Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Georgetown: A subtle but important difference between branding and identity-positioning

The Washington City Paper reports, in "Wisconsin and TM: In its Latest Identity Crisis, Georgetown Hires a Branding Consultant," that the Georgetown Business Improvement District has engaged in a brand development effort. (As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Baltimore City Paper recently ran an excellent article, one of the best I've seen in the traditional media, about branding issues and Baltimore City, "Happy? Baltimore's latest tourism campaign rekindles the city's ongoing branding issues.")

This isn't a surprise. All destinations need to be managed. And the Georgetown BID does so. But often, the problem with the "business types" who comprise the leadership of BID-type organizations is that they think it's about branding, when people who come at this from the cultural tourism, tourism development and management, Main Street commercial district revitalization, or civic tourism perspectives recognize the issue has to do not so much with your brand, but with your identity and positioning--in short, the quality of your offer.

One of the problems that the city's sub-districts have is that typically, DC residents and other stakeholders assess the places independently, rather than within the regional retail and entertainment landscape. So while it is true that within DC proper, Georgetown is probably the most successful independent commercial district, with the strongest image and brand, that doesn't matter, because Georgetown has to remain competitive with other destinations in the broader region.

The real problem is that as a destination, Georgetown, despite the existence of the Business Improvement District, has some real problems. One big problem is the various property interests and intra-business competition--specifically Eastbanc's competition with Western Development, which kept the Georgetown Park Mall from being able to remain competitive, because litigation kept the mall from being able to "refresh." (See "Half-empty Shops at Georgetown Park headed to auction next month" from the Washington Post.)

Another problem is that other destinations change, new destinations develop (such as National Harbor), trends change, and customer bases need to be refreshed as people age and concepts get stale. Plus, the retail and entertainment mix needs to be planned more purposefully by time of day and day of the week, and typically, commercial districts do not do this level of micro planning.

But too often, a focus on branding becomes a focus on logos and the like, rather than a more complete strategy of:

- understanding consumer needs
- developing and positioning a strong brand foundation
- creating the right imagery for the product
- delivering on the brand promise. (From p. 26, "Mind Your Brands," Progressive Grocer's Store Brands, July 2010.)

So it becomes very easy to pillory more typical branding studies, as the WCP does with the opening paragraphs of the above-cited story:

When you hear “Georgetown,” what jumps to mind?

Polo shirts and loafers? Barney’s and Benetton? Spray tans and exotic accents?

Now try a harder one: If Georgetown were an animal, what animal would it be? Or color?

Those are the types of (sometimes inscrutable) questions a group of Georgetowners have been prodded with over the last few months, in an attempt to redefine the neighborhood’s “brand”—what it is that makes the place unique, and how it ought to be marketed. In April, the Georgetown Business Improvement District commissioned a study by the Arlington-based Roan Group, which has interviewed about 50 people from the neighborhood and is now researching the typical customer.

When I was in Montreal last month, I was tremendously interested in the city's tourism guide, the "Official Tourist Guide" (which doesn't seem to be available online, but is available in local tourist information centers, hotels, and other locations) which better than any other tourist guidebook I've seen published by the local tourism bureau, lists attractions/visiting opportunities by "district"/arondissement, such as "The Village," "The Old Port," the "Place des Arts," the "Plateau," Latin Quarter, etc. For the most part, DC's tourism marketing materials don't do this, at least they don't do it very well.

This is followed up during the tourist season with tourist information centers and carts in some of the most visited neighborhoods such as The Village and the Plateau. (The Bethesda Urban Partnership does this too, with at least one cart in the summer, which is located outside of the Barnes & Noble on Bethesda Row.)

Similarly, DC's "destination development planning" (we don't term it that way) doesn't really work this way either.

So other places in the city such as Dupont Circle and its subdistricts and Capitol Hill and Cleveland Park have the same problems as Georgetown, which has been written about in this and other blogs. But because the city doesn't have the right planning framework in place, the problems continue. With regard to the framework:

1. I have recommended for at least 5 years that one of the elements of the Comprehensive Plan should be a tourism development and management plan, with both city-wide and sub-district dimensions (the Federal Elements of the DC Comprehensive Plan do have a visitor element);

2. I have worked out a broader framework (along with Chuck D'Aprix of Economic Development Visions) for commercial district planning, which is best outlined (thus far) in this report, A Commercial District Revitalization Framework Plan for Downtown Cambridge, Maryland. It covers attraction development, accommodations, and other aspects of developing a destination, not just the retail mix.

Below, I am reprinting a blog entry from five years ago on this broad topic.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"

On the National Main Street list, Andrew Jones writes:

Here's an article about Fayetteville, NC, which is considering branding itself America's most patriotic city. Some brainstormed ideas:

* Daily parades.
* Give police the authority to issue fake tickets to foreign-made cars.
* Requiring all restaurants to serve apple pie and hot dogs.
* Actors posing as George Washington, etc. roam downtown.
* Fireworks every weekend.
* Paint the streets to look like the flag.

My thoughts:

While it is said all the time in Main Street trainings and in the cultural tourism end of things, the importance of "authenticity" can not be under-emphasized. (Check out the Main Street Approach.)

To my way of thinking, the language of the Main Street principle on assets overly focuses upon hard assets (buildings) and it should be expanded to reflect the understanding that this refers to assets more broadly. This can help Main Street practitioners help people understand that assets include social and cultural capital as well. (Human capital is covered in other principles--self-help and partnerships. )

In a presentation, you might want to outline more specific aspects of cultural capital (arts, performance, historic resources, history), particularly "historic capital," to explain what these assets are and why they are important.

In my experience in Washington, DC, I have come to the conclusion that to many people in our city, "Main Street" isn't a unique, comprehensive, integrated, proven-to-be-successful community revitalization approach that needs to be embraced and followed (perhaps with some slight adaptations for particular circumstances) but merely is one more program in a long line of revitalization programs that have been attempted, (but with a pot of money from the city for neighborhood organizations, if successful in winning a designation).

In some of the situations that result, the definition of revitalization ends up being not much different in the reality than urban renewal-like redevelopment, which sees the only asset as land able to be cleared and rebuilt.

There isn't a nuanced understanding about the importance and primacy of authenticity and historic capital -- historic buildings, independent businesses, real experiences, unqiue community history -- as basic building blocks of a community revitalization strategy. No matter how hard we try, our neighborhood commercial districts (with some exceptions) aren't going to be able to compete with the suburban malls by trying to outmall the mall.

That being said, I've been meaning to send this link to the list from an article in Urban Land Magazine, about successful retail-entertainment "retailtainment." It's a well-written, thoughtful piece on this aspect of unique retail and where it suceeds.

It might just be my city "blue state" attitudes and general cynicism, but the Fayetteville ideas strike me as "inauthentic." However, I will say that there are all types of market segments and as Bob Lutz said about his uniquely styled cars. "Yes, maybe only 10% of the market likes them, but 10% of the market is really large and profitable." (badly paraphrased)

Nonetheless, city branding is a big issue. At the root, it's about identity and vision and what you are trying to accomplish. I strongly recommend the NMSC handbook Marketing an Image for Main Street. This handbook covers this issue pretty thoroughly and has some great case studies, such as of Boulder, Colorado. It discusses how the ER and Promotions Committees are both dependent on a market study in order to move forward. A market study, focused on current and potential market segments is one of the most important things that a Main Street program must do at the outset (the NMSC handbook on this is called Step-by-Step Market Analysis, although I haven't read it yet).

City branding is the rage. is a great website resource for branding issues and there are a number of articles on the site that are relevant to our work in community (re)building:

This article, by Karen Post, covers the issues really well: . She writes in "Brandtown: Destination distinction or disarray" that

Destination branding is about:

1) Clearly defining a purpose,
2) Being distinct,
3) Consistently communicating a persona, and
4) Delivering on a promise.

She states that further that:

a city or destination brand is the sum of what the market thinks when they hear the brand name. It's how they feel when they arrive at the destination's website or experience other communication, and it's what they expect when they select one place over another.

There are well-branded cities and places...these destinations have crisp stories, distinct attributes, and consistent messaging, and deliver the brand promise at all touch points... On there other side of the map are many lost destinations and leaders who don't quite get it. They think the brand is a jazzy logo ... and most of all they are oblivious to the destructive power of un-united forces within their destination.

She also talks about the Hartford Image Project and their new tagline "New England's Rising Star" (which I refashioned for a job interview in Prince George's County Maryland--"city X: Maryland's Rising Star"). BTW, in looking up transit planning in York Ontario I found that they use the tagline: York Region: Ontario's Rising Star.

Other good articles include:

-- Branding Nations;
-- Manufacturing a New Detroit;
-- Johannesburg South Africa (As I have written elsewhere, this city has "issues". They counter them by being upfront. The City of Johannesburg website is fabulous!); and finally
-- Brand Your City: A Recipe for Success" by Jonathan Baltuch.

What he writes is obvious, but if it is so obvious why do so many communities, destinations, attractions, etc., blow it? He starts by saying

The most misunderstood and underutilized tool in the typical American city's toolbox for exonomic success is brand identity. If your city has not taken the time to figure out who you are and taken steps to define it to the world, then it is left to others to define you.

He goes on to list the basic steps of the process:

* Internal Research
* External Research
* Logo and Brand Promise Design
* Comprehensive Brand Identity Package Design and Implementation
* Internal Education (what I would call a focus on local markets and stakeholders)
* External Education (a focus on reaching external markets)
* Advertising

It's basic but it lays out the process.

Other good resources come from the cultural heritage tourism program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Reading through one or more of the community assessment reports lays out the basic assessment/gaps analysis model that they use. Being a strong proponent of "adaptive re-use" or R&D ("rip off and duplicate") or just learning and applying the model to your own situation can help you work through such issues in your own community.

Outside assessment is good, because it is independent and generally is enriched by experience with other communities. It needs to be matched with local expertise and opportunities, awareness of design, traffic and transportation movement, etc., in order to really move forward.

I really like the idea of a branding or tourism charette, based on something like the "How to Turn A Place Around" book and workshop of the Project for Public Spaces) or the "Great Tours" historic places workshop developed by the National Trust which is another great model for looking at your assets and the stories that you have to tell. While the book and workshop focus on particular sites, the model is extensible.

Similarly, the heritage area concept and the organizing metaphor of the cultural landscape is equally mind-expanding. You don't have to create a heritage area in order to inventory the assets you have in your community and begin to bring the various interests together.

Speaking of this, the Tourism Development Handbook: A Practical Approach to Planning and Marketing by Kerry Godfrey and Jackie Clarke lives up to its title. It's a great practical approach to destination development and management. With a nod to Richard Nixon's quote "We are all Keynesians now" the fact is, for those of us involved neighborhood and commercial district revitalization:

we are all destination managers now.

And the tools in books such as this, which lay out a model for tourism development planning at the destination level, are very helpful regardless of who we are trying to attract to our neighborhoods and stores.

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