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If Cities Want to Build a Better Brand They Must ‘Think Different’

“The value of real estate comes from two things: supply and demand.” This was the opening statement for Aaron Renn’s keynote speech co-orgainzed by Propmodo at MIPIM PropTech Europe in June. While this statement seems obvious on the parcel level, it also applies to cities and towns. One of the fascinating things about real estate is how everything is interconnected. You can’t understand a building unless you understand its surroundings. Aaron is one of the premier thinkers about cities. We invited him to speak at the event because we knew his time as a partner at Accenture and his role as Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute would allow him to give a unique perspective of how real estate is affected by the cities around it. We were not disappointed.

“There is generator of demand that is well understood in the corporate world but less well understood and applied into the urban one,” he continued, “and that is the attractional power of a city’s brand.” Cities, like products, are not only their physical embodiment, the infrastructure and buildings that make it up, but are also made up of the ideas that we have of them. This idea, that the essence of a thing is tied to its perception, is the basis for branding. Brands are some of the most valuable things in the world but, like perception itself, are in a state of constant flux and can be nearly impossible to fully quantify.

Even still, visionaries from every field have worked tirelessly to try to cultivate and harvest strong brands. For companies and products, this usually means instilling a sense of uniqueness. One of the most influential business minds of our generation, Michael Porter, actually defines strategy as uniqueness: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” Apple’s Steve Jobs understood this concept well. He help create one of the world’s most valuable brands with a elegantly simple message “Think different.”

But cities don’t seem to have the same understanding of uniqueness as a strategy. “I have always been struck by how while every company tries to convince you of how different it is than every other brand, every city tries to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that is conventionally cool,” Aaron said. In a race to be cool cities often try to create an image of themselves that appeals to what they think people, even if it is not necessarily true.

If you want to see this for yourself, you just need to do a few quick Google searches for city marketing videos. “The imagery is so similar,” Aaron explained, “pictures of the hip creative class, some startups, something about the local fashion and food scene, some people on bicycles going through the center of the city. I love all of these things and I would argue that you have to have them order to make a city competitive in today’s marketplace. But they are not things that set a city apart.”

Here Aaron talks about the recent craze of cities comparing themselves to Silicon Valley.

But this strategy seldom works. “Cities think that for them to be credible in the market, they have to copy the places that are credible. That doesn’t work because the copy is never as cool as the original. Silicon Valley can’t be replicated. You can’t be Paris or LA. They are what they are for a host of unique historical reasons.”

So what should cities do if they want to reinvent themselves. Aaron suggests doing the same thing that many brands do when they are in need of a freshening up: go back to your roots. “What is the thing that most new creative director does when they take over a new fashion house? A lot of time it is to go digging in the archives to look at the history of the house and then reiterate that for a new age. Think about what Karl Logerfeld did at Channel. He kept the brand authentically Chanel but also authentically of the present moment.”

To illustrate this point Aaron cited two examples. The first was the story of the brand of Brooklyn. “Think about the image you have of the typical resident of Brooklyn. What is the image that comes to your mind? A skinny guy with a beard and tattoos that wears industrial clothing from legacy brands like Carhartt and drinks working class lagers like Pabst Blue Ribbon.” This image was exactly the thing that many rural midwestern towns actively tried to go away from after the shift away from manufacturing left them looking for a fresh new identity. Even the stereotypical idea of a Brooklyn business, perhaps a artisanal pickle shop, has its roots in the interior of the country, far from the urbanites that now embrace the culture.

“When you saw Midwestern towns struggling to reinvent themselves they seldom talked about their agro-industrial heritage.” Aaron explained. “It was like the Midwestern cities threw their legacy in a trashcan and Brooklyn came along and said ‘hey this is cool.’”

His other example is one of a city sticking with its tradition and being rewarded for it. This city is Nashville, Tennessee. In the 70’s and 80’s country music was not held in the highest esteem. The music that was once the hallmark of American culture was seen as low-class and uneducated. “Leaders in Nashville could have been forgiven if they would have said to themselves, ‘We have to get rid of this legacy is we want to be taken seriously.’ But they didn’t. They kept country music front and center and country music itself evolved,” Aaron said. Now country music is spitting out some of the biggest global pop stars and Nashville is booming with tourist and proud locals.

Many cities don’t have a calling card like Nashville does with country music but Aaron stressed the importance of embracing the small things.

Aaron talks about sometimes it is the little things that are often more iconic even than city landmarks.

Again we see the interconnectivity between a city’s brands and its inhabitant. Aaron cites research done by Instituto de Empresa and the Madrid City Council that quantifies the effect brands have on their places of origin and visa versa. They created a Brand Territory Matrix to understand which cities were influenced by the brands that sprouted in their soil. While most of these iconic brands have traditionally been consumer products, property and PropTech companies are also able to create value, especially as they create strong brands. “WeWork is a great example of a PropTech company that is contributing to the brand of the neighborhoods that it is in.” Aaron said. “Many cities feel like having one is a great sign of the strength of their entrepreneurial activity.”

But as more and more areas become peppered with coworking locations like WeWork, they will likely become less of an image boost. In closing Aaron urged cities, the real estate industry and citizens to embrace their uniqueness and forge their own brand, “Bilbao was able to turn a lot of heads with their Guggenheim museum but now so many other cities have used the “starchitect” design that it doesn’t have nearly the same impact. There will always be ways to increase a regions brand, but they will never be the same twice.”

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