The Dos and Dont's of Civic Branding


A Manhattan Institute paper that I wrote earlier this year and presented in Akron is on the dos and don’ts of civic branding and is now available online. It’s part of our Urban Policy 2018 book as well. Here’s an excerpt:

"This paper will use a traditional definition: At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.

This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility.

The challenge of promising something unique is extremely difficult for cities. We see this from the observed fact that while most companies are trying their hardest to convince you of how much different and better they are than every other company in their industry, most cities are trying their hardest to convince you they are at least equal to the peer communities they most admire. Cities often promote the same basic assets their competitors promote, sometimes even with similar language. Thus, despite often touting their unique qualities, cities fail to differentiate themselves.

Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.

So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.

This is even true in the fashion industry. When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld revived Chanel in the early 1980s, he did so by drawing on inspiration from the firm’s archives. This became a model that others followed. As the New York Times stated, “Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past.” By contrast, “New Coke” was one of the great rebranding flops in history. Coca-Cola is as American as apple pie. Changing such an iconic product was a betrayal of its brand promise. The company swiftly backtracked.

In short, cities too often have decided that they need to replace their existing brand to copy another’s that they think is necessary in order to compete. This typically fails because a brand needs to promise something distinct. Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it thus: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

There’s nothing wrong with having bike lanes or coffee shops. But today, these things aren’t going to sell a city to businesses or potential residents.

Yet these places almost certainly have characteristics that make them unique, though it may be difficult to identify and articulate what they are. Consider the state of Ohio. What is its identity, its brand? It isn’t easy to create characteristics that other midwestern states wouldn’t likewise claim for themselves. But visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland: it is immediately obvious that these are three very different cities, though it may not be easy to determine what exactly it is that makes each one unique.

Unearthing that unique character requires digging deep into a place and its history, a task perhaps more suited to historians or journalists than to the corporate branding consultant. Consider the late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell of the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote an in-depth comparison of Boston and Philadelphia. As the title of his book, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979) implies, Baltzell traced the identity and culture of each city back to the character of the religious groups that founded them. This deep historical analysis is something branding consultants rarely do."

Click through to read the whole thing.

Be sure to check out the end, where I include a list of various city marketing videos.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Akron, Ohio by Sleepydre, Public Domain