POSTED ON NOVEMBER 28, 2012:
Of Logos and Coats of Arms
What's our city's brand?
If you want to know what impressions we give to people who have never been to Tulsa, try taking the postcard test. Postcards, though they may be a dying industry, are what visitors to Tulsa use to show people back home what it's like here. With every cell phone today also being a camera, it's actually hard to find postcards. It took a good part of an afternoon to finally find a drug store that had them.
There were seven post cards to choose from. Here's how we are presented: a buffalo, a hay bale, a sunset, the Golden Driller, a map of Indian Country, Route 66 relics, and the skyline. It should be the mission of every Tulsan to buy every post card you find and destroy them and beg the vendor not to reorder. Not that these aren't images of historical pride, but what's the singular message they send to represent our unique place in the country?
The city of Tulsa's most recent citizen survey asked over 1,800 households three questions regarding branding the city of Tulsa. What do you like most about Tulsa? What distinguishes Tulsa from other cities? When someone says "tell me about Tulsa," what do you say? There were at least 20 different responses to each of these questions. They were all good and all over the lot.
Some cities have no problem defining themselves with a brand. Others struggle because of a fundamental misunderstanding what branding a city really means. Writer Scott Doyon has observed that talk of "creating a brand" suggests a blank slate or a point of ground zero where we begin the process of establishing who we are. But cities are living organisms, with a legacy of past behaviors and no shortage of current realities, which means, like it or not, we already have a brand and we can't run away from our DNA. Rather, we define our authenticity and embrace it.
American's oldest city, St. Augustine, Fla. kicked off their branding initiative in 1715 by petitioning the king of Spain for a coat of arms. What the king produced captured St. Augustine's essence: strength, a Christian safe haven, nobility, and serenity. What would be Tulsa's coat of arms today?
Perhaps we should embark on a citywide contest to see what the citizens would produce that captures our unique history and essence. After all, Tulsa, like all cities, has a story to tell.
Because Tulsa already has an organic brand waiting to be mined, it doesn't matter how many chamber of commerce meetings you attend or focus groups you have or PR firms you interview. It means it has to start with the hard work of building community consensus, defining goals, and then a demonstrated commitment through meaningful action. As Mayor Bartlett agreed, the challenge is to take such a long, diverse, and rich history of Tulsa and boil it down to a brand that most would agree with.
Historically, we have tried on a variety of brands. Over the years we have been the Oil Capital of the World, America's Most Beautiful City, Home of Western Swing, Birthplace of Route 66, and America's Most Livable Large City. More recently we seem to have reduced the big picture brand for smaller pieces described by districts: Brookside, Blue Dome, Brady, Utica, and Cherry Street.
We also have used our cultural and entertainment amenities to promote our brand. Our most popular images are the Performing Arts Center, the BOK Center, the Brady Arts District, world class museums, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, Cain's Ballroom, and casinos.
As the Urban and Regional Studies Institutes has discovered in their extensive research, crucial for city branding are two elements that connect it to culture. The first is the importance of the image of the city for city branding and its power to influence even the shaping of the city itself. The second is the heavy dependence of the city's brand on the city's identity. Culture and entertainment have a very important role to play because they sharpen the city's image and are indeed extensively used in place promotion. And this isn't just for visitors to Tulsa. Tulsans act as tourists in their own city and make explicit demands for leisure.
The goals of branding aren't solely the attraction of certain number of visitors for the time of the event or to the site of a facility. The main aim behind branding is to create in the minds of actual and potential visitors, and the public in general, associations with the wealth of their cultural heritage and the variety of their entertainment/leisure offerings. In other words, to create a brand of the city based on culture and entertainment. Branding is and can be based upon a cultural strategy of an entrepreneurial city.
Because Tulsa's culture and entertainment play such major roles in local economic development, they have key roles in place and city branding as well. Recently Nashville, with its brand, the Grand Ole Opry, rebranded with a glitzed up version -- Nash Vegas. Chicago, which attempted to run away from its own DNA as the City of Big Shoulders, has had a succession of misfires in its attempt to rebrand by chasing a standardized formula for success.
Branding is based upon marketing principles. No matter how pretty our logo or clever our tag, we're wasting our time if it's just done from the top down. In marketing this is what's known as getting the product right. Unfortunately, with cities, you can't just send it back to the lab. It takes years of labor and commitment, with government, citizens, businesses, and institutions working together.
It's hard work. And when things are hard, the thought of just picking up the phone and calling the local ad agency can seem pretty darn attractive. That's not the answer. Branding is a strategic response to the challenge of defining Tulsa's particularity in an increasing standardized and even trivialized world.
Branding is different than visioning. Branding is honoring where we have been and where we are while visioning is where we want to go. Branding is a statement that we are proud of who we are and visioning is a statement that we can be better. We need both.
But it starts by destroying the postcards.
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