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Commentary By Aaron M. Renn

The Dos and Don'ts of Civic Branding

Editor's note: The following is the first chapter of the book Urban Policy 2018 published by the Manhattan Institute.


People think of a brand as the name of a consumer product, such as Budweiser or Tide, or the name of a company, such as Target. However, cities also have brands. Atlanta is the “Capital of the New South.” Las Vegas is Sin City. Detroit is the Motor City. New Orleans is the Big Easy. Los Angeles is Tinseltown. New York is the Big Apple.

Branding of places—countries, states, cities, and even neighborhoods—is also big business. States alone spend about $700 million just on tourism promotion each year.1 Cities spend many millions more. Essentially every city of any size has a convention and visitors’ bureau to market itself to event planners and tourists, along with an economic development agency to market itself to prospective employers. Entire firms, such as Development Counselors International, exist to market cities and other places. Cities also invest large sums into civic initiatives driven by branding strategies, such as attempting to become known as a startup hub or a capital of the creative class.

While there is significant debate about public policy related to services such as education, transportation, or public safety, branding has not received as much scrutiny. Measuring the return on investment in marketing is notoriously difficult. There’s a famous saying in the advertising business, attributed to many executives: “I know half of my advertising spending is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” Nevertheless, given the amount of direct marketing spending that is, and will continue to be, undertaken by cities and other places, it’s important that these funds are spent in the most effective manner. Far more important, a city’s understanding of its brand helps determine the strategic decisions and investments that it makes.

This paper will review why cities, unlike companies, often struggle to identify effective brands, as well as the results of getting branding right and wrong.

What Is a Brand?

This paper will use a traditional definition: At its most basic, a brand is a promise. Branding, by extension, is the act of managing that promise. Branding is a management practice.

This deceptively simple statement is actually quite powerful. For example, when you make a promise, you promise something to someone. You don’t promise everything to everybody. You commit to delivering something specific. If you want your promise to have value, it has to be something at least relatively distinctive, something that everybody else isn’t already promising the other person. And when you make a promise, you have to keep it or else suffer a huge loss of credibility.

“A city’s brand is fundamentally its sense of identity, shaping how it communicates and markets itself to the world, and what it does—how it sets policies and makes civic investments.”

For many, branding is synonymous with marketing. In this view, a brand is a tagline or a logo. But marketing is actually downstream from brand. Marketing is how you communicate your brand promise to the people you are attempting to reach. The process of marketing is very important but is secondary to what you are marketing.

A city’s brand is fundamentally its sense of identity, shaping how it communicates and markets itself to the world, and what it does—how it sets policies and makes civic investments. Because of this, the brand is important to get right regardless of whether or not the city’s marketing efforts are effective. If a city believes that its brand is as a Silicon Valley–style start up hub, it will devote civic leadership time and make investments in an attempt to make that a reality. If this brand is not a promise the city can deliver, it will fail to realize the anticipated economic gains of its branding while its leadership suffers a loss of credibility.

Branding Mistakes

The challenge of promising something unique is extremely difficult for cities. We see this from the observed fact that while most companies are trying their hardest to convince you of how much different and better they are than every other company in their industry, most cities are trying their hardest to convince you they are at least equal to the peer communities they most admire. Cities often promote the same basic assets their competitors promote, sometimes even with similar language. Thus, despite often touting their unique qualities, cities fail to differentiate themselves.

Look at corporate brands and marketing. For example, Apple positioned itself as a premier product provider with a distinct, superior user interface and industrial design. It is an innovator that created entire device categories, such as the MP3 player and the smartphone. Apple’s marketing slogan used to be “Think Different,” which correctly embodied how the company thought about itself. Another example is GEICO, whose brand promise and marketing slogan are one and the same: “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” It provides lower-cost insurance to people with good driving records.

Now consider how many cities market themselves. They mostly talk about technology startups, coffee shops, microbreweries, bike lanes, fashion, farm-to-table restaurants, downtown apartments, having a creative class of residents, etc. These are all good things. But many cities tout the same things. These things are not strictly promises of everything to everybody, but they represent a certain conventional wisdom about the most critical markets to reach (particularly young, educated adults) and what those markets demand. They represent a generic appeal with a brand promise based on what is popularly portrayed by Portland (Oregon) or Brooklyn.

Note how many cities have labeled themselves with some variation of Silicon Valley. This includes Silicorn Valley (Fairfield, Iowa), Silicon Prairie (Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska), Silicon Forest (Portland), Silicon Alley (New York), and Silicon Beltway (Washington, D.C.), among others.2 (City marketing videos that further illustrate the generic marketing of cities are listed in the Appendix.)

The problem is that most cities are not Portland or Brooklyn or the string of cities dotting California’s Santa Clara County. They have completely different histories, economies, demographics, geographies, cultures. It’s highly unlikely that any other city will ever re-create the magic of Silicon Valley, so the brand promise ends up being false. Even to the extent that a city can successfully create it in part, it will likely be an inferior imitation. Why move to a Rust Belt city trying to act like Portland when you could just move to Portland?

Consider the large number of cities that have built light rail systems, partly to create the environment that they feel is needed to attract educated young men and women. Light rail is an extremely costly technology. But very few cities are suitable to rail transit in the way that Chicago or Boston is—they have comparatively small downtown employment bases, highly dispersed origins and destinations of trips, and low-density development that is not supportive of rail transit. These light rail systems may not be white elephants, but they represent a poor allocation of limited public capital-investment dollars. And these cities will never be able to create the type of transit-oriented lifestyle that exists in Boston or Philadelphia.

Cities are not start ups. They already have residents, businesses, a history, a culture, a set of values—a brand, if you will. The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. It will also send a subtle message to existing residents that there is no place for them in the future—that they are of less value than a new class of people the city wants to attract.

So in addition to being distinct, brands need to be authentic. They need to speak to the people who already live in a city as well as to potential newcomers. They need to be an expression or a reflection of the history, heritage, and reality that already exist. To be sure, a city’s reality needs to continue to grow and evolve, and, at times, corporate brands need to be reinvented. But successful reinventions and evolutions generally try to stay true to the authentic core of the brand.

“The attempt to radically shift a city from its existing brand to something else will appear inauthentic and fail. ”

This is even true in the fashion industry. When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld revived Chanel in the early 1980s, he did so by drawing on inspiration from the firm’s archives. This became a model that others followed. As the New York Times stated, “Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past.” 3 By contrast, “New Coke” was one of the great rebranding flops in history. Coca-Cola is as American as apple pie. Changing such an iconic product was a betrayal of its brand promise. The company swiftly backtracked.

In short, cities too often have decided that they need to replace their existing brand to copy another’s that they think is necessary in order to compete. This typically fails because a brand needs to promise something distinct. Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it thus: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”4

There’s nothing wrong with having bike lanes or coffee shops. But today, these things aren’t going to sell a city to businesses or potential residents.

Branding Done Right

There are cities that have fostered brands that are authentic, and aligned their investments with their core brand assets. Examples include:

Nashville, the “Music City”

Nashville is a booming city whose brand star is rising, as evidenced by headlines such as “Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself” in the New York Times.5 No sweeping statements about the city’s brand causing its economic and population growth can be made. Yet the fact that it has a powerful brand promise with something that everyone can instantly relate to—country music—creates a hook that helps market the city, generate press, and make it stick in people’s minds.

Country music is not something one would expect a city to fashion its brand around. The genre is déclassé in the coastal cultural capitals, with its traditionally down-home appeal. Think, for example, of the television series Hee Haw (1969–71), or its comedienne Minnie Pearl (Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon), with her trademark price tag hanging from a hat.

Old Nashville 

It would have been easy for Nashville to conclude that if it ever wanted to be taken seriously, it would have to get rid of its country music image and rebrand itself as a Portland of the South. Instead, city leaders kept country music front and center with their “Music City” branding while the industry transformed itself for the 21st century. Today’s Nashville is glitzier—more Hollywood; some have used the term “Nashvegas” to describe it. Today’s stars are people like Carrie Underwood, with more broad-based listenership and more sex appeal.

New Nashville 

Yet yesterday’s performers and their culture aren’t rejected; the old classic country performers are still honored, and their music is still listened to and respected. The city sees today’s country music as linked across time to that of previous generations, so there’s evolution without rejection. The city and its people very much value their traditions: the Grand Ole Opry, which originated in the 1920s, is the longest-running radio program in American history.

Nashville today has bike lanes and trendy restaurants, as well as business startups; but health care is actually the engine at the heart of its economy.6 Still at the core of the city’s identity is country music, an important industry in its own right and the key source of the city’s brand recognition. Country music is the one thing everybody knows about Nashville: the city brands itself as “Music City,” and that is a promise on which the city delivers.

Indianapolis, the “Amateur Sports Capital”

Indianapolis was an early entrant into using sports events as an economic development and branding strategy. While most cities today attempt to lure these kinds of events, Indianapolis excels at attracting and hosting them.

Sports-based redevelopment worked in Indianapolis because it had authentic roots. This helped residents embrace this branding strategy—so much so that one of its competitive advantages is its large number of event volunteers. The city was already known for one big sporting event: the Indianapolis 500 car race. Indiana was also legendary for its high school basketball obsession, which the film Hoosiers brought to a national audience. Indianapolis already had sports in its civic DNA, which made this strategy possible and also generated widespread public support.

In the 1960s, downtown Indianapolis was so desolate that people shot pigeons there on weekends. Some called the city “India-no-place.” Starting in the 1970s, with a successful telethon to sell tickets to allow the Indiana Pacers to stay afloat as a team, the city began implementing projects that evolved into a strategy of sports-based economic development, including professional sports but focused on amateur competitions. The city built many venues, such as a track-and-field stadium and a natatorium. Indianapolis became the first city to establish a sports commission chartered with attracting and hosting sports events. It held the National Sports Festival in 1982 and stepped in to host the 1987 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. When various Olympic sports established their own governing bodies, Indianapolis lured several of them to town, including USA Gymnastics. The NCAA followed in the 1990s. Indianapolis is now a regular host of the men’s basketball Final Four and will host the college football national playoff championship in 2022. In addition to amateur events, the city attracted the NFL Colts from Baltimore and hosted the Super Bowl in 2012.

Economists have generally been skeptical of investment in sports facilities. Economist Mark Rosentraub, for example, wrote a book called Major League Losers (1997) to make this point. He notes that the Indianapolis sports strategy did not halt the suburbanization of the region but did have a positive effect. He observes: “If you said, ‘What’s the value of holding one men’s Final Four?’ It’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s not the Final Four. It’s a development strategy. The real value is the neighborhoods that were built. If you pulled up a picture of what downtown Indianapolis looked like in 1970 and what it looked like in 2010—that’s where the return is.”7

St. Louis and the Gateway Arch Park

The Eero Saarinen–designed Gateway Arch has been the most famous symbol of St. Louis since its opening in 1967. After the arch was unveiled, the Chicago Tribune declared that “it will probably do more to change the image of the city in the years to come than anything St. Louisans have ever seen, including Stan Musial.”8 This prediction appears to have come true.

St. Louis’s arch was conceived in the 1930s as a memorial to the pioneers of America’s westward expansion.9 More prosaically, the idea of a historical monument was meant to revitalize the city’s decaying waterfront. Not originally intended as a branding statement, it failed in its job-creation goals during construction, creating fewer than 100 jobs instead of the 5,000 expected.10

Whatever the reasons, St. Louis had long played a vital role in America’s growth. Now, with a triumphal monument, it had a visible claim on that hallowed history for the future and an identity grounded in the pioneer spirit. The symbolism of the Gateway Arch and its connection to its host city would not have been immediately obvious to the casual observer in the early 20th century. Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, or neighboring Independence, had valid claims as a “gateway to the West.” St. Louis was known for generations as “Mound City,” a reference to the earthen formations that once guided steamboat pilots on the Mississippi River, and whose Native American heritage was lost to excavators before the turn of the previous century. That this identity has now faded, and St. Louis has claimed a symbol of America’s pioneer spirit, is a testament to the arch’s staying power. The Gateway Arch demonstrates that major civic statement projects can affect a city’s brand. 

The Gateway Arch spanned St. Louis’s history in establishing its brand and has since been used to sell the city and orient development: just look at the sheer number of businesses in St. Louis with “gateway” in their name. To be clear, the city’s branding did not prevent the economic travails and population decline that it experienced in the last part of the 20th century. Nevertheless, as St. Louis looks toward the future, it can now leverage a priceless civic brand asset.

Understanding that the arch is among its strongest brand assets, a public-private partnership is investing $380 million to expand and improve the surrounding parks (including $221 million in private money) and better connect them to the city. Previously, the arch and riverfront had been cut off from the city by a freeway, which is being bridged over with this project.11 The Gateway Arch is a tourist attraction: this investment will help ensure that visitors (as well as locals) have a great experience seeing it. It will also create synergies between the arch and other downtown developments, an example of an investment designed to strengthen and leverage an existing brand asset.

How to Brand a City

Find Your Authentic Identity

Nashville is an easy example of a city with a unique brand. But what about cities without an obvious brand identity to leverage? This problem is particularly something that midwestern and smaller cities often struggle with. “What is our identity?” is a question frequently asked in these places.

Yet these places almost certainly have characteristics that make them unique, though it may be difficult to identify and articulate what they are. Consider the state of Ohio. What is its identity, its brand? It isn’t easy to create characteristics that other midwestern states wouldn’t likewise claim for themselves. But visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland: it is immediately obvious that these are three very different cities, though it may not be easy to determine what exactly it is that makes each one unique.

Unearthing that unique character requires digging deep into a place and its history, a task perhaps more suited to historians or journalists than to the corporate branding consultant. Consider the late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell of the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote an in-depth comparison of Boston and Philadelphia. As the title of his book, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979) implies, Baltzell traced the identity and culture of each city back to the character of the religious groups that founded them. This deep historical analysis is something branding consultants rarely do.

In places like the Midwest—which has historically struggled with questions of identity—not many writers have focused on the culture of cities and states.12 In recent years, new efforts in this direction have emerged, such as Cleveland-based Belt Publishing, which has issued a number of anthologies of essays about midwestern cities, including midsize cities such as Akron, Flint, and Youngstown.

For places without a strong understanding of their existing local culture and brand, this research is the most important step to take before moving forward. As with Baltzell’s work or the “3C” cities in Ohio, comparison with other cities can help identify points of distinctiveness or contrast.

Overcome the Shame Factor

Unearthing the local brand can be difficult, but it may already be tacitly understood. The problem is that the brand is sometimes rejected because local people and leaders are ashamed of it.

Not all regions equally suffer from this shame. Southern cities, perhaps because of their regional culture, typically display immense pride in what they are. Midwestern cities struggling to shake off the Rust Belt brand are likely to want to shed their previous identity. They also have an ingrained civic modesty, making them reluctant to aggressively tout themselves.

This rejection of the past is a mistake. Today’s stereotyped markers of Brooklyn-style hipster culture include such things as micro-roasted coffees and microbrews but also many elements of traditional working-class culture, including Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, trucker caps, and workwear-inspired clothing, pickling, whole-animal butchering, urban agriculture and beekeeping, and warehouse loft conversions. All these are reclaimed elements from the country’s agricultural and industrial past.

Where was the heartland of American agriculture and industry? The Midwest. Yet no midwestern states or cities looked to reclaim their own heritage until Brooklyn hipsters saw it, decided they wanted it, and put their seal of approval on it (while adding a twist of irony).

Today these midwestern cities are looking to reclaim some of that cultural heritage, but the road to doing so ran via Brooklyn. Some of these regions had allowed much of their heritage to disappear, and now they are trying to reclaim or revive it. For example, cities are reviving their historical working-class lagers. Sterling Beer in Louisville (my father’s old brand) was founded in 1863 but had declined to a shadow of its former self and stopped being produced during the 1990s. A group of local businessmen revived it in 2012.13 Similarly, New England’s Narragansett Lager was revived after nearly going out of business.14

Why can’t midwestern cities do what Brooklyn did? To a degree, because it is New York City, and not Cleveland, where American culture gets “made.” The media power of New York enables trends there to gain national purchase in a way that those originating in other locales can’t. But a bigger factor may be that others have not tried because they are too ashamed. Unlike Nashville, with its country music, these cities felt that their heritage was something to overcome, not to be embraced and put front and center for the world to see.

Overcoming this shame is critical to fully leveraging the value in the authentic brand of a place. As Anthony Bourdain stated:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business,” always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city—or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy—and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic [Orchestra]. 15

Like every person, every city is unique and has value. Not every place will become a superstar city just as not every person can become a celebrity. But people and places can find an honorable and valuable place for themselves in America. It isn’t always easy, but it can be done.

Identify Areas Where Change Is Truly Needed

Of course, not every authentic element of a city’s past brand is something that should be embraced. Atlanta is a perfect example—proud of its Southern heritage but aware that the legacy of racism had to be eliminated. So Atlantans set about changing it. They called their home “the city too busy to hate.” This wasn’t just a slogan; they did change things. In fact, Atlanta, a major city in the old Confederacy, transformed itself into the most aspirational city in America for blacks. It saw its black population as an engine of growth for the city. The contrast with Southern cities such as Birmingham, which took a different path, is stark. The Atlanta region was only slightly bigger than Birmingham in 1950. Today, Atlanta is a major business hub and the Capital of the New South. Unlike some other Southern cities, Birmingham has never taken off.

Identify Market Segments Where You Can Create a Differentiated Appeal

Atlanta illustrates another critical element of city branding often missed. Cities do not have to cater to every market all the time, or only to the same narrow demographic of young, educated adults that every other city is trying to attract. While dealing with its problematic racial legacies, Atlanta discovered, intentionally or not, that black America was an underserved market and that there was prosperity to be gained by focusing on it.

“Not every place will become a superstar city just as not every person can become a celebrity”

To be clear, cities are not companies. While companies can do business with whomever they like, cities have to provide for all their citizens. But in trying to lure new people and businesses, every place is targeting—at least, implicitly—some subset of people. The sweet spot for cities is a strong overlap between the authentic brand of a place and a segment of people and businesses to whom that brand offers an attraction.

Focus on Becoming Known for at Least One Sure Thing

GEICO wants prospective customers to understand its one core promise: quickly saving 15% or more on car insurance. Similarly, as urban branding consultant Carl Wohlt has stressed, a city should seek to be known for one sure thing. This doesn’t have to be the only thing it’s known for; but having at least one clear promise that can be delivered is important.

Country music is a sure thing for Nashville, technology start-ups for Silicon Valley, and the film industry for Los Angeles. Small Columbus, Indiana (2016 population: 46,850), is known for its collection of modernist architectural masterpieces16 (as is New Canaan, Connecticut).17 Louisville is known for horse racing (the Kentucky Derby).

These examples are national draws, but for smaller cities, a regional or subregional draw can be a sufficient brand promise. Upscale Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb just west of Chicago, is famous for Frank Lloyd Wright and its Prairie Style architecture, racial integration,18 and being the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. But it was also a dry town for many years. So next-door Forest Park became known as the area’s watering hole and entertainment district. It built a draw within Chicagoland. Especially when it comes to regional distinctiveness aspects, surveys to determine what people already associate with a particular city could be informative.

Do Something New or Unique

One problem with development initiatives and traditional marketing approaches focused on typical creative-class markers (e.g., coffee shops, light rail) is that they are replicas and thus not newsworthy. They seldom attract nonlocal media. One way cities can attract the media is to do something new or unique.

For example, Columbus, Ohio, recently attracted news for multiple transportation initiatives. It won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “smart city” challenge grant, which garnered $50 million in federal funding and had the cachet of winning a national competition. Similarly, Columbus recently became the first major city to give all downtown workers free transit passes. These achievements drew press in the Guardian,19 Atlantic’s CityLab,20 Slate,21 and elsewhere.

Avoid Adopting Damaging “Foreign” Brands

When cities fail to embrace their authentic brand and instead adopt a false, or foreign, one, their marketing typically falls flat. What’s worse, they can make damaging policy decisions.

Some smaller industrial cities have tried to adopt a creative-class brand. They have spent money on consultants, including Richard Florida. These attempts were mostly failures that wasted precious resources. Some of them, such as former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s “cool cities” initiative, became a source of mockery.22

A more current example is the narrative of gentrification and affordable housing. The brand of major coastal capitals like New York has come to incorporate a “tale of two cities” component. Though studies suggest that this narrative is overstated,23 the public perception is that—thanks to an urban boom—upper-income residents are displacing the poor, primarily through rising housing prices. This has led to proposals such as mandatory affordable housing set-asides.

In reality, high housing prices are limited to a select number of markets, yet virtually every city today has an activist community of anti-gentrification advocates. This is true even where abandoned housing, increasing poverty, and declining urban-housing values—not a boom—are the real problems.

Louisville, Kentucky, passed a zoning law requiring that units be set aside for affordable housing in developments that receive density bonuses.24 The city needs more density but has effectively imposed a tax on it that doesn’t address a real local problem. To the extent that Louisville has a problem with housing affordability, it is low incomes—not prices—that are the source; the city’s housing problems are completely different from those in New York or San Francisco.

Repeat at Different Scales

The strategies and principles outlined in this paper can work at different levels: they can be used to brand a region or a neighborhood commercial district. Brands often exist as a hierarchy: Apple is a brand, but the iPhone is also a brand. Similarly, New York City is a brand, but so are Chelsea and the High Line.


Cities, like companies, have a brand and often spend significant sums to market that brand. They do not always apply significant scrutiny to their branding efforts.

A brand is fundamentally a promise delivered. To have meaning, this must be a promise of something specific and unique to a city’s target audience. And the city must be capable of delivering on that promise. However, cities often fail at branding themselves because they focus on attempting to convince the public of their similarity to other cities and places perceived to have a certain kind of cachet rather than putting forward an authentic, unique, and true brand.

In looking to brand itself, a city first needs to identify and embrace its authentic identity, overcoming shame about its past if need be. This identity can evolve toward the future, in most cases—though, in some cases (e.g., racism in Atlanta), fundamental change is necessary to move forward. Understanding its identity, a city should seek out markets where it can hold strong appeal and find a way to become known for at least one sure thing for that market. This can be a regional, not only a national, appeal. Ask what new or unique things could be done to attract outside media interest and interest from a target audience. Above all, avoid adopting brands and narratives from other cities that aren’t suitable for the local environments, because they can lead to bad decision making.

Appendix: City Marketing Videos

The videos below help to illustrate the principles outlined in this paper. First is a collection of officially produced marketing videos from large and medium-size cities: these videos have positive features but also make general appeals that are not likely to be successful.

Large Cities

Houston: The images and associations of Texas are powerful in the public consciousness but are essentially unused here. Houston is the world’s global energy (oil) capital, but that is not even alluded to, while nondistinctive, yawn-worthy elements such as light rail are in the foreground. The space imagery is the main thing in the video that one would associate with Houston, but it’s not the first thing most people would think of.

Cincinnati: Cincinnati has a distinct culture, unique architecture, and a number of its own local food products. Some of these, such as Cincinnati-style chili, are shown briefly, but little of the city’s riches or distinct culture comes through in this video.

St. Louis: St. Louis is a city with a rich history and many unique elements, such as its housing stock in St. Louis brick. Like Houston’s, this video focuses on things like light rail while ignoring some of the biggest brand assets of the city, such as Budweiser beer.

Medium-Size Cities

Marketing medium-size cities can be a bigger challenge than marketing larger ones, since, with few exceptions, they are not household names outside their region.

Lincoln, Nebraska: This video ticks every creative-class box. It ignores the biggest thing about the city that most people know: the University of Nebraska. Lincoln is a college town, Cornhusker country. This would have been an authentic frame upon which the video might hang creative-class elements because those are legitimate and expected in college towns. Because the video does not, it fails.

Wheeling, West Virginia: West Virginia suffers from some unfortunate stereotypes that make selling Wheeling a unique challenge. One can judge for oneself whether this video succeeds.

Worcester, Massachusetts: This video lists many developments in Worcester that are similar to those in other cities, without significant distinctive elements.

Corporate Videos

Interestingly, corporate advertising can often do a better job of selling a city than do officially produced videos. Here are two

Chrysler Super Bowl Ad with Eminem:

It’s highly unlikely that any marketing agency would have made a video like this. It directly confronts and portrays Detroit’s blight and bankruptcy. It embraces the rugged industrial past and culture. Note the use of gloomy, overcast skies and inclement weather (winter is rarely shown in midwestern city marketing videos). The use of the gospel choir and Eminem speaks to the city’s mostly black population and its history as a center of musical innovation. And that it was commissioned by a car company hits the intersection of city and corporate brands. This video is clearly about Detroit, not just anywheresville.

Portlandia Trailer: The IFC television series Portlandia is a comic exaggeration of the stereotypical characteristics of Portland, Oregon. This series sells the city in an understated but hilarious way. Though this was a commercial project by outsiders, it shows how cities can “lean into the insult” by embracing and exaggerating some of their stereotypical traits. It’s hard for others to mock you when you are willing to affectionately mock yourself.


  1. Samantha Shankman, “The Haves and Have Nots of U.S. State Tourism Budgets,” Skift, July 17, 2013.
  2. Will Flanagan, “From Silicon Prairie to Gig City: The Silly Names That People Come Up with for Local Tech Hubs,” Chicago Inno, May 3, 2015.
  3. Alexander Fury, “In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back,” New York Times Style Magazine, Sept. 18, 2017.
  4. Michael E. Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (November–December 1996): 61–78.
  5. Kim Severson, “Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 2013.
  6. Holly Fletcher, “How Big Is Health Care’s Economic Impact in Nashville? $38.8B,” The Tennessean, Aug. 18, 2015.
  7. Rosentraub, quoted in Marc Tracy, “Sports Groups in Indianapolis Fight to Keep Their City Welcoming,” New York Times, Apr. 6, 2015.
  8. Jacob World, “St. Louis’ Stainless Steel Streamline Baby,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1968.
  9. Sharon A. Brown, “Jefferson National Expansion Administrative History,” National Park Service.
  10. Richard D. James, “Poky Pump Primer: St. Louis’ Depression Project Nears End—in a Boom,” Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1964.
  11. Patrick Sisson, “In St. Louis, $380M Gateway Arch Park Aims to Revitalize Riverfront,” Curbed, Sept. 6, 2017.
  12. Places such as Chicago are exceptions.
  13. Sterling Beer, “Our Story.”
  14. Andrew Barry, “How Passion Investors Helped Revive Narragansett Beer,” Barrons, Sept. 22, 2017.
  15. This statement was posted on Bourdain’s Travel Channel blog about his 2009 visit to Rust Belt cities for an episode of his show, No Reservations. The blog is apparently no longer available online but has been cited often; see Richey Piiparinen, “Rust Belt Chic: Ideas for Cleveland Rebranding Right Under Its Nose,” Next City, Feb. 27, 2012.
  16. Irina Vinnitskaya, “AIA Ranks Columbus, Indiana as US’s 6th Most Architecturally Important City,” Arch Daily, Dec. 4, 2012.
  17. Carol Kino, “Every Architecture Lover Should Take This Three-Day Road Trip,” Travel and Leisure, Oct. 4, 2017.
  18. The Great Melting,” The Economist, Jan. 9, 2016.
  19. Daniel McGraw, “Free Bus Passes for Workers: Columbus’s Big Idea to Relieve a Congested Downtown,” Guardian, Oct. 3, 2017.
  20. Laura Bliss, “Downtown Columbus Will Buy Bus Rides for 43,000 Workers,” CityLab, Aug. 7, 2017.
  21. Henry Grabar, “Columbus, Ohio, Will Offer Free Bus Passes to 40,000 Downtown Workers,” Slate, Aug. 8, 2017.
  22. Alec MacGillis, “The Ruse of the Creative Class,” The American Prospect, Dec. 18, 2009.
  23. Richard Florida, “The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement,” CityLab, Sept. 8, 2015.
  24. Jacob Ryan, “How New Affordable Housing Development Incentives Could Change Louisville,” WFPL-FM, Aug. 26, 2015.


Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in Urban Policy 2018