Urban Branding: Promise, Problem, Potential

Over the weekend, a letter from Ali Modarres, head of UWT's Urban Studies Department, on topic of Tacoma's image appeared in The News Tribune. The letter, titled "Life as a second city: Tacoma needs to find its own way to gain greater recognition," provides a thought-provoking look at Tacoma's efforts to define itself from Modarres' perspective as the new director of UWT's Urban Studies Department It left us inspired.

Modarres takes Tacoma's image and image problems head-on, with Mayor Strickland's appearance commenting on the State of the Union address in front of a Seattle cityscape.

He acknowledges the challenge of trying to compete with larger, better-financed cities like Seattle, but argues that Tacoma doesn't need another large (and expensive) iconic piece of architecture, or more "cultural fairs and gimicky tourist attractions." Instead, Modares says, Tacoma needs "an inclusively created branding strategy" to get itself out of the second city rut. 

... for smaller cities, this level of economic competition is not affordable. This is where the notion of “urban branding” comes in. Cities need an internally generated and well-articulated narrative of identity before they can be recognized externally.

Modares goes on to argue that that branding strategy has to come from the citizens of Tacoma; it has to resonate with and clearly communicate the identity of Tacomans.

... Tacoma cannot be and should not be Seattle, in the same way that Long Beach is not and should not be Los Angeles. The identity of a city does not arise out of a formula calculated by the latest intellectual fashion, but from an inclusively created vision that seeks input from the public and asks help from experts, not the other way around.

Perhaps one the worst ideas of the last 20 years has been an excessive reliance on “best practices” and “experts.” We need to learn about each other, but we need to do it our way and articulate a clear vision of who we are. ...

Okay, we're intrigued. 

If you are too, you might want to check out the upcoming UWT Urban Studies Department's annual forum, which just happens to be on the subject of urban branding. The 2014 Urban Forum, titled Beyond Urban Branding: The Promise. The Problem. The Potential., will be a chance for attendees to hear from experts in the field, and to ask questions.

Want to know how the experts think we could start to shape Tacoma as something other than Seattle's little brother? This is your chance. Want to challenge the idea? This is your chance for that too.

The public is invited to the Beyond Urban Branding forum this Thursday, but you do need to register. It could be an interesting conversation; maybe we'll see you there...

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It stills perplexes me that this is still rocket science to our city leaders that are old in their minds.  We on this site have always commented that change needs to be organic, not manufactured, why don’t they also.  Our economic and development office is a mess and full of talking heads.  I remember seeing a photo of a Hollywood type sign that reads “You’ll like Tacoma”.  That gave me a certain feeling in my chest, the same feeling I experienced when I saw the historic bridge once again working.  That is the Tacoma I love, not sure why but that bridge and seeing that photo with the sign gave me a sense of pride that I must admit was a bit childish, but genuine, I felt that there was something here.  Why is that gone, it would be a great addition to our character? No vision, better to build a museum, sterile and corporate. 

February 18, 2014 at 7:26 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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fred davie

Yet to be determined….does a city the size of Tacoma (or of any size for that matter) require a “branding strategy?”

February 18, 2014 at 12:09 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I would say firstly a city with a negative brand historically like Tacoma that yes it does, but secondly that cities we are competing against are doing the same thing to attract businesses and economic development opportunities.  Right now we are being out-played by University Place in attracting high end businesses when there is enough of a demographic in the city to easily support a similar venture.

February 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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