Roundtable discussion: Why Columbus’ blank identity is actually a good thing

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From the January 16, 2014 edition

By now hopefully you’ve read our cover story, which details how Columbus has failed (often quite miserably) to come up with an identity. But that’s not such a bad thing! At least that’s what three Columbus storytellers (two marketing/communications experts and a comedian) suggested during a recent roundtable discussion at Downtown’s Little Palace. In fact, this lack of an identity, they said, might just be one of our fair city’s greatest strengths right now.

Michael Brown

We’re in a fun time; there’s been some change in Columbus, which has historically been static. We used to be your perfect small Midwestern capital, a perfect college town, a mid-size city that was a predictable projectable mid-size city. The last 10-15 years it went through a growth spurt, which you can track, but also a maturity spurt. I don’t think we’ve been able to wrap our brains around it. Parts of the city have changed and are different, so the question for a lot of people is how to put out a vibe that’s authentic and true to the outside world and repeatable.

I don’t care if [Columbus] ever has a song or a jingle or a slogan, but a pride that this is a city on a consistent rise.

Jami Goldstein

The main thing for me is to continue to build that pride in Columbus. I want people to be really proud of the talent and creativity we have here, to be proud of this amazing, compact, fun, open, smart, collaborative city we have here … and to get rid of those last vestiges of that humility that sort of kept us in that, “Oh yeah, it’s OK here.” No, it’s not. This city is fucking great. It’s fucking great, and I’m not even from here, I went to school at that school from up north.

Justin Golak

I think [Columbus] seems to be in a transition period where I don’t know what it wants to be. I don’t know if the city as a whole thinks it needs to be something else or wants to be something else. When I look at the city, when I talk to people about it, I say I think Columbus is like a small town with big buildings. It looks like a city, but kind of everyone knows you. I’ve never lived in a small town, but it feels like what people talk about when they say they’re from a small town. It does have the conveniences of a city, so I think if that was embraced that could be a good thing.

You can come here and have the conveniences of the city with the comfort of a small town, but it seems like Columbus wants more than that. But do they want that because they think they should have it?

Jami

I don’t know that Columbus wants to become something else as much as we’re coming into our own. We spent a lot of time in the bicentennial revealing what Columbus is, and I think people were surprised by that. We’re maturing into who we really are.

Mike

We are just as good as any of the cities we see as peers. There’s a lot of fun here. We have a great balance of all the pieces and there are some that are poised to take off. It’s not about the city as a whole, but the individuals who say, “I’m really into this and maybe I can do it in New York or L.A., but if not I can build a scene in my town.”

The marketing for a city, for whatever reason … it’s going to go, it’s going to happen. We have to do it; it’s our jobs. So it’s about finding those authentic, true things to tell stories about. This city is a lot more than a collection of statistics. There have been seven studies since the ’60s on Brand Columbus and what it should be. The fact is the day we quit doing the studies and the programming and start doing what we love about our neighborhood, that is all we need for the city to start popping.

On paper we’re the same as Indianapolis and Austin, but they have as a city decided, “We’re going to own this.”

Justin

It’s tough to find people in the city sometimes. The kind of inner part of the city, the city center, it’s not where most people live. Most people live outside the city, and I don’t know what they think about the city. If you live in Hilliard, what do you really think about Columbus — or even Dublin or Worthington?

Jami

And how often do you come down here?

Justin

They’d probably say, “[Columbus is] the place I live and I have a job.” I think it’s only people in the city center who want to define it because they’re proud of it or they want to grow something in it so they want [the city] to grow.

Mike

That’s why I said [Columbus is] open because I think every city has suburbs and an urban core and cool neighborhoods and a place where it’s affordable for artists, and those change over time. I lived on the north side of Chicago, and it’s hell: transportation, the same box houses everywhere. But the fact is in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, there really are clique-y structures of society that have been there for generations. I don’t feel that here. I really think there’s an openness to new ideas and people doing their own thing and it’s harder and more expensive to do elsewhere. It’s not only a great test market, it’s a great test-yourself market. It gives you the freedom, the openness to go do your thing.

Justin

It’s nice to have that kind of openness but it limits your ability to create an identity. A phrase like that will never work, but we know who we are. We’re so young comparatively. I think that’s why it’s so hard to get a professional sports team here. The Blue Jackets have a good fan base but when you think of Columbus, what do you think of? I don’t know what I think of a Columbus sports team or Columbus fans. If Cleveland’s teams moved away, you’d know what kind of teams they’d want to bring in and what kind of fans they’d have: tough, drunk maniacs. Joe Montana would never have lasted in the Midwest. He’s a pocket-passing pansy quarterback, but in that West Coast offense he excelled in San Francisco. I think people with the money to start franchises, they don’t want to put the carriage before your horse. They don’t want to define your city. They want to move in and glom off what we do.

Mike

[Columbus] is a big white board. It’s better than having a negative. If it’s an identity, hopefully it’ll be what it is.

Jami

Our population defines us. It’s not a brand, but it’s a message. Our population is cool and creative and hardworking and fun and talented, and they have passions all over the place. You can indulge so many of those passions in Columbus and have fun with it and meet other people. That makes us different.

The idea behind a brand is you can quickly and succinctly get people to understand you within a few words. I personally don’t think having a brand for Columbus is that important.

Mike

We bring in hundreds of reporters, event planners and convention planners, and when you talk about Nashville and Cleveland, there’s an idea in their head before they set foot off that airplane. For Columbus, almost universally they don’t have any image and they almost always leave happy and impressed.

Just like every generation has defining moments, every generation of people has a chance to put their stamp on what their community, wherever they live, what it means. Because Columbus is a white board, we have an opportunity for our generation to fill it up. In our business there are truths we’ll have to continue to communicate, and I think the more we can tell stories about our people, the better off we’ll be. The more we can tell those good, true stories in a framework of marketing, the more successful we’ll be in the long run. But at the end of the day, the marketing agencies aren’t successful unless the stories are real.

Jami

I’d like to think we’re coming out of our awkward adolescence phase.

Mike

We can’t fall into the trap of doing the same stuff every night with our same friends. We have to break out of our comfort circles and do new stuff. We, by doing things, define whether we’ll succeed or fail. The youth get to define what is going to be successful, so let’s pick good stuff and enjoy it.

Jami

Anybody who says there’s nothing going on in Columbus isn’t looking very hard.