The art of urban branding

A strong tourism industry, like a strong product, requires good branding. How should Seattle define itself in a growingly competitive international tourism game?

Crosscut archive image.

Despite Seattle's run of boom years, it's never aimed to be a get-rich-quick town, and it shouldn't now.

A strong tourism industry, like a strong product, requires good branding. How should Seattle define itself in a growingly competitive international tourism game?

In 1993, the United States was embargoing Vietnam, making the country off-limits to American business. Still, Boeing and the Port of Seattle requested that the Trade Alliance organize an exploratory visit. The delegation was the first American business visit to Vietnam and as President of the Trade Alliance, I was a member. Even though the embargo was still in effect, we saw evidence of American goods. At Tan Son Nhut airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Joe Masterson, our leader from Boeing, noticed an unpainted 737. It was not supposed to be there. Later, Seattle Chamber President George Duff, Masterson, and I went for a walk through a market, where we found boxes of Washington state apples. It seemed the American boycott had an airplane-sized hole in it. 

The first meeting of the delegation was with the Vice Mayor of Ho Chi Minh City. Our youngest delegate, President of the Puget Sound Vietnamese Association, tried to explain to the puzzled Vice Mayor what Puget Sound was: a body of water, whose name represented our region. “What is a region?” the Vice Mayor asked. The concept didn't exist in Vietnam, and the explanation became a major part of the meeting, repeated at the next meeting with the city's Chamber of Commerce. Finally at the third meeting, the delegate introduced himself as a representative of the Greater Seattle Vietnamese Association. That remains the Association’s name today. This episode was a lesson on how to present our place in overseas markets.

This year, at the National League of Cities annual meeting, I was a speaker in a workshop on international competitiveness through the branding of a city or region. How important is the persona or image of the city-region on a global map? Does the brand make a difference in the decisions of businesses to invest, students to attend universities, or tourists to visit?

Can a nickname become a brand as the internet spreads it around the world? That all depends. Would you like to tell your friends that your child goes to school in America’s Hog Capital, Broccoli Capital, or Golden Triangle? Does visiting America’s Peanut Capital, The Cabbage Patch, or Moscow on the Mississippi attract you? Would your company invest in the Asphalt City, Corn City, or Hornet’s Nest? These days, as jobs and prosperity have become competitive commodities, places have also become products.

A few hints for the process: In global competition the metro brand is best, since not many people overseas know local borders. Few citizens of Munich realize that Seattle’s north boundary is 145th or that Tacoma has miles of boundary with King County. To the world, it is the Seattle economic blob, a point on your living room globe in North America. Many cities have a brand developed for tourism. Seattle has been the Queen City, Emerald City, Jet City, and Metronatural. The Port of Seattle once marketed itself as Crossroads. Tacoma is the City of Destiny. The Trade Alliance presents our region as “The Innovative Region”, a brand name currently under review.

Secondly, a promotional brand is most effective when it's used by the majority of a region's major players. One year Trade Alliancehad three separate delegations from the same German city. The first was a trade delegation, promoting goods and services. Mid-year a second group arrived to promote inward investment. Their presentation focused heavily on office parks and industrial sites and they were unaware that the first delegation had already been here, presenting a different brand. Finally, a state tourism delegation visited. Their brochures boasted streams and parks. Like the delegation before it, an official in that booth was unaware of the visits of the first two groups. I told him I thought the city was wall to wall concrete from the previous delegation. The marketing of this city and its metro was by a series of uncoordinated silo organizations.

An area can develop its brand in a number of ways. Sometimes a city is identified by its major industry — think Detroit. Hiroshima’s image was defined by an event. “I Amsterdam” was a created brand. Chicago as the “Windy City” originated in the late 19th century with a battle between Cincinnati and Chicago. The Ohioans said the people of Chicago were braggarts or windy. The Big Apple was said to be created by jazz musicians who reached the top when they played in the big apple.

Two years ago Knute Berger wrote an article for Crosscut, where he observed that “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 phenon — all with a certain subtle finesse.” While we are able to borrow an idea and make it into a great product, there is also significant creativity and innovation in the Northwest — it’s not just marketing. The science and research in global medicine, aerospace, biotech, clean energy, and many other areas make us a capital of science and research — an “Innovative Region.”

“There is a universal competition for people’s physical and mental time and attention, and cities are not exempt from this," wrote Australian creative director Jason Little, recently. "We all have preconceived views of places, often based on limited firsthand experience or word of mouth. The role of a brand identity is to help reinforce or correct those assumptions.” 

The discussion around Seattle's brand, as we work to attract students, tourists and investment and to retain Boeing and the jobs we already have will be complex. With a variety of interested parties, it will be hard to hammer out one cohesive message. The key is to develop a single brand around a positive issue — no billing ourselves as the center of sunless days and moonless nights, or America’s gloomy capital. We marketers are allowed to stretch the truth and play with the facts.


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