Tory Gattis writes about the latest from the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau at his Houston Strategies blog, commenting on a recent Houston Chronicle column on the subject. From the Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg:
When I tell people I recently moved from the Chronicle's Austin bureau to start writing this column, I often get an apology.
"Oh, I'm sorry," they'll say. "That must have been a hard move. Don't you miss it?"
"No, actually," I usually say. "Austin gets really small after a while. There's Prozac in the water, and people seem overly concerned with being weird. Houston, with all its imperfections, is real to me. I love this place."
But this is exactly the kind of anecdote that worries the folks at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
They're concerned that Houstonians lack pride in their sprawling urban metropolis, that they're so caught up in the hustle and flow of daily life we can't see all that America's fourth-largest city has to offer.
Mostly, they're worried that when my Aunt Judy calls from Seguin wanting to visit, I'll sigh sadly and say, "Wouldn't you have more fun in Austin?"
So, the folks at the bureau have devised a solution: an image campaign marketing Houston to Houstonians.
"We feel it's important to start inside and work out because if you don't have pride in yourself and you don't have pride in your surroundings, we can never convince people to come," explains Holly Clapham-Rosenow, the bureau's vice president of marketing.
In other words, if they build our confidence, tourists will come.
The bureau has been running ads in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio for some time, marketing Houston to outsiders.
But the local "My Houston" image campaign is starting out small, at a cost of only about $40,000. It will include ads in Houston Modern Luxury Magazine, featuring hometown celebrities explaining why they love Houston.
So far, the confirmed list of celebs is short: Mama and Papa H.W. Bush, heart transplant pioneer Dr. Denton Cooley, boxing and grilling legend George Foreman and fashion designer Chloe Dao.
And another effort at creating a brand for a place goes wrong.
Whenever a region or city decides to improve its image and marketability with branding (and I have done some of this work), the first thought is to look at the places that already have great brand identities: the SF Bay Area, Boston, Austin, New York City, and so on. And an important point is missed: those identities don't exist because a chamber of commerce or CVB dreamed them up. They grew organically around the actual brand characteristics of those places, which locals were regularly articulating. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley because somebody used the name and it stuck. "Keep Austin Weird" is a created slogan, but it reflects the way many people in Austin think about their
provincial town small city.
Most regional branding efforts fall flat because they miss the important of organic branding. And the Houston CVB is no stranger to this, having inflicted such slogans as "Space City - a City of Infinite Possibilities" on our metropolis.
What's interesting is that the latest idea, the "My Houston" campaign, starts with a mistaken idea: Houstonians need to be told why they should like Houston.
Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg is skeptical as well: "I don't know where they get this idea that Houstonians bad-mouth their city."
In fact, Klineberg says, given Houstonians' persistent concerns about traffic, crime and pollution, it's shocking how much they love the place. According to the most recent annual Houston Area Survey results, more than 80 percent think H-Town is better than other metropolitan areas. Less than 10 percent said it's worse.
For more scientific proof, look at the wildly successful "Houston. It's Worth it." campaign, still available on its Web site of the same name. A photo book is due out soon.
Once you get past the comedic references to flying cockroaches and the miraculous skin-preserving benefits of humidity, there are thousands of comments on the site that could have been written by the visitors bureau folks themselves.
Houstonians gush over the low cost of living, authentic local restaurants, diversity, world-class museums, endless opportunity and generosity of the people, as exhibited after Hurricane Katrina.
Houstonians are quite aware that we don't have a great image around the country, but then, Houston is our little secret. If you all knew how good life here was, you'd all move here and wreck it with overcrowding.
And so you have to wonder, instead of selling Houston to Houstonians, why doesn't the CVB ask Houstonians to sell Houston?
The Houston, It's Worth It campaign would give them a great place to start: a local ad firm came up with a slogan and some funny cartoons of flying cockroaches and rainstorms and freeways, and wham - people started pouring their hearts out on the web about why they love this town.
The proper approach to create a regional brand is to stimulate the organic growth that's worked elsewhere. We have a big advantage over Silicon Valley in its early days: we can spread the brand message faster, thanks to the web and user generated content. We can give our residents ways to make the message their own and pass it on.
But we can't create the message, not the way that most areas try to do it when they embark on these regional branding adventures. The true messages - which are the ones that will be believable as brands - are already out there, if we bother to listen to them.
(And since I've just beaten up on our CVB, I'll say something nice: their Insider's Guide to Houston is much better than I would have thought, leading off with the Aurora Picture Show up the street from me. But they should have also included the Beer Can House and the Orange Show.)