer to it as “the D” – Model D Media for example. But no one knows or cares about “the D”. In fact, I’ve seen other people in cities like Dallas call their city “the D”. But “Detroit” is a name with international resonance and power. It’s what I call “the power of brand Detroit”, and it is overwhelming. Has Cleveland, Buffalo, or any other struggling city gotten one tenth the national and international media coverage of Detroit? Did Time magazine set up a “Project Toledo”? No. Detroit is simply a city and brand unlike any other, one that has the power to grab the eyes of the world. One small example: when I write posts about Detroit, my traffic goes up 10x. My piece on Detroit as the new American frontier from last summer is still being linked all over the place, including BMW discussion boards in Latvia, forums in Sweden, the New York Times, Facebook shares in Japan and more. If I wanted to maximize traffic, I’d write about nothing but Detroit. Not even my New York City or Chicago posts compete.
Those people are interested in Detroit, not “the D”. They are interested in things that locals would rather forget or not talk about. But while some of it is clearly facile, such as the n-th photo of Michigan Central Station, it shows the roots of what you need to do to revive. How to fashion companies reinvent themselves? Often it starts with a trip to the archives. I was struck by Saskia Sassen’s observation that the re-emergent global cities like Chicago built their new functions out of the expertise and heritage of the old. It wasn’t just some new business that wafted in on the wind. Chicago’s agro-industrial heritage is the basis of much of the high value service work it does today.
To renew our cities, we have to build on what they are, not what they aren’t. The lesson of Portland is not the physical things Portland did. The lesson of Portland is that they went their own way and did what was right for them. Other cities need to find their own paths. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something or aspire to be something you’ve never been. That’s how we grow as people and as cities. But suddenly deciding to just chuck your whole heritage, history, character, etc. and go in a radically different direction is probably not going to work. One reason, for example, the 1970’s era amateur sports strategy for Indianapolis worked is that sports was something that was already compatible with the local culture. It was a reworking of something that was already there, positioned for the future – and it fit the city.
I realize some changes need to be made in many places that aren’t a good fit. That requires strong and courageous leadership (top down and bottom up) to make happen. But it’s a lot more likely to happen if it is alloyed with things that do fit the civic DNA.


A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. I’m reminded of the Jonathan Glancey quote I gave last week:
What’s wrong with a city being ‘world class’? A great deal is wrong. Why? Because it’s yet another manifestation of ways in which cities are beginning to resemble one another all too closely…The joy of great cities lies in their differences. What’s special about Stockholm is different from what makes London or Vienna attractive. The ‘world class city’, and its gormless sibling, the ‘world class place’, is a political slogan, conjured by globally minded, air-travel addicted wonks, that has been adopted, sadly and dimly, by politicians, quangos and planners around the world.
Find out what it is that’s unique and special about your place, your region. What is the joy of your great city? It all starts with that great Greek proverb: “Know thyself”
PS: Detroit is a fantastic name for a city – wear it with pride!
Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in Chicago. His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications.  Detroit image by csc4u.
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