Friday, August 18, 2006

Pittsblog: Warning: Branding Coming Back to Pittsburgh

Since I've been posting, I've been a fan of reading Mike Madison's posts at Pittsblog --and am happy to recently be added to his blog roll.

A recurring theme there, and for anyone who listens to the media in Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh's "brand" and the efforts of large groups of well-educated, well-intentioned people to "re-brand" Pittsburgh, the latest effort will be Pittsburgh 250, which will allow us to revisit well worn circular arguments about what Pittsburgh's brand is or should be.

Here's what I believe: Pittsburgh need's a brand destruction program more than a brand creation program.

Pittsburgh is fighting a newsreel image (or maybe a late 1970's NFL Films playoffs highlight film image) of snowy gritty skies, cold weather, and an industrial skyline of steel mills and blast furnaces. This is the anchor that many people seem to have, I somehow don't believe that (how many glowing "hidden gem" pieces in the NYTimes does it take to change belief?), but the brand seems powerful.

Underneath there are a series of niche brands for Pittsburgh that seem to be growing steadily and strongly within their niches:

1. Pittsburgh as an urban outdoors capital. We just picked up an endorsement here from National Geographic's travel magazine and watching kayaks bob for baseballs at the All-Star game didn't hurt this one either. The whitewater rafting, Bassmaster, Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, and green buildings Pittsburgh.

2. Pittsburgh as a home of medical innovation. Cancer treatment, facial reconstruction, transplants -- it's a rare week when Pittsburgh's medical research isn't in the news somewhere.

3. Pittsburgh as a home of technology innovation. The Pittsburgh that keeps the internet safe, that invents electronic reverse auctions, and robot vehicles.

4. Pittsburgh as a great place to raise a family. Families attracted to convenient, reasonably priced real estate, strong school districts, and city ammenities that can actually afford to make the choice for 1 parent to stay at home and raise the children.

5. Pittsburgh as a source of art and history. The Andy Warhol, Falling Water, George Washington almost drowned here. All of these brands are about opportunities to live an attractive type of lifestyle or celebrate something important.

The truth is, I could live anywhere, all I need for my career is an airport and a cell-phone and an internet connection. But my wife and I chose Pittsburgh 7 years ago with no jobs, primarily because of #4, we've found opportunities here because of #3, we like #5, #1 becomes more important to us every day (we're building a house on the river, watch out for me in an inner-tube trailing a 6-pack off the back next summer).

My belief is that all of these niches seem to be growing, but a single powerful image is difficult to overcome. If you're Austin, it's enough to just build a brand by having a bunch of niches grow until they all come together (outdoors, music, youth, technology). If you're Pittsburgh, you have to kill the old one, but it's misguided to think you have to magically replace one old big brand with one new one, you just need to create some room for the new ones to grow.

Pittsburgh need's that moment from the famous Apple 1984 commercial when the athlete runs into the room and throws a sledge hammer through the old image of Pittsburgh killing it once and for all.

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