Akron, like every city, wants to be well known and to have a positive image at home and around the world. How can it go about taking its image to the next level?
When you look at how other cities try to brand themselves, too many of them don’t do it very well. While every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, most cities try their hardest to convince you that they are exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.
The typical promotional campaign for a city looks like a mash-up of Brooklyn and Portland. You see and hear about bike lanes, coffee shops, startups, farm-to-table restaurants, downtown apartments, etc. These are all good things, and many of them are critical to have for a city to be in the game. But they are also things that are now by and large ubiquitous.
In selling them, the uniquely local aspects of a city are often overlooked.
One city that chose a different path is Nashville. Today, it is one of America’s hottest cities, but two to three decades ago it was a backwater. It would have been deeply tempting for locals to push country music into the background and try to show Nashville as a Portland in the making.
While every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is... most cities try their hardest to convince you that they are exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.
To their great credit, local leaders there kept country music front-and-center as part of the city’s identity. They are Music City, USA, and proud of it. Health care and other industries do more than music does to pay the bills today, but country music, and increasingly music generally, remains the thing that is unique to Nashville. It’s the one thing everyone knows about the city.
It was easy for Nashville, a bigger city that already had a local creative industry to tout. But other cities can find their own local identity, too. In my forthcoming paper, I lay out strategies cities can use to help them in their own branding strategies.
The first principle is to know yourself and own who you are as a city. Fortunately for Akron, it has things that immediately come to mind. It has a proud heritage as the Rubber City. Unlike many branch-plant industrial towns, Akron had its own local industry similar to autos in Detroit and steel in Pittsburgh.
Akron also has the halo provided by LeBron James, who not only always makes sure people know he’s from Akron but who has also remained engaged in the community.
But Akron as a city is different from James as a basketball player. He’s an international superstar at the highest levels of his sport. By contrast, Akron is a middle city. It’s neither a big city nor a small city. It’s full of traditional middle class neighborhoods; a post-industrial town that has not fully reinvented itself, but also avoided the ruin into which some other places have fallen.
As with middle children, middle cities can struggle to find their own voice. Akron’s not going to have the sex appeal of a Nashville. But it does have many understated, sometimes quirky characteristics that give it a sense of depth and personality. It is not simply an Anywheresville that now happens to have coffee shops and downtown breweries. It’s a place with an identity all of its own.
Akron is the city with the blimp. It’s the home of the All-American Soap Box Derby World Rally Championships, an event whose potential value I’m not sure is fully appreciated locally. It was the longtime home of the Professional Bowlers Association — it doesn’t get much more middle city than that. It’s the birthplace of the American rock bands Devo and the Black Keys.
The local challenge is to find a way to combine these uniquely Akron things with the emerging elements of the community into a narrative that compellingly but authentically tells the story of what Akron is and where it’s going.
Akron should indeed tout its new cafés, bike lanes, etc., that are a boost to quality of life. But it should be equally as celebratory of its industrial and cultural heritage that makes Akron a city unlike any other.
This piece appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal