How City Branding Can Go Wrong

Will Doig considers the growing pressure cities face to build a marketable identity, and why that's a particular challenge for generally livable cities.
July 2, 2012, 2pm PDT | Ryan Lue
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As the growing knowledge economy unbinds more and more job markets from geographical constraints, cities scramble to capture young professionals that have the freedom to work from anywhere (and the money to stimulate local economies). As a result, an increasing number of cities have turned to branding in recent years to have a hand in defining their own reputations.

The trouble is that many cities, like awkward prom dates, are just too nice – so nice as to elude any further qualitative description whatsoever, Doig points out.

"For every clearly defined Detroit, New Orleans or Las Vegas, there's a more amorphous Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; or Providence, R.I."

Like a good caricature, branding a city is about exaggerating the differences between it and other cities. For places seeking to manufacture such an identity, staying true to character can be a challenge.

"People move to Indianapolis because it's cheap, has great schools, is family oriented and offers easy living," says urban analyst Aaron Renn. "Those are hard things to brand. For outsiders, it can be difficult to understand what it's all about."

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Published on Sunday, July 1, 2012 in Salon
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