Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Re-Branding









Branding is bullshit. That's right.  I said it.  Call me a child of TV advertising, but I've grown to distrust all of it.  It's also different than marketing. Marketing can sell something if it's true. If it is simply about awareness.  Sometimes marketing veers towards branding, which I consider a lie.

The difference between the two is that branding is an applique, a label superficially applied.  It's like the creation of a "district" when some planner somewhere says, "this area will be this kind of place," yet that kind of place doesn't yet exist in the least and quite possibly it never will.

Marketing based in reality believes in what it's selling.  It can do so when it is selling truth.  In terms of a place, the place has a soul, rather than a label.  Sometimes just doing something so well generates it's own awareness. But when that extra bit of selling is necessary, the best marketers do their job by accurately describing the soul of the product/place.  If you veer from the reality, the soul of the place, you will lose the trust of the audience, like I have with every single advertisement I see on TV regardless of what is being sold.  I'm not buying.  I need word of mouth.

With that said, the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau wants $10 million more from the city for marketing purposes.  I suppose the $300 million for a hotel wasn't enough.  Perhaps because we're not focusing enough on building walkable, livable, interesting places, where the true soul of a place is naturally expressed as the collective personality of a people self-organized by neighborhood.

I asked twitter the other day why Deep Ellum has better restaurants and bars than does downtown.  I said, "Twitter, why does Deep Ellum have better bars and restaurants than downtown?"  I had my own ideas, but it always helps to crowd source verification sometimes.  We is always smarter than me.  I have to agree with several of the responses, which if I were to distill the myriad of answers down into one, it would be that Deep Ellum is what it is (at the moment) because of the creative expression of a diverse and interesting population allowed by cheap rent, available space, and historic character.  As much timeless charm as Dallas can provide without becoming West End cornball.

Deep Ellum has a soul.  I'm not sure it needs to be sold however.  Though the current businesses might like as much as possible.  The worry is that Deep Ellum will once again be overrun.  Invaded by a regional draw rather than focusing on continuing to build a more complete neighborhood.  The problem is we don't have enough interesting, walkable places that Lower Greenville, Henderson, uptown, Bishop Arts get overrun.  With the exception of certain parts of uptown, none of these are built to handle regional attraction.  They're neighborhood centers.  And all neighborhoods of about 5,000 to 7,000 should have a walkable center like these.  Rather than a half dozen or so for a metroplex of 6 million.

Dallas is still a transient city.  The thing about transient cities is that people can leave as soon and as quickly as they came.  Especially if they feel snookered.  People want real places.  And real places mean timeless places.  And timeless places come about by strongly interconnected streets and spaces which encourage that self-organization process, thus allowing the soul of the locals to emerge.  Great places, authentic places, sell themselves.

I recently completed some new house shopping.  Not to buy, but rent.  After ten years, I'm still on a year to year basis with Dallas.  Even though so many of my friends have left.  For Boston, London, DC, NYC, Seattle, San Fran, Chicago and Portland (not incidentally all are more walkable than Dallas).  I badly wanted to move to Deep Ellum (from my current place in downtown).  Except there were less than a handful of available lofts.  If an amazing space didn't come available in downtown, I likely would've left downtown for Deep Ellum and its reemerging character and ambience.

All of downtown and Deep Ellum are filled to the brim.  And this is a great thing.  We want people beating down doors to move back towards the city.  But what it also suggests is there is a dearth of housing.  Alan Ehrenhalt's book, The Great Inversion, discusses the ongoing shift back towards cities.  It really isn't inversion as much as reversion towards the natural order of cities.  Proximity, value, and amenity are self-organizing clusters.

Except, despite the successes around town over the past 20 years, it's happening slower here than elsewhere.  It was the inner city highways that shipped real estate demand from the core to the edge and we're trying to build more while the market is demanding we head in the other direction.  Little can happen in downtown and Deep Ellum because the highways keep demand low, as low as sprawled out areas, but because it is downtown, the market perceives more value than there is.  High prices, low demand means little gets built (even as that demand is rising).

Given recent events, I'd guess it is happening slower because we're stuck in a mindset firmly planted somewhere between 1960 and 1980.  And we're trying to compete with 21st century cities that way.  This can't end well.  And when it doesn't, might I suggest that old corporate branding trick of simply changing the name to escape bad P.R.

Here's my suggestion.  Dallas should rename itself to Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or will be.  It's perfect.  We like to tickle our bellies with fictional notions of world class anyway, so why not?

The only problem is that a city's true persona, its soul, comes from within.  That's some stink that you can't wash off if you don't like the smell.  So until we start heading in the direction we ought to be heading, removing highway capacity to rebalance the upside down real estate market, I'll suggest that the city goes by a new name:

Qarth:  The Greatest City that Ever Was or Will Be...as long as "ever was or will be" looks like a rendering straight from the 1980's.