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If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct

Many municipalities struggle to identify their uniqueness and instead try to market themselves for having things that you can find anywhere.

Neon-lit lower Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., is famous for its many honkytonks.
Spirit of America/
Have you ever noticed that while every company tries its hardest to convince you it’s different and better than its competition, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like the coolest cities? 

This is easiest to see in marketing videos put out by various chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus. If you happen to watch one that isn’t of your own city, you will immediately be struck by how generic it is and how it tries to sell you on a list of purported amenities and attributes we’ll label “conventional cool.” A list that includes things such as coffee shops, bike lanes, trendy fashion boutiques, startups, microbreweries, skateboarders, silk-screen-print posters, hip restaurants, tattoos, public art and so on.

Chances are your city or state’s local marketing material has more items on that list than not. Yet these things are ubiquitous in America. Does anyone really believe there’s a place of any size left where you can’t get a decent cup of coffee or where you don’t see tattoos?

These attributes may all be great, but they don’t set a place apart in the market. They don’t show us something distinctive about a place -- and being distinctive is important. As Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.”

There’s nothing wrong with bike lanes. Bike lanes are great. But bike lanes are the civic equivalent of what might be called “best practices” in the corporate world. They are things every well-functioning city is now expected to have. They don’t, however, generate differential value or make a city any more competitive in the market. Just as you can’t build a successful company on simply a collection of best practices, it’s hard to build a successful city just on these things. You need them, but they aren’t enough. They are the new urban ante -- just table stakes.

If we think of the places that have the greatest resonance in the public mind, it’s generally those places that are unique. People visit New Orleans or Las Vegas because no other place is like New Orleans or Las Vegas. There’s no place on earth like New York or San Francisco. If there’s nothing unique about your town, then your town is just a commodity. And we know that commodities compete on one factor: price. Being a commodity player leads to weak marketplace leverage. That’s why firms are always trying to differentiate themselves in a marketplace.

Cities fall into the conventional cool trap for a lot of reasons. Part of it is the play-it-safe mentality produced by politics. Anything different is sure to bring naysayers out of the woodwork. Even well proven items like bike lanes or bike shares can produce hoards of crying NIMBYs.

In a dynamic era, cities can also want to market that they are abreast of the latest trends. This is something even corporations fall prey to. During the dot-com era, for example, many firms appended a “.com” to their logo. Neiman Marcus even had “Neiman” printed on its shopping bags.

Another reason cities get stuck is that many struggle to identify their uniqueness. Or, more tragically, reject it as obsolete. Both are terrible mistakes.

I’m convinced that pretty much every place has a unique character. It might be hard to articulate, but it’s there. In Midwestern places like Ohio, there’s always a struggle to articulate identity. But visit Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, and it’s instantly apparent these are three radically different cities. Places just need to do a little anthropological work to unearth their distinctiveness, distill it down and then imbue that “mojo” into everything they do.

Doing that requires enough self-regard to embrace authentic character. Too often, as with a high school student transitioning to college, identity is put away into the attic like so much “little kid’s stuff” that’s not part of the new aspirational identity. That’s a bad move.

A city that’s getting it right is Nashville. The Music City could have turned its back on country. But it didn’t; it embraced country music as core to its current and future identity. It even updated the scene for the 21st century. It’s not your grandad’s AM radio country anymore. Yes, Nashville embraces that music and those people as part of its heritage, but today it’s glitzier, more Hollywood. Today, it’s “Nashvegas,” as some call it.

Rather than rejecting their actual selves, cities need to embrace -- but update -- who they are. Adopt best practices to be sure, but also be true to the native soil. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.

As with the Apple ad campaign, cities need to be willing to “Think Different.” And the difference they need to embrace is the reality of what they are as a place. As the Greek oracle put it, “know thyself.” Now, live out that reality. 

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