Columbus, Ohio Is Stuck in Branding Neutral

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Columbus, Ohio is a Midwest city that has really turned it on in the last few years. It is a big economic and demographic success story in the region. Having recently crossed over to reach the two million threshold in population, the region is expecting as many as another million people by 2050. The city is basically rocking and rolling by Midwest standards.

The Columbus Dispatch has been doing a major, multi-month series on Columbus’ future called CbusNEXT. One of the featured pieces was a look at Columbus’ brand called “Does Columbus have an identity crisis?

For better or for worse, Columbus has had its share of reputations. It’s known for being the seat of state power, the capital city where Ohio’s legislative sausage is made. And, of course, much of Columbus’ notoriety comes from that little university of more than 66,000 students and its powerhouse football team. There’s been some name-calling through the years, too. Columbus has been called a “Cowtown” on more than one occasion. Meh, sticks and stones.

But other than its status as a capital city and the home of Ohio State University, Columbus “has not developed a persistent and consistent identity” over the years, said Ed Lentz, local historian and executive director of the Columbus Landmarks Foundation.

Columbus has been seen as neither good nor bad, according to studies conducted over the past two decades, said Amy Tillinghast, vice president of marketing for Experience Columbus. “We heard it all the time,” she said. ”‘Oh, it’s vanilla. It’s neither good nor bad. Just very bland.’” But city leaders, tourism officials and economic development proponents have been working to shed that vanilla image, to spread the word about what they think makes Columbus great.

The Dispatch also has a revealing 15 minute podcast on the topic.

What I find most telling about this is that an article written in 2017 is basically the same as one from the New York Times in 2010.

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting. … And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve.

This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy. It variously has been pronounced to have the nation’s best zoo, best science museum and best public library. For sports fans, “Ohio State Buckeyes” says it all.

What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.”

In other words, Columbus has made no progress in understanding its identity or creating a marketplace brand in the last seven years.

A few points jump out at me from the latest Dispatch piece that hit on things I’ve addressed before:

• The Dispatch didn’t speak to a single person outside of Columbus. They allowed the heads of various local agencies to effectively filter the marketplace perspective on their city. For all its talk about being “smart and open”, this lack of any outside perspective reveals an insular mindset.

• They are ashamed of historic identity markers such as Ohio State football and “Cowtown” even though these are the seeds of their most powerful potential identity in the market (cf: Nashville and country music).

• They are playing buzzword bingo with how they want to be perceived in the marketplace: optimism, collaboration, art scene, research, LBGT, immigrants, beer, etc. The people saying these things don’t seem to realize that they are basically commodities today, at least in terms of civic self-perception. You’re not likely to get too many people from cities similar in size to Columbus to agree that Columbus is so much better on these points, certainly not as a package. They are all basically trying to pitch themselves to the market using virtually identical language.

• They are afraid to take a stand in the marketplace. I was very pleased to see at least one person who was self-aware about this, saying, “It’s a very scary thing for a city to put a stake in the ground. It takes real vision to put a stake in the ground. You have to see past election cycles and those people that you alienate.”

Until these points are addressed, I would not expect the city to make any progress on branding and identity. The fact that they haven’t done this in the last seven years prompts an important question:

Does the city really want to have a strong identity in the market?

Maybe not. That’s something to consider.

The premise that Columbus lacks an identity seems suspect to me. It might not have a well-articulated identity, but it has one. The civic feel is radically different from Cleveland and Cincinnati. The differences are like a cold bucket of water in the face. I feel the differences even vs. somewhat similar cities like Indianapolis. So the identity is there. Maybe people just don’t want to face up to what it is.

What’s more, it’s working in the marketplace. Whatever Columbus is and is doing, it’s working. So that’s great. So another question I might ask:

Does Columbus actually need to articulate its brand or identity in order to succeed?

Maybe not.

It may well be that the city’s DNA is just not ideal for this kind of branding exercise. And it’s not like the city hasn’t gotten real input on this. I have written about this multiple times in the past, going back to 2010. See here, here, and here. I’ve also spoken to large audiences as the Columbus Metropolitan Club twice on this topic. The first one was in 2010. And here’s my talk from last year. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube.

But the city isn’t doing anything with it, neither with my insights nor anyone else’s. In this, Columbus’ profile is similar to other Midwest cities, which embrace trends when they are rendered safe to do so. Perhaps this is one reason why it’s the nation’s leading test market. If Columbus embraces it, then it’s ready for the mass market. Otherwise, nope.

Again, I’m bullish in Columbus and its future. I’ve been writing positive things about it since at least 2009. But when you’ve been trying to make progress on your identity and branding for seven years and are spinning your wheels, maybe its time to take a serious gut check on the project and make some changes.

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: Stephen Wolfe, via Flickr, using CC License.