Monday, August 02, 2010

Columbus: So Not Rust Belt Chic

Columbus (Ohio) has Ann Arbor Syndrome. Much like the home for the Michigan Wolverines, this government and university town suffers from the Rust Belt stereotype. To get a sense of the branding problem, check out this blurb about an artistic photo of an Ann Arbor alley. It might as well be Sudbury, Ontario. What's the difference?

“We are a diverse, youthful, knowledge-based community that is open to new ideas coming in,” Mr. Astleford said. “That has not been the tradition in the Midwest.”

Alex Fisher, director of the Columbus Partnership, which works to bring jobs, said the city needs to let people know that as a financial and insurance center it should not be lumped in with the Rust Belt. “We need to make sure we aren’t so bashful, with Midwestern modesty,” Mr. Fisher said. “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.”

Task force members have been sworn to secrecy until they reach a consensus, sometime next year. But do not expect them to use what one wag proposed, according to The Columbus Dispatch, at a recent meeting:

“Columbus: We Are So Not Ohio.”

Every city is the next Silicon Valley or center of biotech. Every redevelopment story is so not the Rust Belt. Among its Midwestern cohort, Columbus has the smallest industrial legacy. In 1970, it was the best educated. If anything, the city has under-played its advantages. Given its history, I'd expect it to be Ohio's strongest urban performer.

I recommend that Columbus try to set itself apart from Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Madison, and even Minneapolis/St. Paul. Claiming that your city is not Ohio or not the Rust Belt reinforces the negative stereotype. I think the proximity and relationship to Ohio's other urban powers is something worth touting. That might a be a good way to attract business.

Culturally, Columbus should embrace its inner Indianoplace. Aaron Renn unwittingly lays out the campaign strategy:

I once provoked some heated responses on a Columbus, Ohio message board when I suggested that outside the United States, Columbus, Indiana actually has higher brand awareness than Columbus, Ohio. And that among a certain international set, a mention of “Columbus” means the one in Indiana.

I think Columbus, Ohio could have some fun with that and engage in some playful self-deprecation. It could even get downright snarky. Whatever the message, leverage the existing image of no image. Make Columbus the urban landscape of Flyover Country.

1 comment:

Stephen Gross said...

A quick thought: Why don't Midwest cities band together and form a marketing group called "Flyover Country"? We could redefine the term, and make it positive...?