A photo of a visitor posing for a photo with Elvis in downtown Nashville
Visitors pose for a photo with Elvis in downtown Nashville. Harrison McClary/Reuters

Cities: Don’t Fall in the Branding Trap

From Instagram stunts to Edison bulbs, why do so many cities’ marketing plans try to convince people that they’re exactly like somewhere else?

It’s curious that while every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.

Look at any piece of city marketing material, from promo videos to airline magazine ad inserts. It’s amazing how so many of them rely on the same basic ingredients: hipster coffee shops, microbreweries, bike lanes, creative-class members, startups, intimations of a fashion scene, farm-to-table restaurants, new downtown streetcars, etc.

These are all good things, mind you: things cities should be happy to have. Some of them may even be modern necessities. But you can’t help but notice how few unique things about these cities manage to come through. A video from the Greater Houston Partnership, for example, shows outdoor art, bicyclists, a live music performance, and a light-rail train going by—but nothing about oil or energy. Except for some references to the space program, little else about the incredible uniqueness of Houston comes through.

Here’s a transit-focused video Atlanta made as part of its Amazon HQ2 bid, meant to convey that the city is home to “innovation” and is “business friendly.” It likewise showcases buses and subways as its means of ground transportation, even though only about 10 percent of the city’s commuters use public transportation, and ridership has been fading in recent years. Atlanta is a quintessential car city. There’s not much in here that links to what most people would think of when “Atlanta” comes to mind, except its airport. It’s curious that they tapped more into stereotypes of Seattle and its frequent rains than they did those of their own town.

Atlanta and Houston are major cities with strong identities. They are much more than a collection of generic urban elements. Why cities with great identities and heritages of their own so seldom lead with them is something of a mystery. If you want to see great marketing videos of cities, you almost are forced to look at what private companies are doing. Look, for example, at the famous “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler Super Bowl ad with Eminem from 2011, which managed to honestly portray the decay and struggles of the city, while playing up the resolve of its residents and the city’s history as a key music center. Indeed, the ad did a much better job of selling Detroit than Chryslers.

One exception to this identity crisis Nashville. Twenty-five years ago, city leaders could have been forgiven if they’d thought that they’d have to play down the region’s country music industry if they wanted anyone outside the region to take them seriously. Whether intentionally or not, they didn’t do that. Instead, a transformed country music—one evolved into a glitzier, poppier 21st -century version, has remained front-and-center as the city’s signature and a huge tourist draw.

Nashville has repeatedly done what other cities haven’t, which is look around for anything even semi-unique locally that they could package into yet another element of the Nashville mystique. This includes its homestyle “meat and three” restaurants and especially Nashville hot chicken. The latter regional specialty was relatively little known even to many Nashvilleans until relatively recently, as it could be found in only a few outlets serving largely the city’s black community. But, thanks to a wave of media coverage and some successful marketing efforts, today there’s even a Nashville hot chicken flavor of Pringles.

The problem with the typical approach extends beyond just marketing. It has tangible consequences. A brand is really a city’s conception of itself. By selling itself as a facsimile of something its not, a city ends up turning that into reality. Thus, so many urban places today seem vaguely the same—a blur of Edison-bulbed eateries and mid-rise “one plus five” apartment buildings (in which up to five stories of wood frame construction are built atop a concrete first floor). These buildings, which all look vaguely the same with their multi-shaded exterior panels that seem destined to date quickly, are now obligatory elements in densifying urban neighborhoods, as critics have observed,

In a much-discussed New York magazine essay, Oriana Schwindt dubbed this “the unbearable sameness of cities.” Traveling to the city nearest the geographic center of each state, she described how she constantly kept seeing the same Ikea lights in coffee shops she’d visit. “And it wasn’t just the coffee shops—bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.”

She’s not the only one who’s noticed that urban neighborhoods seem to be built from the same box of standard components: Vox recently explored the ubiquity of “the metal chair that’s in every restaurant.”

There are always fads and trends, of course. We all take part in at least some of them, and having fun doing so is part of what it means to be human. (I, for one, am happy that so many American cities now have a “barbecue place with lacquered-wooden tables” that Schwindt noted.) But there’s a thin line between fashionable and fashion victim. Cities need to sell something more than just the trends.

They also need to build their brands from ingredients that are more enduring and substantive than Instagram backdrops. One ominous sign for Nashville was its recent effort to try to make an icon out of the city’s very-early-2000s airport carpeting. This succeeded in getting some press, but people who’ve been around are likely to recognize this stunt as a shameless rip-off of something that happened more organically with the very-1980s airport carpeting in Portland, Oregon a few years back. Does this show that Music City is running out of local things to pitch and is now being forced to copy?

Portland may have even topped Nashville in the branding game. Portland not only sold itself as a different kind of place, but it has also had the courage to be one, to consistently chart its own path, maintain its own distinctive civic culture, and do its own thing over time. Now that’s something for other cities to imitate.

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