Sunday, June 10, 2007

A City's Brand Is More Than Meets The Eye

With a seemingly inexhaustible ability to be against things, Memphis City Council Member Carol Chumney recently added yet one more – city branding.

It’s too bad, because the reality is this: Memphis has no brand.

Yes, there’s an abundance of taglines and slogans, but no, Memphis doesn’t have a brand.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Chumney missed a prime opportunity to learn about city branding this week at a speech by Paul O’Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago and someone who knows a lot about the power of a city brand.

What A Brand Really Is

In a speech sponsored by the Memphis Tourism Foundation, he explained what a brand really is, how Memphis could develop one and why cities competing in the global economy need one.

A central theme of Mr. O’Connor’s presentation was that a brand is not the same as a tagline or slogan. In fact, it’s something altogether different. It’s about what a city stands for – that one overriding thing that defines its essential character and how it’s different.

Or put in our words for Memphis, it’s about deciding what Memphis’ higher purpose is.

The Essence

It’s a hard question for cities to answer, and ours is no different. But it’s one that needs to be answered nonetheless. It’s also a timely question for us, and as we seek a stronger economic competitiveness, it needs to be at the top of our city’s agenda.

As Mr. O’Connor described it, the branding process isn’t about a group of advertising gurus getting in room to come up with a pithy slogan or a marketing hook. Instead, it’s about a process that identifies the real values of the city, the widespread perceptions of the city including its strengths and weaknesses, the single most important benefit the city has to offer, and ultimately, what the city can be.

“Stereotypes come face-to-face with perceptions,” he said. “Branding is hard for a product, and for a city, it’s very, very yard. We see our warts and our problems and we think everyone sees them. Locals are too critical of themselves.”

It’s A Process

He said this lack of strong self-image was a major problem in Chicago, so cultural anthropologists went to the city’s customers and gave them cameras to photograph their images of Chicago. “What they saw was totally different than what Chicagoans saw,” he said, adding that the images were positive and eye openers for the city.

The cultural anthropologists were followed by interviews, free association exercises, discussions and debates. Through it all, the emphasis was on being honest. “The most dangerous politics are those dealing with identity,” Mr. O’Connor said. “You need the truth to set priorities, to get into your own souls and your own history and what you are carrying for the future.

“But you have to walk in the fire to come out whole on the other side.”

The Genie

It’s not easy, because for “the Genie of branding to work, you only get one wish – choosing the single most important benefit that you offer – and this one thing is the hardest part.” “But if you don’t get there and settle for mediocrity, it’s not worthy to build your future on,” he said.

“The biggest challenge is getting to what matters and getting to Memphis’ DNA. By connecting the dots between the truth of today and the aspirations for tomorrow, the branding gives you your strategic direction.”

Most of all, the branding process is about the future, and the brand is the “guidance system for the future.” “That’s why the ‘behind the scenes’ branding is hardest stuff,” Mr. O’Connor said. “It’s about reaching consensus on aspirations, so that branding can become the vehicle that moves your city from today’s perception to tomorrow’s reality.”


It’s about “positioning the city in a competitive context and answering the question: ‘How do you find a spot where Memphis fits into the game?’ The key is differentiation, because it needs to be something you can own and defend. In other words, it says: ‘This is what Memphis really is.’ The stronger the difference, the more unique it is, and that’s where your real power lies.”

Too often, cities don’t engage in the kind of research and deliberations that are needed for a strong brand, and as a result, they end up with “nothing but feeble taglines that end up biting them,” Mr. O’Connor said, adding that he prefers to use the city name as the brand and “float” a tagline in the text. “The strongest brand that you have is the name of your city. You don’t want to attach anything with anything unless it makes it stronger. And that’s really hard to do.”

That’s why a branding process must be persistent to succeed. “The greatest danger is to give up too soon and you end up with something that’s just OK. It ties the most precious thing you own – the name, Memphis – and connects it to something that’s just an OK message,” he said.

#1 Mistake

“The #1 mistake is thinking that logos and taglines are the product. The brand is about a shared vision and shared positioning. It becomes Oz behind the curtain. There are different messages for different audiences and different uses, but behind the curtain, they all tie back to the same thing.” In this way, the brand helps to eliminate fragmentation and mixed signals.

More important is the impact that a brand can have on a city’s own people. “There’s only one Memphis, it’s about what you believe,” he said. “You keep telling each other the truth about Memphis and then you share Memphis with the outside world.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher, because in the global economy, every city is competing with every other city for a bigger share of attention, talent and economic growth. This competitive environment is a reality of our times, and how Memphis stakes out its distinctive place will have a major impact on our success.

Brand Promise

With young professionals in particular, the branding algebra is compelling: two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds decide where to live and then decide where to work and most make this decision on “postcard” kinds of information – what friends say, what’s on the Internet and on a city’s buzz. In other words, a city brand matters more today than ever before.

And that’s why it’s not simply a communications strategy, a tagline or a visual identity. As Mr. O’Connor said, it’s a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for Memphis that’s relevant and compelling. That’s because the brand is extending a promise – the brand promise, if you will – which is the pledge of what key audiences can expect from Memphis.

It’s in this clear, compelling and unique brand that Memphis has its best chance to explain why it’s a desirable place for business, for visitors and for talent and investment. When done right, the brand improves poor perceptions, creates a common vision for the future, provides a consistent representation of Memphis, enhances our national and global positioning and awareness and sheds negative stereotypes associated with our city.

And in our view, that’s reason enough for every Council member to learn more about the importance of city branding and its emphasis on the positive. That’s particularly true for Councilwoman Chumney, who needs to be for something to have a chance in the upcoming mayor’s election.


LeftWingCracker said...

Well,, we need to re-establish basic competence in the management of the City of Memphis, which has been lacking here for a while...

THEN we can talk about branding. Back to basics, folks, back to basics...

Anonymous said...

Hold up, not two weeks ago we were talking about Memphis' wild shake joints. Throw in Craig Brewer movies, Three 6 mafia on MTV, and Rampage Jackson winning the UFC championship. I think we have a brand. Seedy Poverty: Memphis is a fun place to visit for 3 days but nobody wants to live here. If SCM can't see this media narrative about our fair city, than how good is your take on pop culture branding. Come on, just embrace it. Memphis- Amsterdam of the South.

LWC- Back to basics. You are absolutely right.

Aaron said...

I've been thinking about what Memphis is about for awhile now.

And Memphis stands to position itself as an economic beacon for the rest of the industrial and manufacturing sectors of business.

You see, when manufacturing was shipped overseas to China and Japan and now India, places like Memphis took a huge blow and I would argue have yet to recover from that loss. Why? All in the name of profits and consumers wanting the lowest price. Was freedom to choose from dirt cheap goods worth the trade for jobs? Shareholders and we consumers enjoyed unheard of profits and choices and so our standard of living went up and the concept of the sustainable living wage disappeared.

So now, we have a very large population of poor who have lots of consumables to choose from but no jobs that could actually sustain them.

I define sustainability by the percentage of ones wage that goes towards rent or mortgage.

Memphis and the U.S. stand to recapture the manufacturing market. Memphis is rich in non-profits and organizations that exist to serve and raise up the community. It's time that this philosophy and vision of these nonprofits converges with capitalism. Memphis can be the first to bring back a lost workforce using a business model whose sole vision is to serve the community and provide jobs that are sustainable.

One could argue that we merely need to educate and modernize our workforce. That's a part of the solution but ...Here's the problem -we are losing our workforce at all levels to globalization. As a scientist in the high-tech biotech sector, I can personally say that the competition is fierce.

Memphis can demonstrate that it can re-engage it's workforce in a business that exists to make low-wage jobs once again a sustainable effort in that profits are poured into the employees and the community. I call this the profitable nonprofit model. There will be a lot of personal sacrifice to execute this model and we will need to re-define our standard of living to make it work. But one day this standard will be forcefully re-imposed on us as we continue to consume at a rate that is not ecologically sustainable.

Let's be the first ones to re-figure this out, but this time using a more socially and ecologically minded approach.

The great news is that this is already happening. Memphis Bioworks represents the beginning of this new era. With the formation of Tennessee’s first charter school, the establishment of a biotech program and Southwest Community college and the partnering with some key foundations, this Memphis Bioworks will be a key component to this new type of socially equitable economy. The major challenge will be how to empower low-wage workers with affordable housing while maintaining a competitive edge price-wise. Or will the “Brand” or reputation or the “good-will” of the company out compete the profit driven competitor? History would say good-luck buddy! Can we be pro-active before globalization forces us to do this in a far less friendly fashion?

Socially equitable capitalism: this is the brand that will work for Memphis. We are a distribution center. We have a huge working class that can be re-trained and are proud to make a living-wage that is sustainable for fair living. If we don’t adopt this brand, Uncle Sam will continue to be a major "employer" to many Memphians. Let’s not leave the branding up to him.

Smart City Consulting said...

Branding is about the basics. If you don't know what you aspire to be, how do you know what basics you need to emphasize to get there. And Memphis is like all cities; there are always basics that need attention, and other cities aren't waiting. We're about to get left in the backwater of yet another influential trend.

That's where some in city government get it wrong (but city government is just one player in the branding process; it's not the end-all, be-all). This isn't about branding city government; it's about the entire city's brand, and the process needs to include the people whose organizations get millions for marketing the city, for the touchpoints for our brand, and for the citizens that pay for all of it.

We don't understand what we said that's somehow contrary to our friend Craig Brewer or Amsterdam of the South. We kind of like that one. We weren't saying what brand is right or wrong. No one can possibly know now, because we've never really developed a brand. Our point is that we don't have a brand. The music, the juke joints, etc, are benefits and features of the city; they are not the brand.

And Aaron, we love socially equitable capitalism. That would truly differentiate Memphis in the marketplace, especially in the U.S. and it responds to what we could become as a city and on which we could build some powerful messages.

city watch said...

Dear Smart:

Can you give an example of a branded city? How will we know when Memphis is branded?

Anonymous said...

Chicago, the city that works.

Memphis, the city that doesn't.

steve said...


You're right of course. The basics are ultimately more important than branding.

This branding business sounds like a good idea, but reading the post, it seems to more nearly resemble "sloganeering" done to some finer point.

Again, I think basics are more fundamental.

Perhaps work on both simultaneously.

gatesofmemphis said...

Echoing city watch, what is Chicago's brand?

Smart City Consulting said...

Not many cities have actually engaged in the kind of unique branding that is city branding, but we think of Portland, OR, when we think of a city that's branded itself well. Seattle to some extent. There's plenty of catchy taglines, but the persuasive, compelling city brand is something else altogether.

As for Chicago, it's just completing the kind of strategic branding process that we're talking about, but it will announce its results in a few weeks. Mr. O'Connor told us what the results will be while he was here, but we feel like it's his announcement to make.

We must have not written this as clearly as we intended, if at the end of the day, some still are talking about sloganeering. With a branding process, a city goes through an extensive strengths and weaknesses assessment, then it decides what truly differentiates it, and it aligns its resources to create the vision that it has set for yourself. Otherwise, it is nothing mroe than a prisoner of the present, and city governments just engage in the yearly ritual of increasing all public budgets without understanding where the ultimate payoff is for the city that you want to create.

It's catchy to say Memphis needs to focus on the basics. But this process requires it to focus on what the basics should be producing for the city.

Let's say it together: this is not about a tagline. It's about a strategic vision. And surely we can all agree that Memphis doesn't have one.