Branding Columbus: Tracing our city’s decades-long, largely unsuccessful attempts to form an identity

By
From the January 16, 2014 edition

In the past two weeks, Columbus has made national “best of” lists recognizing its culinary and fashion scenes. (“Five Secret Foodie Cities” by Food Travel Guide and “The Top Five Most Fashion Forward Cities in the United States” by Fashion Up, respectively.) It would seem our city is on the verge of something great, identity-wise. History might tell you, though, not to hold your breath.

Columbus has long been trying to find a way to brand itself to everyone else.

“Let’s face it: Columbus has had a spotty history trying to find one icon that represents our people, our vision, our spirit. Defining our vision is a problem, but that’s another story,” wrote Dispatch arts columnist and senior critic Barbara Zuck in a 1997 editorial on the subject. 

She could have written that yesterday; however, we have made progress — she also had to define in the same editorial what public art was.

Zuck’s editorial was mostly about the city’s lack of a major architectural icon with which the city could associate itself with on a national level (e.g. St. Louis’ Gateway Arch), which we have not accomplished in the 16 years since she wrote it.

We have been a lot more successful in the sense of marketing, though, thanks in large part to Experience Columbus.

Experience Columbus is a nonprofit powerhouse that markets the city for national and international tourism and convention business and helps plan and accommodate those major meetings. It’s big business: Tourism in 2012 supported one in every 12 salaried jobs in Franklin County, according to the group’s annual report, and visitors generated $7.8 billion in spending in Columbus (that includes costs for transportation, shopping, lodging and entertainment).

Experience Columbus’ future success in drawing people here to pump money into our economy relies heavily on the city’s identity and how everyone else sees us. These national lists we’ve been making have certainly helped.

“The culinary scene has been so huge for us,” said Amy Tillinghast, vice president of Experience Columbus Marketing. “It has opened the door for us with lots of national writers and really helped pique their interest in us. In 2014 and beyond, we plan to promote the fashion scene, too — CMH Fashion Week, The Alternative Fashion Mob, Limited Brands. The culinary and fashion movements here are both very authentic. We’re not making these stories up.”

Perhaps letting the national writers come to us organically is best. Perhaps we should let them form our identity and just do our thing in the meantime. Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo in 2011 described Columbus as a “black hole from which no waves of boosterism and bragging can escape.”

The “OMG Can You Believe That Columbus is Cool?” Problem (See: Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, etc.) has to change soon enough, right?

Maybe. We’ve been trying to prove everyone wrong for a long time. Here’s a few of our past attempts for a slogan:

1953: “Come to Columbus and Discover America”

1980s: “Columbus: We're Making it Great”

1993: “Columbus: More than you Dreamed”

1998: “Surprise! It's Columbus.”

2001: “Columbus or Bust!”

2010: “There's No Better Place”

Yikes. Our desperation kind of reeks. “Seriously, guys, we’re awesome! Please date us!”

Those campaigns have included cartoons, jingles and even architecture. The 1984 Discover Columbus campaign, which Zuck described in 1997 as “abandoned,” really pushed the Brushstrokes in Flight imagery. The Roy Lichtenstein sculpture by the same name now sits in the airport and has a varied reputation among locals.

We keep trying, though. Even ideas that seem like great ones don’t seem to stick. The High Five, for example, was a 2010 initiative by a partnership of inner-270 neighborhoods that aimed to promote the entertainment-dense five miles of High Street as the High Five, a la Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. It appears to have been abandoned, too. The website once associated with it (columbushighfive.com) now appears to be a blog in Japanese.

For all of our wonderful diversity, maybe we’re image-proof, indeed. There’s also a scarlet and grey elephant in the room.

“I’ve been to Columbus, so I know it is a beautiful city with a cool vibe,” said Joshua Long, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Southwestern University. “In many ways it resembles Austin [Texas] — state capital, river city, over-sized college town, etc. Before I visited, however, OSU was the first thing that would come to mind.”

Long is the author of “Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas.” The book explores how the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” initiative, started by small businesses and entrepreneurs in the city who wished to combat encroaching chains, highlighted one modern city’s balancing of cultural sense of place with urban economics.

Should we even market in the first place? Staying a secret gem, the diamond in the rough countryside, has its own benefits.

“[Austin] has changed so much in the past decade,” Long said. “We are the fastest growing large municipality in the country, and it is quite a stretch to say that Austin is still the good ol’ quirky, non-commercialized hippie haven it once was. It isn’t. However, there is something to be said about having ‘Keep Austin Weird’ as your unofficial city motto. It reminds us of our roots as a city, and I hope it sends a message to newcomers about Austin. That is, Austin is a laid-back, tolerant, eccentric and progressive sort of place. Hopefully we can use that message to start fixing some of the problems we are encountering as a growing city. Because of its growth and popularity, Austin has started to see some very serious problems with affordable housing, traffic congestion and rising cost of living. I worry that the influx of new industry, skilled labor and capital have actually taken its toll on the anti-commercialized, laid-back attitude that was once so prevalent in Austin.”

(Side, editorialized note: Sounds like the Short North on a much larger scale, eh?)

Austin’s grassroots Keep Austin Weird slogan is just one of the city’s national identity markers. Austin’s Convention and Visitors Bureau markets the city as the Live Music Capital of the World. The trademark was officially adopted in 1991. Selecting one area of entertainment with which to hitch its wagon to has helped Austin market itself to the 21 million out-of-town visitors it sees each year.

“While it’s true Austin first and foremost is a creative community,” said the bureau’s senior communications manager Shilpa Bakre, “live music was something the destination could own and use to set itself apart. … People identify and recall the Live Music Capital of the World brand, which allows them to consider Austin as a place they want to visit — for leisure or business. To the contrary of being limiting, the brand has helped garner awareness of the destination as a whole and invites visitors to explore all the city has to offer in its multiple art forms.”

And it’s not just visitors city marketing can provide a city.

“We are in an era of intense urban competition for jobs, creative talent and clean industry,” Long said. “Urban branding has become a huge part of a nationwide attempt by cities to market themselves to young knowledge workers, families, creative industries, manufacturing, tourists. But is Columbus trying to create a brand/image, or is the Columbus brand a genuine/organic expression of the urban identity? Slogans rarely work if they don’t resonate with the people of the city or their history. … Nobody wants a flashy slogan that amounts to nothing more than a cheap neoliberal parlor trick to attract tourists.”

A good brand needs the people on board. The ColumbUS brand that started during the bicentennial aims to encourage the city’s residents to get involved with the positive vibe-ing (there’s even a website, brandcolumbus.com, full of free promotional materials with the logos for people to use).

“We have a lack of a national image. Nothing pops in their heads when you say Columbus. If I listed off New York, Portland, Nashville, we’re all probably going to think the same thing,” she said. “We have so much that’s good in Columbus there’s not one distinct message that’s been sent out. The good thing is that it’s not a bad image. It’s just a question mark.”

The ColumbUS brand is more of a rallying cry along the lines of New York’s “I

Tillinghast added that Experience Columbus is doing national brand perception research early this year. It is the first time the city has done this kind of market research, she said.

“We have to understand our audience so we’re not making assumptions about what they think of us,” she said.

The one thing they expect to not see reports of: that we are a cowtown. That is a demarcation used mostly by locals and an Atlanta-based company once trying to make money off cowtown-themed T-shirts at the airport. This is exacerbated by the fact that the thing we are most recognized for nationally, Ohio State, once tapped a cow as its homecoming queen. (1926. Maudine Ormsby. Holstein.)

Amid locals, shaping the city’s “brand” feels like a push and pull between cheerleading the city to the point of delusion and cowtowning it. Neither seems fair, but this is all part of our growing pains.

“Marketing a city is definitely a process,” Tillinghast said. “The most well-known cities have been marketing for hundreds of years. Nashville has been marketing that way for 125 years.”

 All we can do is keep moo-ving on up.