Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why City Branding Fails

The National League of Cities put up an interesting post recently about city branding campaigns. These have been tried for years, but they often don't work, mostly because few cities are willing to be known for something, and would rather be known for everything.

The all-things-to-all-people craze right now is tied to biotech and greentech, in the late 90s, it was just “tech”. But whatever the flavor of the month is in economic development, developing distinctive messages is not an industry strength. The NLC article mentions Milwaukee's “Freshwater Hub of the World” slogan, which is an unusually focused message, and also promotes the idea that the city is a place for trade. This is the sort of point that does not come across well when you try to sell yourself as a “Cool City” and your governor holds a “Creating Cool” conference.

Connecticut is also promoting a trade corridor around Bradley Airport, with tax incentives for companies that can prove they need to ship goods out of the airport. What's smart about this is the defining trait of successful regions right now is not how many Bachelor's degrees citizens have, or how much money their state's forked over to high priced speakers and consultants, but their presence in industries where America is a net exporter.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago in the Seattle vs. Portland post, Seattle's done much better in the recession than its neighbor to the south, largely because it has two large exporting industries based locally. Portland, on the other hand, has won more praise from urban pundits than just about anyplace in the country, yet has above average unemployment. It has plenty of overeducated slackers who are the envy of Jennifer Granholm, and according to Richard Florida, attracting such people should be the focus of economic development, even if they spend all day pouring coffee and skateboarding.

I'm curious to see what the NLC comes up with next in their discussion, because it would be a major advancement in economic development if cities and states started talking up the products they can export, and stopped pandering to people they're trying to import.

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