The Future of the City Is All In Its Brand


City branding - illustration by Matt van Leeuwen

sxsw-logoThe following kick-off to our new city branding series has inspired a SXSW Interactive 2016 panel — vote for it here through Sept. 4!


What U.S. cities come to mind when you think of high-tech start-ups? Jobs and housing growth? Livability? Would you believe, Nashville, Tennessee and Provo, Utah lead the way in many of these categories?

Forbes ranked Nashville as the third best city positioned to grow and prosper in the coming decade, and number 6 in its ranking of the best places for businesses and careers. Gallup ranked Provo in the top 10 cities for community health and well-being, while NerdWallet rated it as the top 10 most innovative tech hubs.

Traditionally, these cities have not been on people’s radar, yet today they are drawing what the Brookings Institute describes as a “super-sector” of high-tech industries ranging from aerospace to health services. Both cities attract high proportions of young college-educated workers, with focuses on science, tech, engineering, and math. Since every city angles for this kind of investment and talent, those that invest in a strong brand strategy often prevail.

Branding a city is about investing in a long-term and practical approach to articulate the image and reputation of the place. To do this requires assessing a city’s specific strengths and policies, and aligning them towards a single big idea. It’s not about being all things to all people—it’s about putting a real face on what a city has to offer.

City branding illustration by Matt van Leeuwen

For some cities, the brand idea comes naturally. Austin celebrates its local quirks and indie music scene as the “Live Music Capital of the World” along with its unofficial grassroots slogan “Keep Austin weird.” Las Vegas embraces the notion of adult freedom by letting the world know “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

But for many mid-tier cities without an obvious hook, branding has been a challenge. Cleveland‘s a city with four decades of industrial decline that went through several failed approaches and taglines, from “Cleveland You’ve Got To Be Tough” in the ’70s to “Cleveland’s a Plum” in the ’80s. Whether the current “This Is Cleveland” campaign will succeed in promoting a place that doesn’t hide from its gritty Midwestern roots remains to be seen.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, while not on the decline, has lacked an identity for a while. Past campaigns for the Twin Cities including “Minneapolis Saint Paul, More to Life” have failed to stick. These days the metro area is trying to redefine itself away from the Rust Belt by positioning itself as the Capital of the North.

As with any kind of branding, effective city brand strategy is more than words and images and logos– it needs to be adopted and reinforced over time through the actions and behaviors of city stakeholders. Success can be measured by looking at a city’s economic and infrastructural growth alongside its public perception and media buzz.

In our new city branding series, we’ll be taking a look at three mid-tier U.S. cities on the leading edge of growth and prosperity: Nashville, Tennessee; Provo, Utah; and Trenton, New Jersey. Each one, at different stages of brand strategy, offers a glimpse into the future pitfalls and successes of their city.

Cavan Huang is a graphic designer, creative director and design educator whose work includes creating brand experiences in urban environments. Illustrations by Matt van Leeuwen.