What Is Your Ambition?
Columbus doesn’t have a powerful brand in the market outside of Ohio. Having said that, the city is growing rapidly in population and jobs, is extremely livable and improving day by day, and seems to make its residents very happy. Is there any reason the city has to be better nationally known in order to be complete or something?
I say No. It’s a valid choice to simply stay with the status quo.
Many citizens may indeed feel that way, but much of the city’s leadership doesn’t. This was hammered home in a 2010 New York Times piece on the city’s rebranding efforts. That desire to be seen as a high caliber city at the national level clearly came through in my most recent trip, even from Mayor Coleman himself.
I also tend to be personally biased towards high ambition, particularly in a place where it’s obvious that the ambition can be realized. Columbus is that place, in contrast to long troubled regions like Detroit and Cleveland are really struggling to rebound from severe problems. And no matter what they do, they will never recover the national stature they once enjoyed.
Columbus is both operating from a baseline of strength, and also at a point where it is still on the way up as a city. Columbus has never been a larger, more important, more prominent city in the world than it is right now – and it has the potential to reach still higher Not every city and not every generation is granted the opportunity that Columbus has right now.
Finding Columbus’ Mojo
But assuming the answer is go for it, then what needs to be done? There is a need to go beyond the checklist.
The first thing is to really be committed to change and going after the brass ring. This is not an easy journey to make. Some of the things you are going to have to do are really, really hard because they involve looking closely at civic insecurities, and also questioning perhaps your most fundamental and cherished truths, especially the truth about what you’re best at.
It’s very hard for cities to admit where they are weak, but it can actually be even harder for them to admit where they are strong.
One of the sayings of the Greek oracle was “Know Thyself.” Sage wisdom, indeed. Knowledge of yourself is often the most difficult to come by but valuable of commodities. Because as the saying goes, “Without awareness there is no choice.”
Where does a city get knowledge of itself that’s useful for branding? I argue it very often comes from the past. Cities didn’t just take their present form overnight. They are the process of a long process of growth and change. In particular, the founding ethos of a place profoundly stamps its character, usually in a permanent way. The Dutch trading culture and spirit of openness of New Amsterdam is still present in contemporary New York, for example.
When a new creative director comes in to revive a failing fashion house, what’s the first thing he does? He goes to the archives. He investigates the history of the house. What does this brand stand for? Who were the people who founded it? How did they become who they were? What happened along the journey of that house?
To use a hackneyed phrase, that new creative director wants to understanding the “Brand DNA,” and the key to the brand DNA is in the past.
I think that’s as true of Columbus as anyplace. Columbus certainly had good luck in getting where it is today, but I’d argue there’s more to it. One of their historical keys to success was a fateful decision in the 1950s to pursue an aggressive annexation strategy. You can say that was one mayor’s choice, but I believe the fact that it happened in Columbus and not elsewhere in Ohio signaled that there was something different about the city. What is it?
You need to start with an anthropological, archeological, historical deep dive into a city, its people and its culture. I’d suggest tapping into Ohio State’s cultural anthropology resources. There might even be a dissertation in it for someone.
One you have the mojo, you not only use it to build the future reality, you also sell it by telling the story of Columbus to the world. You need to create an aspirational narrative of the city that people can imagine themselves being a part of.
Think of the story of New York. TV shows like Friends, Sienfield, and Sex and the City have created a contemporary positive narrative of life in New York. People know what it’s about. If you can make it there, etc. (This wasn’t always the case. Escape from New York, Death Wish, and Fort Apache the Bronx told quite a different narrative in a previous era). Portlandia tells a story about the place where young people go to retire. Think about the Bay Area, LA, Miami, etc. and the stories come to our heads without much thinking.
What’s that story of life in Columbus? You create that story around the authentic mojo of the city.
What’s on your rap sheet?
Beyond finding the mojo, there’s another key task that goes along with the investigation. That’s finding the missing or defective genes in the civic DNA that could sabotage the city’s ambitions.
Everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not we know what’s on ours. When I was working in corporate America I knew if I was getting nothing but glowing feedback from my boss, if Ihad nothing I need to get better at, I was dangerously blind. If not, why was I not the CEO of the company? Clearly, there’s a reason why I am where I am and not the President of the United States.
So Columbus needs to understand not just checklist items it is missing like a major transit investment, but also cultural items that are holding the city back and what they are rooted in. Then it can attack them with a change program that can hopefully work, like the civic equivalent of therapy.
On a related note though methodologically different, the city needs to be willing to take a hard look in the mirror and realistic assess its assets and accomplishments and how compelling they are in the market. The cold reality is that while Columbus is a great city in many ways and has lots of great stuff, what it has doesn’t add up to a nationally or globally compelling story. You need to take the marketing glasses off and ask how people who aren’t in or from the city see things.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you recategorize your assets as bad. But you have to understand that checklist items that lots of other cities are doing (e.g., bike infrastructure) are probably not going to set the city apart in the marketplace. If you don’t have it, you’re in trouble. But if you do, it doesn’t win the game. These things are just the new urban ante.
Illustrative Applied Examples
I want to give a quick examples – and let me stress this is provisional and speculative to some extent – illustrating these three points.
On the mojo front, the city’s previous branding effort that identified “smart” and “open” as two key civic attributes is right on in my view. It’s a good start. But why is Columbus open? That is, why is it easier for newcomers to acclimate, penetrate networks, accomplish things, etc. in Columbus than in many other places?
I speculate it’s rooted in being the state capital. I’ve seen a similar trait in other capitals. I speculate that because people from all over the state are coming to Columbus on political business, and because there’s always churn in elected office, civic networks don’t become closed and calcify in a sort of “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” effect.
For the missing gene example, I think it’s very possible that one reason Columbus didn’t create a compelling, unique product in the market is that it it’s just not in the civic DNA. One local leader I talked to speculated that the city’s values were shaped by those of Ohio State football and Woody Hayes. That is, the secret to success is to work relentlessly at the fundamentals and always be pounding the ball ahead with the running game – “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Not exactly the West Coast Offense. This may be too facile, but it is clear that Columbus excels at the fundamentals, the blocking and tackling of city stuff, but hasn’t thrown the civic equivalent of the long bomb.
For the asset evaluation example, I think Columbus needs to be realistic about Ohio State’s stature. Ohio State is a great school, but it’s not Harvard or Stanford. I went to Indiana University and I’d say the same about them. Now, obviously you’d never come out in public and downplay Ohio State, which legitimately is a power house for the city. But you don’t want to mistakenly believe it’s doing to spawn the next Cambridge or Palo Alto without some major change either.
It’s Cow Town, Jake
To truly discover the secret of its mojo, Columbus needs to be willing to stare into the abyss of cow town.
Talk to people in Columbus and you’ll hear them claim that they are not a “cow town” anymore or how people used to refer to them as a “cow town.” I have seen this as an analogy to the case of Indianapolis and “naptown.” I’ve always doubted that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis itself ever used the term Naptown historically as an insult. No one would ever have cared enough about the city to even bother insulting it.
Similarly, I’d never heard the term cow town until somebody from Columbus told me about it. I strongly doubt it’s ever really been a term of derision nationally, at least not outside Ohio. I know there’s a strain of Cincinnatian who loves heaping abuse on places like Columbus and Indy. As Columbus has grown while other cities in Ohio wandered in the wilderness, it’s easy for me to believe there’s been a lot of sniping. So while the market would never think of Columbus as cow town, there may be some legitimate in state reasons for them to be sensitive to the term.
The impression I get, again provisional based on my limited experience, is that in an attempt to rid itself of the stigma of being a cow town, Columbus has sheared off its past, in effect repudiating everything that happened before 1990 or 2000.
I observed to Mayor Coleman that Indianapolis in recent years has downplayed the 500 Mile Race. I asked him whether or not Columbus was similarly neglecting its greatest brand asset in the market by downplaying Ohio State football. He said, “No. There was a time in the 60s and 70s and the 80s, and even the 90s, where Columbus was nothing but Ohio State football. And I love the Buckeyes; I love the football team. It’s better than any professional team in the state of Ohio. And they’re still amateurs. That’s good. But having said that, Columbus is no longer just the Ohio State football team. We don’t view ourselves that way anymore [emphasis added].”
This seems consistent with what I hear from other people. There’s an embedded idea here that there’s little to nothing of value in the city’s past and in fact that past is something to be embarrassed about or outgrown. I have never heard anyone from Columbus brag about their city for anything related to the past, apart from historic architecture. For example, the mayor went on to talk about the importance of Ohio State in terms of its contemporary research impact. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a city talk less about its heritage. That lack of historic rooting may be one reason why the city can come across as somewhat generic.
As I’ve noted before, this is normal for us to go through. When we go off to college, Mom puts our high school letter jacket up in the attic. We try as hard as we can to fit in at the new level, and treat the stuff we left behind as little kids stuff.
But eventually we become comfortable in our own skin. We learn who we are and what we stand for, and we stop becoming so concerned about what other people think of us. Of course we are social creatures and will never stop caring about others’ perceptions of us. We find a healthier balance.
The same is true of cities. Columbus is far enough along in its growth path to really be comfortable being itself, and acknowledging and embracing its past.
This doesn’t mean Columbus should be or ever was a cow town. What it does mean is that things from its past that Columbus are actually its strongest brand assets and things to be proud of and build its future on.
Let’s give some examples. The Midwest has a history of local, low grade lager brands. Virtually all of these were abandoned and ceased production. The hip, cool thing to do was to drink microbrews, not even Bud or Miller Lite, to say nothing of Sterling (my dad’s brand).
Then one day the hipsters on the coasts started drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and all of a sudden back in the Midwest, we started drinking it too and now are re-launching or re-embracing all those old blue collar brands (including Sterling). The same thing happened with workwear clothing, which is now selling for quite a premium in some places and very popular among the Bearded Ones.
In effect, we had to re-import our own heritage after a bunch of other people elsewhere saw the value in it – the same heritage we rejected as “cow town.”
The clearest example of this is agriculture. The Midwest is all about ag. Ohio State is a huge ag power house. Columbus could have owned urban agriculture, farm to table, organics, etc. But it didn’t. And now it’s doing them, but it’s doing them as the follower, not the leader.
This is one of the tragedies of the Midwest. We turned away from our heritage and a bunch of guys in Brooklyn bought it from a thrift store for a song.
The South avoided this. Look at Nashville. Did they turn their back on country music as “cow town”? No, they embraced it as central to their identity past, present, and future. Of course they are more than country. But they kept it front and center. But they also updated it. It’s not the old AM radio country. It’s not Hee Haw. They respect those people and institutions and see them as in continuity with today, but they have evolved. Today’s it’s glitzier, “Nashvegas.” Think Carrie Underwood, not Minnie Pearl.
This is what it means to know thyself and build the future out of the authentic mojo of the past. Columbus surely has many things in its past and in its historic civic character of immense value. The question and the challenge to the city is being willing to find out what those are and own and embrace them and champion them as a key part of the mojo on which it will build its future reality and aspirational civic narrative.
I believe the potential is right there. The question is whether the city is ready and willing to step up and grab it.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.