University of Washington
In Seattle, we like to think we’re quirky, different, original, inventive. From tattoos to grunge rock to coffee culture, we’re a trendsetting city. Once we exported lumber and jet planes; now we export ideas, content, and intellectual property. We’ve gone from a working-class port to a haven for the so-called “creative class.”
We’re proud of our brainpower. Some say that Seattle is full of smart people, boasting of more bookstores and more citizens with college degrees per capita than most other places. A few months ago, I had lunch with the U.S. correspondent for France’s Le Monde, and he told me he was astonished at how many people here told him how smart Seattle is. “When I hear that,” he said, “I hear that you think you’re better than everyone else.”
He’s right, we do. After all, we’re home to Bill Gates, who is one of the world’s smartest men and, more importantly in America, the world’s richest. So we have bragging rights. Gates has never been shy about telling other people what he thinks of their intelligence. At Microsoft, his famous catchphrase was “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” But most of us assert our superiority with a Seattle-nice twist. We don’t run others down — we simply remark that one of our biggest downtown tourist attractions is a library. Oh, and this city loves book clubs. ’Nuff said.
We’ve been reading too many of our own press releases, however. When you look at how we actually run things, few would say our behavior exhibits a lot of smarts. Candidates running for office, from mayor to county executive to City Council, all seemed to agree that the city, the county, indeed the whole metro area is broken: costly government, poor services, lousy transportation, high prices, a polluted Puget Sound. If we’re so smart, how come we never fix anything?
It’s true that lots of smart people can’t tie their own shoes, which is probably why so many people in Seattle wear clogs. But it could also be that we’re not really that much smarter than everyone else. While Gates might be a role model for our brilliance, he’s no Thomas Edison himself. No one here invented the light bulb. Think about Microsoft. Gates’ dream was a PC on every desk, but he didn’t invent the computer; he didn’t even invent software — or even the first computer operating system. What he was smart about was out-marketing and outcompeting with the other guys.
Think about it for a minute and you’ll see that’s true of most of Seattle’s major brand-name contributions to modern, global culture. Boeing changed the world, no question. But we didn’t invent the jet, not even the commercial jet (that was the de Havilland Comet). But Boeing knew how to sell them. Starbucks gave us a mass-produced coffee culture, but it didn’t invent coffee, espresso, cafes, or smooth jazz (though Kenny G is from here).
Costco, Nordstrom, and Amazon are rightly known respectively for discount, high-service, and Internet retailing, but none of them invented those things.
We’re so good at selling that we’ve even turned misery into gold. Grunge rock, for example, took rain, depression, self-loathing, and Aberdeen, Wash., and transformed them into a musical commodity consumed by millions of suburban teens who adored the angst delivered by alchemists in flannel.
So what Seattle is smart about is branding — taking what others have done, packaging it, adding some Seattle flair and spinning it out into the next global retail phenom — all with a certain subtle finesse. We don’t spam you to death. We’ve grown more sophisticated since the days of that old Seattle car salesman Dick Balch, who looked like a member of Three Dog Night and sold cars in the ’60s by smashing them with a sledgehammer. We often pretend to stand off in our far corner of the country not caring what people think. We let our customers believe they’ve found something unique when they discover a Seattle product.
We’re smart about being flexible, too, ready to give customers what they want. Starbucks started out selling coffee beans and wound up making millions off flavored, caffeinated milk. Amazon sold books, but now it’s an electronic Walmart. Microsoft is trying to be a better Google. When people wanted crazy loans, WaMu pushed them. Oops. There are some Seattle brands better left unmentioned.
Seattle might be full of smart people, but our real claim to fame is being full of smart salespeople. Not very sexy, but very profitable.A version of this story first appeared in Seattle Magazine.
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