Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
RIP Taylor Swift?
Taylor Swift is New York's new global welcome ambassador, the city announced in a glitzy marketing campaign rolled out last week. The announcement is pegged to the release of her newest album and its blandest song, “Welcome to New York,” (the “anthem of transplants who say they’re a Carrie everywhere,” as a friend pointed out). New Yorkers, predictably, are displeased. Take a gander at Lower East Side clothing store La Petite Mort’s rather permanent response:
We here at LPM have nothing but love for Taylor Swift. Rather, our comment is on the whitewashing and gentrification of New York. While we realize and appreciate that New York is ever changing, when a starving artist once representative of the New York spirit is replaced by the modern 19 million dollar condo owner who drinks lattes we have to shake our heads. We worked with a true NY graffiti legend (Chico LES) to paint our take on the situation. Chico got his start painting memorial murals in the lower east side in the 80's. While Taylor Swift is alive and well, and we wish her no harm, she did kill off yet another piece of that broken New York spirit. The idea of her being our spokesperson is DEAD and we expressed that through a ny artist. RIP TAYLOR SWIFT. #RIPTAYLORSWIFT #chico #chicoles #nyambassador #taylorswift #w2ny #bodegas #stoops #lattes #houston #graffiti #newyork #nyc #les #fbf #instagood #lapetitemort #LPM #37orchard
New Yorkers are notorious assholes (I am a native), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re soundly and roundly rejecting the ur-champion of the millennium’s marketing/mass media landscape, whose signature is continued wide-eyed disbelief at her success. Screw the naiveté and pass the schmear, amirite?
But what exactly went wrong with New York’s latest venture into city branding? There are both academics and marketers who devote their lives to these very questions. Branding cities is, clearly, a thankless task. For one, there’s the challenge of transforming the expressly inauthentic—a highly edited video, a boardroom-conceived slogan—into the authentic-seeming. And, of course, marketers have to satisfy those to whom the city is being branded (potential residents looking to move, tourists with full money-clips) as well as cities themselves, which are almost always occupied by vast and varied industries, cultures, and socioeconomic groups. As media researchers Sebastian Zenker and Sibylle Petersen wrote in a 2010 paper on place marketing theory, “the perception of places by an external target audience does often contain rather simple stereotypes. Places’ inhabitants on the other hand vary strongly and therefore make it nearly impossible to construct a simple homogeneous place identity.”
Maybe social scientist Alberto Vanolo puts it best in a piece on re-branding Turin, “[W]ho has the prerogative to define urban identities, and who ‘lives the brand’?”
And with that empathy for marketers in mind, let’s take a look at some very obvious city branding failures.
Leeds, 2005: England’s Leeds unveiled its new slogan, meant to encapsulate and boost its global image. Though the creative agency gave its work away for free, the city spent £150,000 on promotional materials and an official launch for this word-salad equivalent of beige: “Leeds Live It Love It.” Not only was the slogan personality-free; metro officials quickly discovered that it was being used by another city, perhaps similarly lovable but also 6,000 miles away:
Whoops. Nine years later, this is what happens when you visit the campaign’s official site:
Hamburg, 2009: Things got a bit more heated in Hamburg when residents reacted strongly to an ongoing marketing of the German city as an arts and culture capital and, ultimately, a watering post for the new global and globalized “creative class.” The branding was meant to communicate "stereotype images of Hamburg as ‘city on the waterfront,’ with ‘rich’ and ‘creative’ residents, offering a various range of cultural programs like ‘musicals’ to its visitors,” social scientist Erick Braun and his team wrote in 2010. But it was too much for natives, particularly local artists. As they wrote in a popular manifesto called “Not in our name!”:
Hardly a week goes by without some tourist mega-event carrying out its "brand-strengthening function." We say: Ouch, this is painful. Stop this shit. We won't be taken for fools. Dear location politicians: we refuse to talk about this city in marketing categories… We think that your "growing city" is actually a segregated city of the 19th century: promenades for the wealthy, tenements for the rabble.
Clearly, the top-down place identity bestowed by marketers at the head of Hamburg’s branding attempts wasn't just off-base; it actually fomented real anger about the social and economic realities of the city that continues today. Take your snarky Taylor tweets with a smile, New York.
St. Louis, 2010: A local economic development group put out a series of videos meant to "raise awareness of the vitality and richness of experience downtown St. Louis provides for those who live, work, and play there." They look slick enough, but urbanist Aaron Renn savaged them in a blog post on city branding. First, the video:
And here’s his commentary:
It starts out with hipsters bowling. I’d believe there are hipsters who bowl in St. Louis. But about a third of it is devoted to a fashion show. A fashion show? Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a fashion show in St. Louis. But is that really the brand promise of the city? You can’t convince people this is some sort of mini-New York as this video series tries to do. It just doesn’t work.
In summary: No one should try to be New York, including maybe New York, whose Taylor Swift debacle has proved that it’s bad at doing that, too.
Of course, only time will really tell whether Taylor fails to fulfill her ambassadorial duties. As New York public radio host Brian Lehrer pointed out (with typical New Yorker puckishness), maybe the chanteuse is meant to “appeal to cornfed Midwesterners and people from the South," and not hard-boiled city residents at all.
Or maybe we should just give Taylor a break. “New Yorkers need to get off their high horse,” an East Harlem caller told Lehrer on his show. “She’s just fine.”